Having not experienced anything resembling a traditional tourist activity for over a month (since our yoga yatra in Rishikesh), there was more than a little eagerness on our faces when we stumbled upon the Leopard Rehabilitation Center on the western edge of the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, only a few kilometers from our home in Birpara.
Even if we hadn’t seen any big cats, the excursion was a much-needed reminder that there is indeed life beyond the dirty main drag of Birpara and the tea garden labor lines where we have spent the last three weeks since our arrival. The nine-kilometer approach road to the Leopard Center took us through a thick forest of what-once-was. Today, this paltry strip of wilderness is only a tiny island of jungle in a sea of pesticide-soaked, mono-cultured tea plantations. But from the mud-puddled dirt track of a road within the shade of moss-covered trees, the chlorophyll breeze that blew into our windows made it easy to forget all this.
We encountered numerous Boro tribespeople, whoâ€™d been given small plots of land to cultivate as a concession for the creation of the adjoining protected area. At each of these spots, a guard tower stood, both for forest rangers to guard against poachers, and for tribesmen to watch for wild elephants and tigers which came out at dusk.
There was a great deal of gathering going on: old women digging up crabs in the road, skinny men carrying wicker fishing nets which they used in the nearby river, and children clutching small bushels of immature ferns, or â€œfiddleheads,â€ as we used to call this nutritious treat that my friends and I collected in the forests of Northern California.
The leopard center itself is part of an effort to rehabilitate and release captured cats (Panthera pardus) back into the wild. It was difficult to get more information about the actual â€œrehabilitationâ€, but in the meantime, we were able to enter their enclosure (in an electric jungle safari three-wheeler) and hope for a glimpse. We were not disappointed.
The larger Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary will open on September 16, after its long closure during the hot season and monsoon months. My plan is to sign up for the very first elephant-back safari ride on the dawn of opening day, a strategy I hope will ensure maximum wildlife spottings â€“ maybe even the extremely rare and endangered one-horned rhinoceros.
But until then, the rain continues to fall and todayâ€™s survey is cancelled, since the river to the garden will be unpassable.