Pune city is one of the most developed and urban cities of India. In spite of being such a crowded and modern city, it hasn’t lost its touch with nature. It is one of the few urban cities that is blessed with amazing natural biodiversity hotspots within the city. Pune city has a chain of connecting hills within the city that are full of natural life. These hills are rightly called the lungs of the city as they help to balance the urban development that is taking place in the city. Now, unlike traditional hills, these hills aren’t tall or pointy. They have a moderate elevation and are actually plateaus with long stretches of flat lands on the top. These flat lands are primarily grasslands which have now partly been converted into deciduous forests. Almost all the hills in Pune city are connected, and you can go from one hill to another.
One such popular hill in Pune, the one that I go to very frequently for wildlife outings and the one that I think is the most popular of all, is called Vetal Tekdi. I have referred to this hill in my previous blogs as well under the name “The Hill” (and I shall continue to do so, except in this blog). Vetal Tekdi is a very popular hill among the people of Pune city. Thousands of people visit this hill every single day to get away from the city life, to exercise, to chill or to explore its wildlife, like I do.
Speaking about the Wildlife of these hills, there is an abundance of bird life here. Even though it’s literally at the heart of the city, in spite of so many people visiting it on a daily basis, the bird life here has remained intact over the years. I myself have sighted some very rare birds at Vetal Tekdi. The rarest of them all is the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher which is an impossible sighting for any of the Pune hills because the habitat that this bird requires no where matches with that of the hills or any where near the city. It was a lost bird that flew away within 5 days and is probably the only record (that too photographic) of this bird from here.
There aren’t a lot of mammals on these hills. Indian Palm Squirrel is the most common mammal here, but it is almost throughout the entire country as well, so no biggy. One might see an Indian Mongoose if they’re lucky, a Black naped Hare if they are luckier. But that’s pretty much the mammal life here at Pune hills.
I sighted a Barking Deer once at Vetal Tekdi, which is a very rare record and might be the only known photographic record from there in the past decade at least. Now, the mystery here is that the Barking Deer was very far and the photo that I have got only confirms that it’s there. There’s another mammal called The Four Horned Antelope, which looks exactly like the Barking Deer from a distance and is even rarer, making it a bigger jackpot. But we would never know if the one that I saw was a Barking Deer or a Four Horned Antelope. It could be either of them making it a mysterious and uncertain sighting. In any case, both of them are rare sightings here, and I’m happy that I am the person who has sighted probably the rarest bird and mammal, both (wait till you read the complete blog), seen on Pune Hills (with photographic records).
A few of my friends have such isolated records of Barking Deer from some other connecting hill, but it is not at all easy to spot one.
However recently, I along with one of my friends sighted an extremely rare mammal here at Vetal Tekdi. The Jungle Cat. The Jungle Cat is one of the 15 species of Wild Cats found in India. It might not be that rare to spot away from the city, in forests or rural areas, but sighting one at Vetal Tekdi is a VERY BIG deal. It is a very shy and elusive Wild Cat that no one even imagined had its presence on the Vetal Tekdi hill chain.
We always thought that there might be a slight possibility of Jungle Cats existing here on Pune hills, but hardly anyone had ever seen it or even found traces of its existence. This probably is one of the only known, documented records of The Jungle Cat from Vetal Tekdi in modern times (according to a study published in 1987, it almost disappeared post the 1960-70s from the hill complex and surrounding region where it was once found, due to habitat loss).
The story of this blog hasn’t started yet. This was just a small introduction of Vetal Tekdi and its connecting hills, to provide an outline for you, a context for the story. An establishing paragraph if you will- series of paragraphs actually. I’ll be writing an entire blog about Pune hills sometime, but right now, let’s get started with the story.
Before starting, let me just tell you that everything that I’ve said till now and everything that I’ll be saying from now on is based on the sightings at the accessible part of the Vetal Tekdi hill chain. There are a few areas that are restricted for people as they belong to the military, no one knows what goes on in there and about the Wildlife that is present there. I suspect that it’s rich in biodiversity, but we’ll never know.
So it all happened a few days back when one of my friends, Kunal (yes his name is Kunal as well), was out for a small birding session on Vetal Tekdi one fine afternoon. He came across his usuals, a Kestrel, a daily White Eyed Buzzard, Indian Rollers and some other birds that are seen regularly. Suddenly while walking on his daily route, he heard a few loud, distressed young Meows from the tall, dense grass next to him. Having raised a few kittens earlier, he suspected that a poor hungry Kitten must be lost in the grass. He realised that a few crows were sitting on a nearby tree who could easily attack the poor kitten. Slowly, he made his way into the tall dry grass in order to help her. Kunal(not me lol, my friend) made a few “psspss” sounds to attract the kitten and she responded to them very well by revealing herself out of the dry grass and going towards him. As soon as the kitten came close to him, he dropped dead silent. It was no ordinary kitten that was crying for help. It was a kitten of the rare Jungle Cat! He immediately called me and his brother, Tanay to tell what had happened.
