The cover of Sanjay Gubbi’s Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India is that of a leopard (obviously) gazing at its reflection in a still, mirror-like pool of water. If you could briefly entertain my penchant to anthropomorphise, the handsome cat in the photograph seems to be in deep contemplation, revealed by the stoic expression it holds, as it takes a measure of the past and present and considers the future and what lies ahead for its kind. Gubbi’s authoritative book on leopards does all this and more as it charts the origins of the spotted cat, its biology and ecological context, the many threats it faces, and its fraught relationship with humans.
India is home to one of the largest populations of wild leopards in the world, yet there is very little literature published on the cat in the country – this comes down to the truly 'scanty' research that is available on these charismatic felids. Backed by over a decade of research, Leopard Diaries is arguably the most important piece of ‘popular literature’ to come out of India about leopards.
Hailing from Tumkur, a prime leopard habitat in southern Karnataka, the 50-year-old wildlife biologist and conservationist started researching the large carnivore only a decade back. A landmark camera trap study (still ongoing) of the leopards of Karnataka conducted by Gubbi and team forms the backbone of this book. In the period between 2012-20, the team captured 7,658 images of leopards from which 601 individuals were identified. Extrapolating the data sampled from 24 camera trap sites across the state, it is estimated that Karnataka hosts more than 2,500 leopards, which puts India’s population at more than 20,000 individuals (much higher than the government estimate of 13,000).
The team followed up the camera trap study with an occupancy survey to try and understand where leopards are found in Karnataka. Gubbi and co. walked 2,768km in the process, the distance equivalent to travelling from Bengaluru in southern India to Manali, the famed hill station in the Himalayas. After nearly two years of data curation and analysis, the results showed that leopards inhabited about 43 per cent of the 23,902sq.km. surveyed by the team. But at the core of what was learned, contrary to popular belief, was the hard truth that ‘natural habitats are extremely important to leopards’.
In fact, the spotted cat could be considered a victim of its so-called ‘conservation success’. Gubbi writes that while leopard population numbers have steadily increased, so has the human population and we have exponentially expanded our domain by encroaching on many of these leopard habitats. Add to this the fact that India has 512 million livestock and 30 million feral dogs (both magnets for leopards living close to human habitation), it’s hardly surprising that human-leopard conflict is on the rise. The flip side to this is that almost 72 per cent of India's rural population is dependent on livestock farming for a livelihood, which involves 100 million people. Sadly, our scientific understanding of the conflict constitutes 'pinpricks of light against a dark background', Gubbi surmises.
Leopard Diaries follows an interesting structure with the initial chapters reading much like a leopard handbook, populated with granular data and information like how ‘leopard whiskers grow at a rate of 0.65 millimetres a day’, before taking the form of an expertly written journal. Gubbi guides the reader through the team’s toiling days of research – interspersed with personal accounts of radio-collaring leopards prior translocation, encounters with poachers and villagers who fancy themselves a camera trap unit or two, the long-drawn-out process of chasing politicians and administrators with new environment and conservation proposals, and seemingly tangential tales like that of the golden-brown benne dosas of the quaint Veerabhadreshwara Bhavana. If the words aren’t enough to evoke the captivating beauty of this charismatic cat, eight laminated pages of photographs sit in the middle of the book whenever you want to take a peek.
With easy-to-read prose and a detailed narrative style, Gubbi is able to put the reader in the shoes of a cat biologist/conservationist in India, and show them what it really takes to study and conserve large carnivores. Even when he narrates the Rainbow School incident where he barely survived the attack of a male leopard, his love for the animal comes across in his writing. The irony of a leopard conservationist being attacked by a leopard is not lost on Gubbi. But he refers to the incident as an aberration, and having gained eight kilograms over two sedentary months at home post-attack, he concludes that ‘leopard bites make you fat’.
Being a near-death survivor of a leopard attack doesn’t make Gubbi an authority on human-leopard conflict. But to have spent the next three years of his life working on Leopard Diaries, curating all the learnings from his decade-long research, Gubbi has done more to help conserve this precious felid than most. And the reader, can you blame them if they yearn for a life lived with such a singular purpose?
Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India by Sanjay Gubbi is published by Westland, and is available online and at a store near you.