By Priya Ranganathan | Illustration by Varnika Walvekar

Ahana bounced on the balls of her feet excitedly, dressed in jeans and a dull green long-sleeved shirt. A cap perched jauntily on her straight, shoulder-length hair, and she wore a pair of binoculars around her neck.

It was her first ever nature walk in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the huge forest right in the heart of Mumbai, the city where she lived. Ahana knew about the park – who didn’t know about the mythical leopards that roamed outside the forest at night – but she had never set foot inside it, until now.

Her father arrived, car keys in hand. “All set?” he asked, smiling to see his daughter’s enthusiasm.

“Oh yes, let’s go!”

Her father dropped her off at the meeting place, the nature interpretation centre run by the Maharashtra Forest Department. Ahana rushed inside. A small group of teenagers stood around looking at the posters of local birds and wildlife, chatting in low voices.

“Hi, what’s your name?” asked a young man of about 25 years.

“Ahana,” replied the young girl. “I’m here for the nature walk.”

The man smiled. “You’re in the right place.” He called for everyone’s attention. “All right, kids, who’s ready to take a walk on the wild side?” Everyone cheered excitedly. “Great, so let’s go over a few ground rules. Number one, don’t wander off. There are lots of things in the forest that would be happy to eat you. Number two, keep the buddy system. I’ll be pairing you up to avoid drama, so stick with your partner from the time we leave this centre to the time we return here. Number three, listen closely. Not just to me, but to the sounds of the forest. Use all of your senses. Remember that the forest is alive, not just a bunch of tree trunks. There are lots of small exciting things to look out for apart from the leopards everyone knows about.”

Ahana nodded fervently along with the other teens. The guide – Anand – quickly paired them up and Ahana high-fived her partner, a bespectacled girl named Sandhya. They lined up at the door and Anand led them out.

Almost immediately, they stopped. Anand pointed up into the tree in front of them. “Do you see that bird?” he asked. “Does anyone know what it is?”

It looked just like a baby owl, and Sandhya said so.

“Almost,” their guide said cheerfully. “That’s a spotted owlet. There are two types of owlets in this forest – the spotted owlet and the jungle owlet. They look like babies, right? But this is actually an adult owlet!” Everyone oohed and aahed. “Now take out your notebooks and draw a picture of the owlet, please!” Anand instructed.

“I can’t draw!” one boy called loudly from the back of the crowd.

“Shhhh!” Anand hushed. “We are in the forest now, not the city. Keep your voices down and respect the wildlife that live here. You wouldn’t like it if people came near your house and shouted loudly outside the windows, would you?” He opened his notebook and showed the group an ugly sketch of a bird. “And you don’t need to be an artist to journal about nature. Just try your best and make full use of labels and colour pencils!”

The owlet ruffled its feathers irritably but remained on the branch. The children sat down on the soft dirt and began to draw the bird. Just then, Ahana was distracted by a harsh chirping sound from a bush to her right. She turned to see a black bodied bird with a long, forked tail perched on the top of a berry bush. It chirped tunefully and observed the crowd of teens with beady black eyes.

“Ah, I see Ahana has spotted our resident racket-tailed drongo,” said Anand. “Can you guess what it eats?”

A short boy near Ahana volunteered the answer. “Does it eat fruits?” he asked.

“Sometimes, but that’s not its main food,” replied Anand. “Look at the shape of its beak, and its size. Try again.”

“Insects?” Sandhya guessed.

“Correct! Drongos mainly eat insects, but they have also been seen eating almost anything, just like crows. Did you know that drongos can imitate sounds made by other birds, just like parrots do?” Anand smiled at the fascinated expressions of the children. “Whenever you see a bird, take a look at the shape of its beak. That’s often a clue as to what it eats. Some birds, like flowerpeckers and sunbirds have long curved beaks that look like needles. This helps them drink nectar from tiny flowers.”

“Is that a sunbird?” a girl asked excitedly. Sure enough, hovering by a patch of colourful flowers was a tiny purple and beige bird, its wings fluttering continuously to keep it levitating.

“Yes, that’s a purple-rumped sunbird,” replied Anand. “Good job, Lalita!”

The group walked on for two hours. Anand pointed out black kites, brahminy kites, an emerald dove, and a mongoose that scuttled across the path.

“Snake!” shouted a boy in the back. Everyone jumped.

“Stay calm, guys,” Anand called. Sure enough, a long black snake was winding across the forest floor. “It’s just a rat snake, a common resident. Nothing to worry about. Just give it space to cross.”

“Is it poisonous?” one girl asked tremulously.

“Snakes aren’t poisonous; they’re venomous,” another boy corrected.

“Mostly true,” said Anand. “Venomous means that the bite of the animal delivers a toxin to the blood. Poisonous means that touching the body of the animal releases a toxin that penetrates your skin. We have one poisonous snake in India. Rat snakes aren’t venomous, though quite a few other species are. There are four famous venomous snakes in India, and all can be found in our national park, so please stay close. Does anyone know what they are?”

Ahana knew. “Indian cobra, Common krait, Saw-scaled viper, and Russel’s viper,” she called out.

“Very impressive, Ahana!” Anand clapped her on the back. “Yes, those are the big four. Certain other snakes are mildly venomous if they bite you, but not enough to kill you instantly. Still, you should never touch or pick up a snake unless there’s an expert with you who has given you the green signal. You don’t want to panic or injure either the snake or yourself.”

The rat snake had vanished into the thick undergrowth lining the sides of the path and the group moved forward.

“I hope we see a leopard,” Ahana whispered to Sandhya.

“I don’t!” Sandhya shot back. “I’m so scared of them! I’ve read those articles about leopards stealing away babies and killing old people.”

“That’s because the people were inside the forest at night,” Ahana countered. “Wild animals don’t hurt people unless they are in danger or scared.”

“That’s true,” Anand said, overhearing their conversation. “Sometimes, when people build homes too close to the forest or cut down too many trees for development, big animals like leopards don’t have anywhere to go or enough food inside the forest. So, they end up coming outside the forest and eating whatever they find, like stray dogs or pigs.”

“I saw a CCTV footage of a leopard taking a dog once,” said one boy.

“True, and this happens often in Mumbai,” replied Anand. “But we are also a really special city because we have a huge human population, yet we live peacefully alongside a huge carnivore like the leopard.”

Suddenly, he stopped and crouched down, brushing some leaves off the road.

“Speak of the devil,” he muttered. “Kids, check this out. Careful; don’t step on it!”

Ahana and the other teens crowded around him. There, pressed into the soft mud, was a rounded pugmark. It looked about the size of Ahana’s hand with four circular marks around the central imprint.

“What’s that?” Sandhya whispered.

“Looks like we are being watched,” Anand replied softly. “This is the pugmark of a leopard.”

Everyone immediately looked around, eyes round with worry.

“Don’t worry,” Anand said, rising to his feet. “Leopards are shy cats. This one probably saw us and went running up the nearest tree.” He smiled. “But isn’t it nice to know that one of India’s big cats walked this same path that you are walking now?”

As the group continued forward, the tree above them shifted slightly, leaves whispering although there was no breeze. A leaf floated lightly to the ground.

Ahana, glancing back, smiled to see it. Somewhere nearby, she knew, the cat was watching her too.

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’

About the Artist:

Varnika Walvekar is a Master’s in Conservation Practice student at ATREE, Bangalore. She loves art, music and writing and always wonders if she can be a jack of all trades and master of one. YFN’s reach amongst children got her interested in the magazine. She hopes to help expand it further!