The Snowdon Panther




Rachael Bates


 
© Copyright 2018 by Rachael Bates



Photo of Burt, a wild gaur, the bison of Southern India.

Not many people grow up with a pet bison. We called ours Burt. The locals were always telling us about bison aggression towards humans, but Burt, enormous-hairy-Burt, seemed content to watch us from the forest behind the backyard fence. He visited us a few times a week and we grew rather fond of him, learning to recognize him by a chunk of flesh missing from one of his ears. On occasion he snuck into my mother’s vegetable garden and created havoc with his hooves, or tore up our lawn with his eager grazing. Other than that, he was a welcome addition to our bevy of animals, which included horses and ponies, dogs and cats, chickens, and the occasional baby bird. In all my time living in Ooty, a town perched high in the mountains of South India, Burt was perhaps the largest bison I ever saw.

On weekends my sister and I rode our horses out into the woods on long trail rides that lasted most of the day. More often than not we would glimpse a herd of bison tromping through the forest. Sometimes we would come face to face with lone males on narrow trails who would lower their black-tipped horns and shake their heads threateningly. Over time we learned how gentle the humungous beasts were, and rather than hightailing it away from them whenever we encountered a herd, we would coax and cluck them out of our way. Nonetheless, I never fully lost my fear-tinged respect for them.

Once, when I was out walking alone with my right arm in a cast (bicycle accident), the romantic notion of befriending a bison popped into my head. I approached a half-grown bison out of curiosity and was duly chased into a clump of trees. I had to find a large stick and make an aggressive pretense to scare the over-friendly chap away. While the American bison is shaggy, the Indian bison or ‘gaur’ has a smooth coat. Some are over six foot at the shoulder and can weigh close to a thousand kilograms. Though immense and muscle-bound, they are also lithe and quick. I have seen them dash up almost vertical hillsides and hop over fences with the grace of a deer.

When my family moved to India from America, I was three years old. Even though we were cloistered in a tiny house in Mumbai during our early years, animals quickly became an integral part of my childhood. I dreamed of having horses, but they would come later when we moved to the mountains. Instead, I caught frogs in the backyard and kept pet snails in a wagon. I tried to keep ants in jars but they always escaped till I received a proper ant farm as a birthday gift. Moving from one of the biggest cities in the world to the forested hills of Ooty opened a new world to me. Though this story began with a bison, I want to tell the tale of the most beautiful, wild and dangerous creature I ever saw. A panther.

After moving far from the broiling city of Mumbai, my parents purchased a few acres in the middle of nowhere. The land crests a hill that looks out over a valley. When we first set eyes on the place, all the trees had been clear-cut, leaving the earth bald and hostile. Though we tried to convince him otherwise, my father insisted on calling our new home ‘Stumpfields.’ Once the trees grew up again and we molded the land into garden and field, the irony of the name nudged its way into our affections. When the sky swelled with cloud and sunset, bathing the valley below in shadow and light, Stumpfields became the most beautiful place on earth. Rock faces armored mountainsides, glistening in the rain, while green tea plantations stretched vibrant as far as the eye could see. Hamlets and villages dotted the valley, lending themselves to a rural snapshot of India that few foreigners conjure when they bring to mind the billion and counting population.

Backed against a national forest, we were surrounded by wildlife. While Burt and other bison were frequent visitors, other animals came too. Wild boar broadcast their presence whenever we stumbled into deep ruts on the pathway where they dug for roots and tubers. Deer picked their way through the shola and wattle trees and jungle fowl strutted their colorful plumes with the confidence of their illustrious relative, the peacock.

