Last month, farmers residing in Brahmanwada village, Nashik, spotted three tiny leopard cubs huddled together amidst the dense sugarcane fields while harvesting their crops.
The cubs were barely old enough to open their eyes and were mewling helplessly for their mother. Worried about the well-being of the cubs—as well as their own safety—the farmers called in the Forest Department for help.
It is not uncommon to spot leopards in this area, as several sugarcane fields provide a safe cover for these wild cats and a suitable shelter for giving birth and rearing their cubs. Mother leopards often leave their young under the secure cover of the sugarcane fields while they go hunting during the daytime.
However, most often than not, these cubs face the risk of being exposed, because farmers move around the fields to cut down the crops, especially during the harvest season.
Consequently, this also gives rise to unwanted conflict situations.
The three leopard cubs, identified as one male and two females, were estimated to be about twenty days old and were found to be in good health. As the cubs were quite young and were still dependent on their mother for survival, the Forest officers sought to reunite them with her. However, much to their disappointment, the mother failed to show up.
The Range Forest Officer Mr Sanjay Bhandari then reached out to the Wildlife SOS team operating out of the Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Center in Junnar for their assistance as the team has had years of experience in successfully reuniting leopard cubs with their mothers in Maharashtra.
A team from the organisation rushed to the spot and after a quick assessment of the situation, Dr Ajay Deshmukh, who is a senior veterinarian, and his team, arranged for the cubs to be returned to the area where they were initially found.
As leopards are territorial animals, it is essential to release them in the vicinity of where they are rescued. Initially, the apprehensive villagers resisted the idea.
However, they were more understanding of the situation on realising that the enraged mother in search of her missing cubs would pose a more significant threat to them.
The cubs were carefully placed in a safe box, and the team installed a remote-controlled camera trap to document the reunion process while monitoring the area from a distance.
After a long wait of several hours, they saw a female leopard cautiously emerge from the forest, and after inspecting her cubs, she carefully carried them by the scruff of their necks and slowly vanished into the forest.
Reuniting lost cubs with their mother is crucial as it helps preserve the leopard population and prevents human-leopard conflict. It is natural for female leopards to turn defensive or aggressive when are unable to locate their cubs, and they also pose an immediate threat to humans in close proximity.
It is also immensely rewarding to know that these cubs will now have a chance at a free life in the wild.
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Over the past many years, Wildlife SOS has been tirelessly raising awareness about the issue in man-leopard conflict-prone villages which has now brought about a considerable and positive change in the attitude of people towards leopards who now view them as co-habitants instead of enemies.
Till date, Wildlife SOS has successfully reunited over 40 lost or injured cubs with their mothers, and created heart-warming happy endings in the process!