On November 7, scientists at Yamuna Biodiversity Park got a frantic call from a villager. He had spotted an “unusual species” along the riverbed. The caller described the “species” as “yellow, with a long mouth and a long tail (sic).” The scientists recorded the details in their register verbatim.
On Monday evening, several indications and tests later, the scientists declared that, for the first time, a leopard sighting has been caught on camera.
“Though there have been claims of people seeing leopards in Delhi, this is for the first time that we have pug marks, photographs and videos of the leopard’s presence in a very long time. Even during the British rule, there was no such evidence,” said Faiyaz A Khudsar, the scientist in charge at the Yamuna Biodiversity Park.
“The leopard has been in the park for about two weeks. After we first received the call, we formed a team that tracked pug marks and did the ‘presence-absence’ tests. On Monday, we decided to install cameras to spot the leopard. While we were on our way to install the cameras, the leopard came in front of our vehicle,” he said.
Khudsar said they saw the leopard from a distance of just 10ft. He said the male leopard looked “young and hefty.”
Before this, however, Khudsar with his team had to work hard to confirm its presence. PIP or pug impression pads, made from lose soil patted in 1x1sqm pads, were set up in several locations after which the impression was sealed in casts of plaster of Paris.
“He was in front of us for at least 10 minutes. His stomach looked full as his belly was hanging, which means the environment in the biodiversity park is conducive for the survival of carnivores,” he said.
The Yamuna Biodiversity Park, spread over 457 acres, is divided into two phases. The big cat was spotted at the phase-II portion, which is an active floodplain, protected by tall grass called Tamarix saccharum.
The scientists at the Centre for Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE), which has developed the biodiversity model in the city, said the leopard might have travelled a distance of around 400km to reach Delhi.
Believed to have come from Kalesar National Park in eastern Haryana, the leopard travelled along the riverbed to reach here.
In the past few years, leopards have spotted in the Aravali area in Delhi and outside Meerut.
“The upstream stretch of the river is an open, fertile wetland where a lot of agricultural activities are done. A large number of leopards are known to inhabit the Kalesar National Park and it must have come from there,” said CR Babu, professor emeritus, CEMDE. The leopards normally move out from their known habitat due to congestion and low prey base.
Babu called this spotting of the animal a major achievement for the city because it has established the success of biodiversity parks and how these reconstructed ecosystems can restore an area’s wildlife.
“The presence of secondary carnivores shows that the food chain has been completed,” he said. The park can sustain leopard population as it has prey population — wild Asiatic cats, wild pigs and deer. Babu was confident that since the male leopard had arrived at the park, a female may follow him soon.
Dr YV Jhala, a senior biologist at Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII), however, said that leopard sighting is not uncommon, and, having a leopard in the vicinity is, “safer than crossing Delhi’s highways”.
Kartick Satyanarayan, of Wildlife SOS, said that leopard sightings have been reported several times since 2002.
He said earlier sightings have also been reported from the Yamuna Biodiversity Park area. “There is no clarity whether these sightings were captured on camera, but pug marks have been documented. There is ample evidence,” Satyanarayan said.
As per the estimate of WII, India has 12,000 to 14,000 leopards but most of them are in high man-animal conflict zone. But, Delhi’s solitary big cat does not fall in that category yet.