I left Srinagar at the break of a November dawn when it was biting cold. As Gurpal Singh maneuvered our Bolero through the serpentine Mughal road I peered out expectantly, camera ready, for some sign of life among the tall conifers growing along the roadside.
I had started early hoping for good sightings and to cross the Pir Panjal mountain pass before snowfall or a landslide blocked our passage. Changes in Kashmir’s microclimate, a result of the global climate crisis, have made such events more frequent and unpredictable.
We crossed into Shopian district and entered Hirpora village, much of which has been notified as the Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary. The markhor is a flagship inhabitant of this montane coniferous forest, but that was not the animal we encountered.
As Gurpal navigated the sharp curves along the sanctuary, he suddenly exclaimed, “Sir, cheetah!” There above a curve in the trail, half-hidden behind bushy vegetation and tall dry grass, was a leopard Panthera pardus, watching us.
Momentarily paralysed by the cat’s unblinking gaze, I managed to shoot off a few frames in low light conditions with dark clouds hanging heavy above. Even as I heard the shutter, I wondered whether my images would do any justice to my fortuitous and incredible encounter.
As for the leopard, he moved slowly and purposefully, to disappear behind a tree, not once taking his eyes off us.
And without uttering a word, Gurpal shifted gears and disappeared, from the scene, quite the way the leopard did… he to his emerald forest home and we to what wildlife adventures awaited us next.
(The author, a wildlife conservationist and photographer, is presently Joint Director, J&K Forest Research Institute, J&K Government)