Cubs often get separated from their mothers when the leopards venture out to hunt, leaving their off-springs in dens or in the dense sugarcane fields that are abundantly found in this region.
Every year, the onset of the harvest season brings about the unavoidable encounter of humans with leopards and leopard cubs seeking refuge in the tall dense sugarcane fields in the state of Maharashtra. Due to a variety of factors including deforestation, habitat encroachment and poaching, leopards are continuously forced to leave their forested homes and move out into buffer areas.
Over the years, these resilient wild cats have learnt to adapt by moving into neighbouring sugarcane fields in search of safe cover. Here they breed and rear their young, in proximity to human habitation.
What also helps is the availability of prey like dogs, livestock, chickens, goats, and pigs etc. for the mother leopards to feed on and nurture their cubs. Consequently, this gives rise to man-leopard conflict situations, which tend to escalate during the harvest season.
In a recent incident, sugarcane farmers of Takali Haji village located in the Shirur range in Maharashtra, stumbled upon four leopard cubs while out harvesting their crops. Their eyes were barely open and they were huddled together for warmth and comfort.
Guessing that the mother leopard was probably in the vicinity, the farmers immediately alerted the Forest Department. Soon, Range Forest Officer, Shirur, Mr Tushar Dhamdhere reached out to the Wildlife SOS team operating from the Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Center in Junnar, for their assistance. The wildlife conservation NGO works in the state to help spread awareness among local villagers to live safely in the area that is also home to leopards.
The team is specially trained and led by veterinarian Dr Ajay Deshmukh, experienced in rescuing leopards from all sorts of situations.
A team of four Wildlife SOS rescuers and three Forest officers rushed to their aid. The cubs were examined for parasites and injuries by Dr Deshmukh who confirmed that they were two males and two females, about twenty days old.
As they were found in good health, the team arranged for the leopards to be reunited with their mother. Initially, the villagers opposed and were apprehensive of the cubs being at the same location for the reunion. It took some convincing for them to understand that reuniting the leopard family was in everyone’s best interests.
Mother leopards are very protective of their young and can turn very aggressive and frantic when their cubs go missing, which often leads to retaliation in the form of man-animal conflict.
The cubs were carefully placed inside a safe box and taken back to the field so that the mother could find them. A camera trap was also set up nearby to monitor and record the reunion. Within an hour, the leopard emerged from the forest and rushed towards the crate, sniffing curiously, before pushing the top off. She peered in at her babies who were delighted to see her, and she caressed each with her muzzle and licked them till they mellowed down.
The mother then gingerly picked each one by the scruff of the neck and carried them away to a safer place.
A happy ending such as this makes Wildlife SOS’ efforts to help conserve and rescue leopards in Maharashtra all the more gratifying. Now their mother can teach them everything they need to know to survive in the wild, till they’re about 18 months old. It is also rewarding to know that these cubs will now have a chance at a free life in the wild, where they belong!