For the past few weeks, photos of a black panther roaming alone in the jungles of Kabini in Karnataka took social media by storm with many likening it to Bagheera from ‘The Jungle Book’.
It turns out that the big cat also has a mate.
Just three days ago, an arresting photo of the same black panther alongside a leopard started being widely shared online. It also triggered a controversy regarding the photo credit but that was soon settled.
So, the viral photograph of the big cat couple was shot by wildlife photographer Mithun H in the winters of 2019 at the Kabini Forest Reserve — one of the most popular wildlife destinations in Karnataka, comprising the south-eastern part of Nagarahole National Park.
On his Instagram, he has titled the photograph: ‘The Eternal Couple’, features Saaya, the Black Panther and Cleopatra, the Leopardess.
Mithun H went on to describe the rare sighting thus: “Saaya and Cleopatra have been courting since 4 years now and whenever they are together it’s a sight to behold.”
“The forest comes alive as they trot nonchalantly in his fabled kingdom. Usually, in the courting pairs, generally it is the male who takes charge and moves around with the female following close behind. But with this couple it was definitely Cleo who was in charge while the panther followed.”
Talking to the indianexpress.com, the 31-year-old professional further said: “I had to wait for six days for this in the same spot since I could hear the Panther and Cleopatra mating about a 100 metres away in the thick undergrowth but could not see them due to limited visibility.”
“They had made a large kill and would not move until it was over. That is where the knowledge and years of experience of following and tracking the Panther came in handy. I just had to wait at one of his favorite paths since that was the place he would get her since that was the edge of his territory, and this he did after 6 days,” the man with 12 years of experience under his belt added.
“It was a fruitful wait though. I could wait for 6 years for a moment like this,” Mithun said.
The wildlife photographer, who tracks big cats and is known for working on ‘The Real Black Panther’ for Nat Geo Wild, said he didn’t expect the image to go viral and certainly didn’t anticipate the controversy that followed.
He is happy, however, that the picture is getting so much attention.
The photo created a big buzz online when it was shared on Twitter by Dr Prayag H.S (@prayaghs), saying: “At Kabini Reservoir”, however, with no due credit. The tweet got over 37,000 likes and nearly 55,000 retweets.
Mithun commented that the photographer should have been credited. A debate ensued and at the end of it all he was duly credited.
Talking about the controversy, he said: “My job as the creator and copyright holder of the image was to inform him of the details. I do not want to talk about what happened after, but I can say I finally got credit at the end of it after much discussion. So, no hard feelings.”
Going back to the remarkable photograph, Mithun said: “Cleopatra has been a heartthrob of Kabini since 2009 while Saaya entered our lives in 2014 as a sub adult shy cat trying to establish territory.”
The Bengaluru-based photographer said it was only in 2016 that Saaya finally asserted his dominance and paired up with Cleo for the first time. He said he has been following the couple since.
What made this particular instance so memorable? “It was their gaze looking directly at the camera. I got them on camera quite a few times earlier when they would be together once a year for mating. But this recent one was special because of that perfect moment when they both turned together without a care in the world and the fact that so much patience and work had gone behind that image,” he said.
In the last couple of months, a lot has been spoken about the lone black panther in Kabini, and the photographer hopes this will ultimately “aid in the conservation of the species.”
“The more knowledgeable the people are, the more the limelight, the better the conservation efforts. Much like in the case of tiger conservation in our country. Moreover, the Karnataka Forest department is doing a wonderful job for the protection of this species and other wildlife in general. They are one of the best when it comes to that. So, the wildlife is in safe hands,” he added.
About the challenges he faces while photographing in the wild, Mithun H said: “It is definitely challenging for sure but unlike most other forms of photography it has the element of surprise.”
He said it’s the mystery of the woods that keeps him going. “You never know what you are going to encounter at the next bend. The woods are mysterious and unlock my passion. You could be waiting for days and months and years for that perfect shot. But when it happens, those few seconds are magical and to live for after all that time. That is the beauty of wildlife photography.”