Updated: May 4, 2020
I first went to Kashmir when I was 16, to meet my father and indian side of the family after 10 years (I hadn’t seen them since I was 6). It was during that period of time that I discovered Dachigam National Park lying on the outskirts of Srinagar. I ended up spending most my days there, either following the rangers and care takers around or off in the mountains exploring the park hoping to see a leopard or snow leopard in the wild (never saw the leopards, but ran into plenty of bears).
The rehabilation centre mainly dealt with 2 species, the Indian Leopard (panthera pardus fusca) and the asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus).
The leopards were amazing, and you could clearly see that their hunting instinct was still intact. If you walked close to their enclosure without making eye contact they would start to stalk you through the bushes or tall grass, and would pounce at you (with a fence between you) when you looked the least alert. Due to this it took the keepers a bit more time to trust me to go in with them compared to the bears, but eventually I was allowed to and was able to capture one of my favourite shots ever which is the picture of the leopard looking straight down the lens as it walked towards me.
At times it was incredibly hard to still think of these animals as wild and dangerous. The leopards would walk up to the fence and behave very similarly to a domestic cats, purring and enjoying a good rub. But as the keepers reminded many of the visitors, if you were to go in with them, the outcome would not bode in your favour. And occasionally the leopards would remind you of that as they would go for a cheeky bite here and there (quite hard to predict), whether that was playful or carried the intent to fully go for it , I will never know.
I spent most my time with the bears, especially the young cub called Sahil, who’s mother had died. As far as I understood it was due to poaching but I am not 100% sure as a lot of information was lost in translation as my hindi or Kashmiri was not great (and still isn’t).
Spending soo much time with Sahil made me realise how important his bond would have been in the wild with his mother and that in many regards he shared human children traits, curiosity, bonding, learning etc.... Over time he became more and more playful with me and one of my best memories of him is playing in the rain outside (video below)..
This species of bear suffers a lot across Asia and are placed in some horrific welfare conditions in places known as “bear farms”. The main reason they are kept is to harvest their bile, because in Traditional Chinese Medicine it is though to help with many aversions. Most recently it has been recommended as a way to fight the Coronavirus (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/03/chinese-government-promotes-bear-bile-as-coronavirus-covid19-treatment/), a scary thought.