Misty Morning Mystery
The day is still a mystery to me, with multiple possibilities that could have taken place without knowing the end result. Guess, that’s why it is called as Mystery.
Entire sequence (images) was shot during extreme low-light (combined with heavy mist) conditions.
26th Feb 2021, a morning that made me feel desperate, angry, emotional and yet fortunate to have experienced one of my greatest moments in wildlife. Woke up in an upbeat mood, almost springing up from the bed, anxiety loomed in large wondering how the game drive would pan out. The path I took thousand times earlier, looked new and fresh yet made me comfortable like every single time. Mercury had been spiking up since last few days and the moisture had surely bottled up - The entire camp and the forest filled with mist, one could barely see let alone recognise who’s who! With all the magic, we entered into the woods. The onset of summer had made sure to turn the entire forest brown as I saw it was nothing but huge blanket of mist. It was nothing but puffed up clouds scattered all over while the early morning sun didn’t have much of a choice. Birds flew all over getting on with their morning chores chirping all along. The roads filled with fallen leaves, brown twigs even as the jeep moved on. I had covered up myself so firmly except my curious eyes that were looking for any movements. We reached a clearing. A Stag (Male Spotted Deer) looked through the mist, silhouetted against the rising sun who could barely be visible through. The mist was spreading too fast and too soon. I barely managed to make a frame or two as we moved on to a potential spot where we had seen a Leopard from previous evening’s drive.
We stopped at a place to check for any predator movements, pug-marks but it was all normal. No tell-tale signs. Far across, there was a spotted deer alarm call but it faded away unlike our hope. We moved on with our jeep cutting across the brittle stones on the path, creating a sound that I enjoy and find it treacherous sometimes, thinking how our path in life is. We managed to move on and after 15 minutes or so, we stopped at a curve to investigate a situation. A pack of wild dogs was running around in hyper-active mode. I was least interested though. Something made me to check on them as one of them was looking up quiet curiously. The dense fog had engulfed the entire woods so it took time for me to look up and something was on a tree, higher up on a branch. Split second, I exclaimed - Leopard Cub!
While I was busy checking on the cub, our naturalist, said Cub's mother! up on a different tree but both trees were entwined & twisted with their dry branches spread across. With so much of mist, I had to literally isolate multiple branches and even trees to figure out where was the mother. Two trees right next to us - Mother Leopard was atop while her cub, was on the highest branch –shaken up with the wild dogs intimidating her. The cub with all its might snarled, growled - I could easily see her getting completely disoriented. One of the wild dogs tried to latch on to the tree with both its legs. I wonder what would the cub be going through in its mind? It looked at its mother - it looked around - It wanted some respite, it wanted some help but nothing would come. The mother watching her carefully but yet shockingly chose not to react at that time. The cub once again, climbed up to the next branch that was dry and the leafless branches looked like time that chose not to help. Each of the branch looked closed to the cub, disowned, it merely offered no respite nor any shelter looked like claws of death surrounding the cub. One of the two dogs manipulatively approached from the other side of the tree and the cub was even more terrified. At one point, it started growling - snarling but would it make any one scared? But yet, that was a good try. I made a frame of the cub in one of those moments.
Mother Leopard looked, obviously, worried & concerned, studied the situation carefully. She wouldn’t want to make any move nor her cub to make any mistake. While the fragile cub, completely shattered in fear, was in a hysteric mode. She moved up, climbed down again, hid herself behind a branch. The wild dogs after a while lost interest and moved upwards. Both mother and cub watched them with their eyes peeled. These Apex Predators stood on the famous “Black rock” watching something. They were very attentive and held on to their attention for a while. After few minutes, they came back once again to check on the cub. This time, the cub moved closer to her mother but interestingly neither of them chose to comfort one another or to cuddle up or even huddle together. I wondered why? The wild dogs circled beneath like how vultures circle the dead. The difference is, here, both Leopards were alive.
