This is the second of two rants parked at www.wildtiger.org/jackkinross If you've been following this thing it's probably the most important one to read. Thank you for your support.
I always felt this moment would come. I couldn't be sure of course but based on leopard scat found over the last six months there was every chance that the large male leopard would be back. There's a saying we all know that there are moments when you find out who your true friends are.
There have been indications that a young female leopard has shown tolerance to Asa's arrival. The stance of the large male is yet to be seen. In many ways this shapes as the most pivotal few weeks of the whole project. Another four to six weeks of winter adds to the situation. It's just a few days now off a year that Asa and I began working together on this mission and I knew it wouldn't be easy. That's been confirmed big time but I still feel hope we will have a successful rewilding. Asa is still young but has proved he can manage, he just needs to show he can hunt large prey successfully.
I came down to the village late yesterday, a couple of days earlier than I expected but with a plan to head back to Leopard Camp as soon as possible, that I'll be doing in a few hours. Tomorrow I'll leave the camp and make the long journey up to over 3100m in the hope of finding Asa in the area I led him to just two days ago. That was an epic day, it needed to go well and it did. The young leopard and I found each other early and a few hours later crested the high ridge, the massive bulk of Dhaulagiri, the world's seventh highest peak, showing itself in a type of daunting splendour. Even Asa seemed taken with the view. The leopard had been a good companion on the way up despite being distracted by the fact I was carrying a decent load of meat in the plastic drum. Every few minutes he would put in a big hit on the drum, knocking me over several times on the steep slope. On two other occasions he jumped onto my shoulders and just sat there. I had to wonder if it was all real, I was alone on a steep jungle slope in the Himalaya with a leopard perched seemingly on my head.
Hang onto your hat.
I left Asa at a new feeding point, the highest one yet by far. I felt pleased that he was now a very good distance from a group of woodcutters. The altitude and cold made it seem like it was a place made for a Kiwi and the Leopard of Hope.
But would the visiting large male leopard come calling?
In the image you can see Asa aggravated because the drum lid stayed on during the journey. After some scouting around I removed the lid and Asa didn't hesitate to attack the drum with gusto. He did however, show remarkable tolerance to me being close. The whole way up it had seemed the bond between us was even tighter, it was as if the young leopard knew this was an important time.
I moved as quickly as I could down the mountain. My feet were freezing. There had been a fresh snowfall, enough to make footholds a little easier but it was cold. The new snow had also made the way down through thick bamboo confusing. I got hopelessly lost and ended up climbing out of a steep gully clinging to icy rocks and bamboo shutes where they'd hold me. I managed to make my way to two cameras and another drum at a previous feeding point. These positions are important because the cameras tell me how often Asa visits a drum thus I can understand if Asa is hungry or maybe getting enough food through his own hunting. Very valuable data.
I picked up gear and carried on down towards Leopard Camp. I wanted to set cameras in new places as the big leopard had deposited scat just twenty five metres from where I slept at the camp. It was on dark when I finally crawled into my tent, exhausted. It had been a big day. Night time is not the right time for humans to be roaming in this jungle and it was cold. My four season alpine sleeping bag has served me well over many years but I still needed to wear my down jacket to help me through a fitful sleep/non-sleep.
Snow and ice greeted me as I drank coffee early the next morning. I tracked the visiting leopard to a place close by and then thankfully down into the valley where the snow had subsided. The leopard had triggered a camera but there was frustratingly no photograph. In the image you can see I'm examining a narrow path where it looked like barking deer had moved very quickly, maybe chased by a large predator, you know who. Interesting, so damn interesting.
I made the decision to set cameras, do some work around camp and head down to the village before dusk. So here I am writing this the next morning as I add to my journals and prepare for the next few days. It may be a little while before I blog again. Future leopard teacher, Bidhya Sharma, a fantastically loyal helper from the beginning, will leave a comment on the thread of this blog on Facebook to say that I'm ok. Rarely a day goes by without a txt message or phone call from Bidhya asking "how is Asa?" Contact is limited up there, very little signal and the occasional phone call and txt message is the way it works.
I'm behind in communications and thank yous while this goes on. The support has been fantastic in many ways. I've got photos to send out and there have been a couple of issues with the www.mountaintiger.photography site re the resolution of some images but in the main in it's going well. A big thank you to Andrys Basten for pointing out a few bugs, I'll get those sorted out soon.
Andrys also asked this question on a Facebook thread: "...how do you protect yourself if you chance upon the big male leopard (in, currently, his territory) while going up to leave Asa food?"
Well the short answer is that I carry a big knife and a big stick :) I've been Asa's training dummy for so long now that I have a fair idea how a leopard attacks but yeah, I will answer this question better down the track. The bloody book has a fair bit devoted to what it's like being alone up there. However "territory" is something we still know so little about particularly in regards to leopards. More on that soon as well.
There is a kind of joy in the village now in regards to the project. There had been a certain amount of fear and apprehension, of course that is perfectly understandable. It is now six months that we have been on the mountain and the curiosity from the locals has turned into a type of pride. There are lots of funny moments when I see kids, a lot of laughter and growling. People are understanding that this project is already a success because in the long run it is helping in the overall goal of increased conservation status for the area. Sure, there have been sceptics from all walks of life but I don't give a rats arse (those who know me best are allowing themselves wry smiles right now) because the positive far outweighs the negative and I actually feel sorry for people who don't believe in "giving things a go"... more wry smiles :) As I wrote in the beginning, you find out who your true friends are.
To see Asa sitting in a tree, free, the way he's meant to be (yes, rhymes intended) is proof enough that rewilding is a way forward, a chance to put right some of our wrongs when it comes to environmental issues. There's a lot to be sorted out, a lot more that needs to be understood but what I do know is that this young leopard has been a gift to us all.