The story of Ilyas Najeeb is one out of the jungle book. He nursed an injured leopard cub for eighteen months at his house till they became best friends. Aakash Hassan tells his story with not so happily ever after ending
Hailing from picture perfect hamlet of Kuttabal in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district, Ilyas Najeeb, 23, is a curious accounting student. Rather than staying in touch with ones and zeroes, he loves to hang out with leopards, bears, owls etc.
In mid 2012, Najeeb domesticated and nursed a leopard cub for one-and-a-half-year at his modest house located near the dense woods. As the story of Najeeb’s expertise viz-a-viz handling wild animals, who wander into human habitations on-and-off spread in the village, he became an instant wildlife expert. Since then, whenever villagers come across a wild animal wandering into their habitation, they call Najeeb.
On a mid-summer afternoon in 2012, Najeeb was called by his friend telling him that there are two leopard cubs wandering in the village. “He told me that villagers are attacking the frightened creatures with stones,” recalls Najeeb, who was attending his friend’s funeral that time. “I rushed to the spot immediately and rescued the cubs from angry villagers.”
Najeeb took them to his house, nursed their injuries, feed them with a feeder, and kept them safe. “Unfortunately one of them couldn’t survive his injured and died the same day,” recalls Najeeb.
Disappointed, Najeeb vowed to save the second cub at any cost. “I started taking care of him like a mother. I would feed him milk using a feeder; give him medicines and multivitamin supplements etc. It was like raising a baby,” recalls Najeeb.
A month passed and the cub, who Najeeb named Bakk, started showing signs of improvement. “He would follow me wherever I go. We had developed a special bond.”
As days passed, Bakk started mingling with other members of Najeeb’s family. “He would play with everyone in my family. We never felt need to chain him,” says Najeeb.
Najeeb’s father, a farmer by profession, who owns a small apple orchard adjacent to his house, would take Bakk along to play at the farm.
With time Bakk’s diet increased as well, “He would require at least one kilogram of meat every day.”
However, Najeeb’s family, despite modest income, never let Bakk sleep on empty stomach. Instead, Najeeb and his father build a comfortable shelter for Bakk in their orchard. “He was so attached to me that once when I visited Jammu to submit my examination form, Bakk refused to eat for four days,” recalls Najeeb.
Najeeb’s sister, Abida Khanum, who was assigned to take care of Bakk during her brother’s absence, recalls how the cub would cuddle up in Najeeb’s bed and refuse to eat at all. “First I thought he was ill. But when he bought Najeeb’s clothes and put them in my lap, I understood he is missing my brother,” says Khanum.
When Bakk didn’t eat for four days, Najeeb cut short his trip and rushed back home. “When he heard my voice he started jumping with joy. I fed him on my hand and he ate hurriedly,” says Najeeb with a visible hint of emotions in his voice.
Soon the news of Najeeb raising a leopard cub reached to his relatives, who started flocking to his house to have a glimpse of Bakk. However, instead of letting his friend and relatives have a free run, Najeeb put a condition: bring some meat for Bakk if you want to see him. That worked, as in a year’s time Bakk grew up into a strong leopard. “The best day for Bakk used to be Eid-ul-Adha, as people would bring his share of meat too,” recalls Najeeb.
However, for Najeeb, a student with limited pocket money, raising Bakk for more than a year was not easy. “I spent more than 3 lakh rupees to raise him during his one-and-half year stay at my house,” claims Najeeb.
Other than monetarily sacrifices, Najeeb’s studies too got affected as Bakk needed constant care and look after. “One day, when he was young, I took him to a veterinary doctor for treatment. He treated him without realizing that it was a leopard,” says Najeeb, “He thought he was a cat!”
On another occasion Najeeb had to trek four miles through snow at night to get meat for Bukk as there was none left in the house. “I had to literally beg the butcher’s to get some meat for Bakk.”
After keeping Bakk for one-and-half-year’s Najeeb finally decided to inform the wildlife department. “Despite my bonding with him, I felt I was doing something illegal,” says Najeeb.
A few days later, in 2014, officials from the wildlife department visited Najeeb’s house. “They were surprised to see how a leopard was living peacefully amongst humans. They couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw Bakk having lunch with us in our kitchen like a family member,” says Najeeb. “They (officials) were so impressed by my efforts that they told me that I will be awarded.”
With tearful eyes Najeeb finally bid adieu to Bakk. The wildlife officials told Najeeb that Bakk will be kept in Pahalgham, and he can visit him anytime without hassle. “But when I visited Pahalgham Bakk was not there. I don’t know where he was taken,” says Najeeb.
The separation left Najeeb heartbroken; he didn’t eat anything for days together, and was bedridden for two weeks. After a few days Najeeb brought home an owl whose wings were broken and was unable to fly. “I nursed him for six months,” recalls Najeeb.
Recently Najeeb bought home two injured black bear babies. For almost a week Najeeb nursed them, fed them, and when there were cured, he left them at the same spot from where he had found them. “I hid myself behind a bush for hours till their mother came and took them along,” says Najeeb.
The increase in incidents of animals wandering into human habitations, Najeeb believes, is because of human intervention in forests. “We are cutting forests ruthlessly without giving a thought about animals. Where will they go if there are no jungles left? They will wander into our villages,” believes Najeeb. “Wildlife department should play more active role in ensuring the safety of these animals. They must educate people that even a wild beast like leopard can be a good friend.”
Najeeb says he is happy to volunteer if the wildlife department needs his help ever.