The cub, unsure what was running in its mind, was even unsure of its actions. Instead of sitting tight, it was delusional. The wild dogs by then had moved few yards into the bushes that had huge trees, may be, 10 to 15 feet away from the Leopards. After 20 minutes of wait, the cub, with all its immaturity, came down few branches, slid into the open part of the tree that was right next to her mother, gingerly balanced while the entire forest was watching this drama. The mist melting painfully slowly, guess, knew the outcome. The anxiety bit us more than the wetness of the morning breeze. The canopies hung themselves in disbelief and the brown leaves on the floor didn’t move a bit wondering what would happen next. The cub balancing with its skills, came half way through the tree, guess 20 to 25 feet off the ground, looked at us. My heart beat raced, my pulse shot up and whispered - Don’t. Please don’t. Folks in my jeep uttered in unison. Mother was watching the cub that was in confused state. To my utter disbelief, this cub jumped from the tree - a clear 25 feet minimum off the ground, straight into the ground welcomed by the pack of Wild Dogs. The flying leopard's suicidal jump.
Confusion and commotion seem to be an understatement of what I saw. Both on the battle ground and in my jeep. For a moment I couldn’t react. My eyes froze. My hands struck to my camera. My heart beat stopped. Holy shit! Is what I remember saying. When I realised what was happening, the cub after landing straight ran to the adjacent tree being chased by the wild-dogs. To add more complexity, the mother jumped from the tree, once again, straight into the circle of death. Wild-Dogs let go of the cub as they had to take the mother head-on. During this commotion, I could see a Leopard that was bigger in size moving up the same tree where the cub ran towards! At one point, I could see the Leopard that was bigger in size (it was a male) held on to the cub and climbed the tree half way through. But it got back to the ground for reasons unknown. The events unfolded in split seconds.
The above 3 images are blurred and shaken however I have used them for the purpose of this blog/story continuity.
A minute of snarls, growls and combating sounds I could see two leopards on the adjacent tree. I could spot the cub, quite high, resting beside her mother, who of course was completely shaken up. For now, both mother and cub somehow managed to evade death, alive from the jaws of Wild-dogs. Both were on top of the tree. The mother looked completely restless, looking down, moving up and down. The cub, with its eyes closed, for a moment I thought, it was dead. But figured it out, it was quite alive. In all these heart-racing moments, there were no signs of wild-dogs. I was curious yet confused myself.
There were lot of disturbances and noise coming from the forest floor, right under the tree bushes but I could see nothing. There was so much of undergrowth that it was left to my imagination. After exactly 5 minutes, I could sense something was not right. It was not adding up. I was expecting wild-dogs to come out or have moved on through a clearing but I didn’t see. The mother was looking down with certain small growls but i couldn’t figure it out. Despite all the show-down, the mother decided to climb down! Once again, I was telling myself - Please, no! Don’t do that. The mother glanced at her cub one last time. She looked around. Her sleeping cub was lost in a world that would change my life after the event. The mother’s eyes were full of anxiety, despair and puzzled look. While the mother couldn’t decide her next course of action, the little one, may be hurt or injured or traumatised didn’t even have an ounce of energy left to comfort her mother or being comforted.
As she got into the descending mode, she sat momentarily with cloud of anxiety. She was breathing fast, she was breathing heavily. Inside the thickets, there were lot of moments perhaps wild-dogs running or the male leopard chasing the wild-dogs but i could not figure it out the actual events taking place. I watched the distraught mother, the pain oozing out from her eyes, the emotional trauma of leaving her cub all by itself before jumping into a cross-fire, for a moment my hands trembled. My eyebrows frowned in disbelief. I did not even move an inch wondering where this will all end up. How this will end? And, guess, the time came. For few seconds, she looked up, guess at her cub that was sleeping up on a branch, my eyes were filling up. Seconds later, measuring up on her next move, and probable events that would unfold, she leaped towards the other branch of the tree before descending. She climbed down and jumped right into the bushes. The next few moments were disastrous. I couldn’t figure out what was happening but hearing nasty growls, snarls and howling, it was quite clear, a severe battle was going on.
The last nail in the coffin - I couldn’t even understand an iota of the happenings- Ten minutes passed like years, neither I could see the wild-dogs nor the Leopard but I knew, there was another leopard in the play. With the on-going battle, I tried looking at the cub that was resting far-above. It looked down, painfully, I guess it saw its mother fighting, fighting for her life, fighting for the cub’s life, it was an instinctive but instantaneous decision - In split second, the cub just sprang - It just stood up, and boom! It jumped from approximately 35 to 40 feet branch - straight into the ground! Oh my god! My heart start thumping - My hands trembling - My heart beat skipped a beat. I started sweating. Words wouldn’t come out. I was in a state of complete shock. Huge growls, sound of fights erupted once again for few moments. What was happening? The bushes was so thick that I couldn’t see but all I could guess was something terribly had gone wrong. And the entire forest became silent albeit for a minute.
