Dr. Ajay Deshmukh, the senior veterinarian at Wildlife SOS’ Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre, drove nearly 30 kilometers from the rescue facility to the village of Khireshwar, in the early hours of the morning on the 15th of July, 2015. Leaving behind the twenty-seven rescued leopards he cares for at the centre, he made his way to a small school in the village, more than an hour away. Waiting for him was a group of nearly 200 students, fresh-faced and wide-eyed, seated cross-legged on the floor of the school courtyard. The students belonged to Khireshwar Ashram School, set up exclusively for tribal children belonging to local communities. Five teachers stood by, keeping watch and maintaining decorum as the children chattered excitedly amongst themselves.
Dr. Ajay arrived at the school with two members of the Junnar Forest Department – Deputy Conservator of Forests, Mr. V.A. Dhokate, and Range Forest Officer, Mr. Sachin Ragatwan- with whom he was familiar, having worked with the state Forest Department on the numerous rescues he has carried out over the last few years. The team at the Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre has built a rapport with the Forest Department and painstakingly earned the respect of the local communities, which is why Dr. Ajay had been invited to the school that day.
Following the lectures of the two forest department members, Dr. Ajay stood up to address the audience. He managed to hold captivated the large group of usually restless youngsters, with thrilling narratives of his adventures in the field. The children sat, spellbound, and listened to his stories, each intertwined with a lesson on avoidance behavior and respecting the wild animals in whose proximity they lived. Dr. Ajay touched upon the behavior and biology of leopards, and discussed in detail the threats to the conservation of these magnificent animals that are so close to his heart, as well as the threats to the preservation of the region’s scrub jungles that form the leopards’ natural habitat. When Dr. Ajay interacted with the students, it became evident that he’d gotten his message across. The group seemed to have developed a fascination for this elusive cat and showed keen interest in helping the team at MLRC with their most challenging task – spreading awareness about leopards. They eagerly picked up and scanned through the pamphlets they were given and promised to hand them over to their families and to help pass on everything they had learnt.
Dr. Ajay’s passion about leopards was contagious, and the children seemed to respond enthusiastically to all that they were told, leaving us hopeful for a new generation of youngsters that are more sensitive and accepting towards the natural heritage that will soon be theirs to preserve.