Once, when the dogs were acting strange, we flashed our torches into the woods and saw the reflective eyes of a large cat staring back at us. We reckoned it was a panther. There was something very disconcerting about its unblinking watchfulness. The eyes reminded us of a terrible episode a few years before. In the middle of the night, we were woken by blood-curdling howl. Our hulking German shepherd dog named Bear was sleeping on the porch outside my parents’ bedroom. I was ill with a stomach bug that night, and my parents had tucked me into bed with them. I remember waking up to a feeling of impact, the house seemed to tremor with the violence of the panther’s attack. Before we could do anything about it, dog and panther were gone. All we found the next day were drops of blood and tufts of fur in the woods.

After that night, we always made sure to lock the dogs away in a small room every evening. Despite our precautions, we continued to lose dogs to panthers. Sometimes, the victim would simply be roaming around not far from the house for a late afternoon jaunt. It was not difficult to discover what befell them when they did not return.

Even though we knew panthers were dangerous, few were reported to be man-eaters, and my family and I always hoped to see one in broad daylight. My mother saw one slinking through the forest when she and I became lost in some dusky neck of the woods once. Now and then, people who came to visit us recounted seeing leopards on their journey into the mountains, even though they had only been in India for a few days. Reports such as these made my sister and me green with envy. We rode through every forest around us with a frequency that we felt deserved at least one panther sighting. Ride after ride we would glimpse rare Malabar squirrels high up in the treetops, russet and shy as they navigated their eucalyptus realms, but we did not see a panther. One unassuming day, our luck changed.

My sister and I set out one Saturday morning on a ride that meandered its way deep into a forest and lead us up one of Ooty’s highest mountains. Old logging roads created ideal riding paths through the woods, they were wide and unpaved and forgotten. Few people venture into the forest in Ooty, leaving the flora and fauna to flourish. When we reached Snowdon peak, we tethered the horses near long wild grass so they could graze as we ate our picnic lunch. The dogs went trotting off into the forest, noses to the ground. My sister and I tucked into our sandwiches, basking in our sun-dappled glade. 

All of a sudden, a great crashing of trees and frenzied flurry of movement drew our eyes to a small trail that led into a thicket of undergrowth. Less than twenty feet from where sat, we saw our two Labradors burst from the trees. A panther was chasing them. The moment the leopard came into view it locked eyes with us and stopped dead in its tracks before hurling itself back into the woods. A split-second longer and the pursuer would have sunk its teeth and claws into the haunches of our dog. In the moment before the creature sprang away from us, I took in the black rimmed green of its eyes, so intelligent and startled. I saw every muscle in its crouched body ripple under the tawny, charcoal spotted fur. Bright eyes, bright coat, bright white of whiskers. I can still see the entire scene in my mind as if it happened yesterday. Photo of a wild Indian panther.

Giddy with adrenaline and excitement we jabbered away to each other after making sure the dogs were unharmed. A quarter of an hour slid by as we let the wonder of the event sink in. We were so thrilled that we forgot to be afraid. As soon as I suggested that we have some tea from the thermos, my sister looked around with concern as it dawned on her that the panther might return. I was dismissive of her fears, telling her that it was far more frightened of us than we were of it. With a little reluctance, I agreed to save the rest of our picnic for later and head for home. Once on the horses’ backs again we kept an eye on the dogs, calling them to heel every so often. We were still buzzing with what we had just witnessed. My sister rode a few steps ahead of me, looking back over her shoulder as we carried on talking. We had been walking for about ten minutes when without warning, my sister’s face blanched with disbelief. I turned in my saddle to see what she saw. A stone’s throw away, the panther stood half hidden by a bend in the road, watching us.

Instinct kicked in and we spurred our horses forward, yelling in terror, and galloped down the road. We laughed with hysteria born of fear as we fled and shouted encouragement to our dogs to keep up. We ran and we ran. As far as I know, we were not followed. I still wonder if it was with mere curiosity that the leopard tracked us, but the possibility of sinister intentions gave us the most meaningful gallop of our lives.

Though born in the US, I grew up in India, and my non-fiction pieces often describe my experiences in that strange and beautiful land. Currently, I am studying at Berea College in Kentucky, writing my way towards a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing.
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