I waited right there. I waited to see if the cub or its mother would come out. Waited to see even if the wild-dogs would come out; None did. Earlier I had seen a Male Leopard being in the play - I hoped at least he would come out- again none did.
I stood up and stared at the bushes, at the empty trees. They all stood like mute spectators. The leaves didn’t shake neither the wind blew. The dried leaves scattered behaved completely neutral. The canopies perhaps were blind enough to react to what just happened. The skies by then had opened up and the sun pretending to be happy, screamed past the clear sky, hinting as though, it was a brand new day. But it was not. Just then, I heard a wailing growl. It was a death growl. Some one was crying or some one was on their deathbed or wanting the pain to get over their life. It continued for few times. It hit my ears and heart so much that it was echoing right in my mind. That growl had despair filled all through; it had pain, it had blood, it had the wound that may have sealed life. It echoed through the forest. One last growl was agonisingly longer. It was as though, some one wanted to live for some one, it was as though, some one was cheated with unwarranted fight or it was for pure survival. It did not last long. That wailing growl became thinner like melting mist which was so heavy in the morning. After some time, it was silent. The sun started beating down, the summer breeze blew, the dried leaves on the floor started to dance off the forest floor…It was as though, nothing had happened. The few hours of the morning had become history. Life just went on like nothing happened. Our jeep moved on the path that we had taken thousand times before, the tyres screeching and breaking the hard-stones on our way, even as I looked back one last time for the day.
What started as a misty morning, turned out to me a mystery one. Until now, I could not figure out what happened? Why did the cub defy and jump into its death? Why did the mother after securing her cub, against all odds, jumped for the second time knowing the fact, it was suicidal? Where did the third leopard, the male, came from? What happened to the wild-dogs who were hell bent on killing the cub? Why none of them got off the battle ground? While I am no expert but I do assume or my theory says, right from the beginning, the male leopard was within the vicinity, waiting for the wild-dogs to retract or move on. It may have wanted to mate with the mother but since the cub was around, its motive may have been to kill the cub such that it stood chance to mate to have his genes carry forward. With mother and a rogue male fighting, the cub decides to distract or just lost its cool to be with its mother - After the second fatal jump, the rogue male killed the cub and injured the mother. And the mother’s death-growl could have been for her cub or my another theory is the cub died right after its second jump (the male may have given a quick death bite) and later injured the mother in their fight. And the death-growl from her just before closing her eyes was to walk away from the spot, thinking about her cub, wailing and crying before she found a secluded spot to depart from this beautiful yet wild world called the Woods.
This is the story of emotions, innocence, bravery and wild instincts. I could feel loads of excitement in the beginning that got turned to heartbreak, feeling of despair, one of unbearable loss, beating heart-beats and a painful but eerie silence all through. Even though the mother gallantly fought with Wild-dogs and the rogue-leopard, it is still a mystery to why it leaped into the bush for the second time. It was a kind of angst feeling, very uncomfortable, feeling cheated. The final moments of the mystery still haunts me. The death-growl. Was it the wailing mother crying for its dead cub or the final moments of the mother after being mauled by the rogue leopard or the last bit of the mystery is both the mother and cub may have survived the ordeal and walking to a much safer hideout - if that existed.
And i do believe, the mother leopard "was" a true hero (Hoping she proves me wrong with my "was" word by giving me an audience next time) And The True Hero!
As I looked up, it was 0930am and the sun was at his sizzling best. It was a misty but a mystery filled morning, a mystery that remained unsolved. A morning that was filled with dense mist, a morning that was filled with survival instincts, a morning that was filled with heartbreak. And yet, I could not figure it out what happened in the end. It remained a puzzle and it shall remain as an enigma.
Canon EOS IDX M-II with 70-200mm IS II, Canon R5 with EF 500mm IS II