“They are part of the fabric of the gods.“ Why a country of 1.3 billion people remains a wild cat stronghold

Filmmaker Sandesh Kadur on the unique diversity of India's wildcats, their place in a teeming country – and where a career seeking them out has taken him.

By Simon Ingram
Published 27 Jan 2020, 17:54 GMT
Famously elusive, the snow leopard is a burly big cat with a thick coat. It has ...
Famously elusive, the snow leopard is a burly big cat with a thick coat. It has long been a holy grail species for wildlife photographers and filmmakers – and only in recent years have its hunting habits and behaviours been recorded. The animals have come into conflict with humans, having killed livestock – but despite this their presence is tolerated and sometimes even revered.
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur, Felis Images

When he was a teenager, Sandesh Kadur had his first encounter with a wild big cat. It must have been quite a scene. “A leopard walked underneath my tree,“ he says, before elaborating: “I was sitting in the tree. On a full moon night.” 

If this faintly magical memory evokes a vision from children's literature, it's perhaps fitting enough. Kadur is a photographer, documentary maker and National Geographic Fellow who has spent his career documenting the diversity of the wildlife that inhabits his homeland of India. It's a fascination that began with that moment, that leopard, and that tree – and since then, it's been the wild cats of this remarkably diverse country that have held his gaze. His documentaries India's Wild Leopards and Wild Cats of India – showing as part of Big Cat Week on National Geographic Wild – are testimony not only to Kadur's skill as a visual storyteller, but to the unmatched diversity of his homeland's wild cats. 

Extreme felines

Why so many cats? The size of India is perhaps a factor – but more than that, it's the diversity of the landscapes. Within its borders you have the thin air of the Himalaya, the rainforests of Assam, the arid plains of the Deccan plateau, the uplands of the ghats and the wetlands of the coast. And as we've learned, not even the sprawling cities escape the ever-adaptable feline. 

"It's not just the big cats that make my heart leap – and the small cats are more difficult that the big cats to find, and to film.” Kadur filming on the Deccan plateau, India.
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur, Felis Images

He is right to be both enthusiastic and bemused. India has 15 species of wild cat living within its 1.1 million square miles, accounting for 40% of all species found worldwide. Phrased another way, it has more wild cat species than not only any other country in the world, but any single continent – other than the one it's in. Were it not for the loss of the Asiatic cheetah – driven to brink of extinction in India by centuries of persecution, then finally eradicated from the country in the early 1950s – 16 of the 40 living species of wild cat would be found in a single country. 

“They are just so regal – when I see any wild cat in India, or anywhere in the world, they almost make my heartbeat stop,” Kadur says of his feline fascination. “And not just the big cats. Cats like the Asiatic wild cat, the jungle cat, the fishing cat, the rusty spotted cat, the Pallas’s cat... they are so hard to actually see in the wild, they are so skittish. Trying to get one on camera is next to impossible.” 

“I marvel at it myself,” says Kadur, who as well as enjoying the benefits of this diversity, occasionally comes into contact with its logistical hiccups, too.

“I was supposed to be going to film snow leopards,” he says. “Then I got a call to tell me there were jungle cats on the Deccan plateau. A den with four cubs! So I skipped the snow leopards and went to the Deccan plateau, 45 degrees C, hot as hell – then a week later I flew back to Bangalore, then the same night I flew to Ladakh. The next morning was in -20 C with the snow leopards. I had to become an all-in-one feline and learn very quickly to adapt. It was very taxing on the body.”

A camera trap image of a clouded leopard, captured during the filming for Sandesh Kadur's documentary India's Wild Leopards – part of National Geographic Wild's Big Cat Week, which begins on February 3rd.
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur, Felis Images

“Tigers, leopards... all of these cats hold a special place in Indian mythology. They have become part of the fabric of the gods.”

Sandesh Kadur

Conflict and co-existence

The question of how such a populous country can support so many big cats without conflict is an unfortunate but relevant question of our times. Particularly so, when it comes to mixing livestock farming with a predator smart enough to know an easy meal when it sees one. “There is no doubt there is conflict, but there is also this thing called reverence,” Kadur says. “That’s one of the reasons why you still have them around. Tigers, leopards, all of these cats hold a special place in Indian [Hindu] mythology. They have become part of the fabric of the gods. So there is already that level of protection and patience with big cats.”

Testing a camera trap in the Dampa region of northeast India. The diligence paid off with a series of insightful images of one of India's most mysterious cats, the clouded leopard.
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur, National Geographic

This reverence, Kadur says, can even be found when the livelihood of even the poorest of agricultural-dependent tribespeople is threatened. The elusive snow leopard – 'ghost of the mountains' – is an example of an animal with which Kadur has experience tracking, filming, and studying the often surprising relationship between big cat and human neighbours. 

