| Hamid Ali with the leopards. A Telegraph picture
The dappled afternoon light provided the animal a perfect camouflage. Crouched in the underbrush, eyes fixed on its quarry, it waited for the moment to strike. Hamid Ali had a moment to recover before the 400-pound leopard exploded from the shadows throwing him off his feet. Its three-inch fangs clamped down on his jugular. But instead of the soggy crunch of canines ripping through flesh and bone, the beast moved back, purring. Dusting the dirt off his shirt, Ali got to his feet, catching the breath whipped out of him by the impact.
“Bhulu, you are ready to make your way back to the wild where you belong.”
In the 18 years as a forest guard at Jaldapara Wildlife Reserve, Ali has done more than just patrol the jungle and keep poachers from claiming the spotted cats as trophies. He has dedicated himself to giving abandoned leopard cubs a fighting chance to live life in the wild. What started out as raising a month-old cub in his bungalow has grown into a story of triumph with 56 successful releases.
Ali, who is now in charge of the Jaldapara Leopard Rescue Centre, has his work cut out handling the 16 “children” who drive him crazy with their antics. But there is more to Ali’s job than romping in the sprawling one-bigha enclosure.
“It is important that the cats learn the ways of the jungle and learn to hunt. They also have to be trained not to trust humans,” he says. “After all, I will not want them to approach poachers expecting a warm reception.” The training programme is a rigorous routine, which begins with making them catch live chicken released into enclosure. “It may take them weeks to get the hang of stalking skills and we do not feed them, no matter how hard it is for me to see them go hungry,” Ali says.
Working with the majestic beasts, Hamid feels, is like a love story — with joy, grief, heartbreak and reunion. “Each of them (the leopards) has a unique character. There can be nothing better than watching them grow. The saddest moments are when I have to release them, to know that I will not see them ever again,” Ali says. “But I am often surprised when some of the animals, who were released years ago, drop by and watch me from a distance. It is great to know that that you are not forgotten.”
“I will not swap jobs for all the money in the world,” Ali says, stroking Jinia, his three-year-old “daughter”. Ali’s passion, and more important, his success in “siring” the cubs, has prompted the forest department to make new space for the felines in trouble.
Assistant wildlife warden of Jaldapara Kumar Vimal said a larger enclosure to house the cats was being built at Kairbari near Madarihat. “It will provide a natural setting for training,” said Vimal.