I have been writing on my wildlife experience for a while now, but honestly today I am loss of words, probably dumbstruck. I have been photographing most of the cats in India and abroad that include Tiger, Lion, Leopards, Cheetah and the endangered Jaguars, and of course few others still in my wish list. However a Black Panther was a dream, but I never made an attempt going in search of it, simply because of its elusiveness, shy nature and moreover the records of documenting a black panther in India were just a handful, so all these years I had completely given up on it.
A 72 hour trip was planned between me, Mohan Thomas and Thomas Vijayan to visit Dandeli Anshi Tiger Reserve, Daneli in Karnataka state. This trip was exclusively to understand, study the habitat and behavior of this cat. So we decided to explore Dandeli, by far highest density of Black Panther in our country. A black panther is typically a melanistic color variant of any of several species of larger cat be it a common leopard or a jaguar.
Thanks to Mr. Mallesha BB – IFS, Conservator of Forests and Director, DATR for extending his support in educating us to understand the biodiversity forest that is dense and rich in vegetation. It was great to meet him along with the team of forest officials to understand the behavioral pattern and habitat of black panthers. I must thank him for his dedication and contribution towards wildlife protection and conservation of DATR. It will be unfair if I don’t mention Shashidhar Hs Senior Naturalist of JLR Dandeli who spent time with us during this mission.
We had little time and lots to cover and our moral went down as soon as we learnt from forest guards, officers, naturalists and of course the local people, that there were no regular sightings of black panther within the sanctuary, no photographs in form of documentation, all we heard were glimpse of this cat on few occasions on main road at dust or at night and camera trap pictures that proved the existence of this beautiful cat. After gathering all this information the only thing we concluded and remarked our trip as “Mission Impossible”
We traveled over 600 kms from Bangalore; Vijayan travelled all the way from Toronto, Canada on this mission. We all agreed to give our best, put in efforts in exploring black panthers; of course we honestly had a little or almost no hope. But the good part was we had the opportunity to learn about this wonderful biodiversity forest and of course make notes on this elusive cat.
24 hours passed away in a flash that included our road journey all the way from Bangalore to Dandeli, first day was a goner. The 2nd day, we drove out of the sanctuary most part of our day but later in the evening drove into the sanctuary along with Mr.Mallesha CF in his vehicle.
As we were driving on the Kavala road from a distance almost 300-400 mts away I spotted this cat, half body in the open and face covered by a tree trunk, probably she sensed something approaching towards her. I first asked the driver to put off the engine of the jeep, and then whispered… Black Panther over there… Panic, excitement began amongst us including myself despite holding my excitement until I spotted. Time was 5:45pm light fading fast, I saw Vijayan shivering due to excitement but there was no stopping on our shutters, they kept firing blindingly. Mohan was not in a right position but with his experience he managed the situation quite well. Shashidhar the most experienced naturalist seemed over excited and kept pointing towards this beautiful cat and providing live commentary about this cat, so did the driver Shivputra. However our CF was as cool as a cucumber and kept watching and enjoying our excitement and action.
The Black Panther was very far but seemed comfortable with our presence and she walked out in the open to see what the noise was all about and quickly she realized that she is being watched and instantly hid behind a tree trunk and in few seconds she peeped out to check our presence. This was moment of my life, I just loved making this image and friends believe me this is most amazing, wonderful experience by far. This cat being so elusive and shy was seen to be so gracious and I can easily rate it as the most beautiful creature on our planet.
Her eyes were glittering like gold, her innocence touched my heart. I could see emotional faces including myself. First Black Panther of our life and we all had every right to be so emotional. A true dream comes true spotting/sighting with excellent team work. This moment will be cherished all our lives., even now I’m unable to get over this sighting, a true dream come not just for us but I am sure for all wildlife lovers. A couple of minutes later another jeep zipped in as it was time to head out of the exit gate, little did the driver know we were happily making images of this black beauty , unfortunately this cat disappeared in a flash the moment this jeep zipped in. Lucky were the guests Mahesh Pendharkar, Mona Patil, Nitin Patil and family in that jeep to have a glimpse of this beautiful cat… No complaints whatsoever about the other jeep there were completely unaware about what was happening at our end.
In state of shock, excitement and completely lost in this unbelievable or rather incredible sighting, we headed out towards the exit gate as park closed by 6pm.
God is great! And he had more in store for us, more excitement while were reached the main road heading towards our camp, was another cat on our way? stay tuned to read part 2 of Mission Impossible.
Camera - Canon 5D Mark III, Canon f4 500mm lens
EXIF - ISO 2000 Av 4 Tv 1/10 sec, EC -0.7, Cropped