“Where snow leopards are [in Ladakh], there’s a lot of patience and reverence for this animal.” Kadur recalls. “The very night I got there, before I'd even acclimatised to 14,000ft, a snow leopard came in and it killed a young calf in the cowshed inside the village. It was the first time in the village’s living memory that a snow leopard had done that. So what did they do? They figured that the animal was already dead – so they decided to allow the snow leopard to feed on the rest of the kill, and put it out for it. Their attitude was: ‘Even the snow leopard has to eat.’’’

Such noble reserve can be stretched, however – particularly if your life-giving livestock is threatened by one of the top predators on the planet. There is a government compensation scheme in place to reimburse farmers for the loss of animals killed by snow leopards to prevent locals taking it out on the animals. This Kadur describes as an “initial buffer against retaliation...  but if it happens very often, that reverence quickly begins to erode.”

On the trail of the snow leopard in Ladakh.
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur, Felis Images
The camera trap: the ever-more advanced tool of the wildlife photographer's trade. Most are triggered by infra-red sensors that trip the camera's shutter when tripped by a passing animal.
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur, Felis Images
"India is a strange country – but there is a thing here called reverence.”
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur, Felis Images

Demystifying the clouded leopard

Another side of the human-cat conflict Kadur has seen concerns one of his most highly-sought subjects: the clouded leopard. A robust but diminutive cat considered the link between big and small cats, this cat's expressive markings and huge canine teeth – the largest relative to body size in all big cats – make it a charismatic quarry. India's population of clouded leopards is small and highly elusive, both of which has made the leopard a challenging subject Kadur has spent years exploring. 

“I had always wanted to see a clouded leopard in the wild,” he says. He then heard a story about two kittens that were being sold in a local market that had been seized by the Forest Department. Kadur was dispatched to photograph the kittens, and to identify them. “They were tiny little furballs – their eyes were barely open. But when I saw them and immediately said, ‘Oh my god, these are clouded leopards.’’ Over the course of 2 years, Kadur documented the kittens' rearing and their eventual re-release into the wild, once the team was confident in their ability to fend for themselves. But finding a wild clouded leopard continued to elude him. 

Sandesh Kadur photographs one of a pair of clouded leopards that were seized from a market as kittens, raised in captivity, then released into the wild.
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur, Felis Images

Whilst making the documentary India's Wild Leopards, Kadur succeeded in capturing a clouded leopard in a camera trap. But his ultimate goal still eluded him – despite coming rather closer than he realised whilst installed in a hide. There he sat “for many, many nights” with his infrared lights on, waiting for something to trip the sensor and trigger the lights, allowing him to take the shot. Nothing happened. However, he had a camera trap in front of his hide, and it captured some unexpected results. 

“A clouded leopard had come in from a place I didn’t expect and stopped right in front of my hide,” he said. “The camera trap captured it, and I saw it was looking straight at me. So now I know that a clouded leopard has laid eyes on me – but I’m yet to lay eyes on a clouded leopard.”     

“You’re just letting go of all the things that might distract you. You’re just waiting.” Camera at the ready, Kadur waits in a hide.
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur

“You're waiting – waiting to hear the alarm call of an animal that tells you that a predator is moving.”

Sandesh Kadur

The waiting game

Such patience is a trick of the trade when you're a wildlife photographer, and comes with its own particular form of zen. Days on end in remote places, waiting for a quarry to come to you: what's the biggest challenge? Loneliness, boredom, both – or neither? “I think you would only get lonely or bored if you were of that restless nature.” Kadur says. “I realised that to get what it is that I needed to get I need to let go of restlessness, let go of impatience, let go of so many things that would not allow me to sit in one place for a very long time. Once you truly let go you can sit down and actually focus. You’re paying more attention to everything – you’re just letting go of all the things that might distract you.”

Kadur's documentaries, he says, are a culmination of local knowledge, natural history skills, and the ability to learn the pathways of the animals to site cameras and hides in precisely the right place. And then, it's simply a matter of letting some of the most elusive and enigmatic creatures to fall into your gaze – while you develop your patience. 

“You’re just waiting.” He says. “Waiting to hear the alarm call of an animal that tells you that a predator is moving, just waiting to hear a sign – a sign to turn the camera on, and get ready.” 

Big Cat Week on NatGeo Wild – Injured snow leopard found

See these predators in action

Big Cat Week is a special series of programmes on Nat Geo Wild exploring some of the planet's top predators – and the challenges they face. This year, premieres include Sandesh Kadur's two-part documentary Wildcats of India on 3rd and 4th February, and India's Wild Leopards on 6th February. 

Big Cats: How we're helping 

The National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative supports scientists and conservationists working to save big cats in the wild. With your help, we’ve supported more than 120 innovative projects to protect big cat species in 28 countries and built more than 1,800 livestock enclosures to protect livestock, and save big cats from retaliatory killings. Together we’re helping big cats and communities thrive.

Big Cat Week is on Nat Geo Wild from Feb 3rd.

Gallery: 15 images show the diversity of India's wild cats


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