I was literally speechless when I got the news. My heart skipped a beat and then started racing fast, my mind went blank. Kitten of a Jungle Cat that too at Vetal Tedki!? How crazy is this!? Is this even real!? This was way beyond my imagination, way beyond my wildest dreams. But wait, are you sure it’s a Jungle Cat and not an ordinary Kitten, I asked. As far as he knew, he was firm on it being something remarkable. He asked me to come and see it for myself. I immediately rushed to get my backpack and raced to that spot. And OH MY GOD, it was a tiny, cute little kitten of a Jungle Cat, not even a month old. This was happening! But why was it alone? Why was it even here? I was happy that our very own Vetal Tekdi now has a new mammal added to it’s list, however rare it might be. But something was very wrong here.
The cute little Kitten of the Jungle Cat, not even a month old. Photos by Kunal Gokhale
Why was it meowing at the top of its voice, continuously? It was in such a distress that its voice was cracking with fear. This is not usual. Jungle Cats won’t leave their young kittens at such places that are frequented by humans, that too alone and during the day! The meowing had grabbed a lot of attention of some crows and stray dogs. Dogs have a natural tendency to attack cats and other animals as well. Luckily no other humans were around except us. We were keeping the dogs and the crows away, but didn’t know what to do to help this kitten. As the primary rule of nature goes, do not interfere.
We waited nearby hoping its mother would somehow come and help her kitten. Four hours passed, yet nothing! It was almost 7.30 pm now. It was pitch dark as this is the Winter season, the sun sets very early. It was difficult for us to stay any further as these hills aren’t a safe place, unfortunately, to wander around at odd times or after dark, due to some incidences of crimes and thefts that have occurred. The crows had left but the stray dogs had found a resting place nearby. There are also small human settlements around and the Kitten could have definitely gotten some unwanted attention. In either cases, it wasn’t safe for us to leave the kitten alone. After all, it was the Rare Jungle Cat and making sure it survives on Vetal Tekdi was of utmost priority.
Due to very less time and limited options, we decided to pick up the kitten and take it with us someplace safe. It was a very hard and tough call; however, we did what we felt was right in order to ensure that the kitten survived. On reaching a safe place, we immediately called ResQ Charitable Trust, an organisation that helps stray as well as wild animals.
A team from ResQ came with all their equipment to help the kitten. They collected a few Neem leaves to rub against the kitten as we had touched her with our bare hands while bringing her to safety and it was necessary to get our scent off of her. Then they put her in a safe cage and we all rushed to the spot where we had found her. There they kept the kitten under a basket with a rock on its top and set up a live camera, through which we would monitor all that was going on. We left the place and monitored the live camera from a nearby location. The plan was, if at all the mother arrives, she would flick the stone and get her kitten out of there with her. It was getting pretty late so we handed it over to the ResQ team who were gonna monitor the camera upto 2-3 am hoping for the mother to come.
Unfortunately, the mother didn’t arrive and the ResQ team had to take the kitten with them to their centre where they fed her. They tried the same process again the next day, in vain. There were no signs of the mother. It is impossible for the kitten to survive on its own in the wild, so team ResQ would now try to raise it in their centre.
This was a one of its kind experience. I still cannot believe that this happened. It is still hard for me to believe that we found a tiny Jungle Cat fur ball which wasn’t even a month old, at Vetal Tekdi! Though this kitten would not roam on Vetal Tekdi with its mother now, this incidence has given me the confidence to say that we have Jungle Cats on our Pune Hills : it takes two Jungle Cats to produce these small fur balls and they usually have a litter of around two to three kittens. So, there is a high possibility that the two parent Jungle Cats are out there somewhere with their kittens, maybe on some other part of the hill or maybe on another connecting hill. Or maybe in the restricted area, who knows? Hopefully sometime in future, if we’re lucky enough, we’ll get an opportunity to see them. Our search will be on!
[I had written this blog around five days ago and had decided to publish it today. However just yesterday, a rare mammal made it in news from the foothills of one of the connecting hills of Vetal Tekdi. An Indian Gaur (Bison) had wandered off into Pune City at the foothills of Mahatma Hill, making it one of the rarest (and impossible) mammal sightings at Pune Hills (near Pune Hills actually as the Gaur was lost IN the city, next to Mahatma Hill). I got a glimpse of it. Many authorities together carried out a three hour long rescue operation to get the Gaur to safety. I published a blog about it yesterday, totally unplanned. You can read it here- https://kswild.video.blog/2020/12/09/the-rescue-mission/ ]