Meet 31-year-old wildlife veterinarian Dr Meghana Pemmaiah, who dared to sedate a leopard stuck for 36 hours in a 30-foot-deep well, pull the animal into the cage with her, and release it back in the jungles.
She had only a gun, some anaesthetic darts, and confidence on her side.
In a dramatic rescue operation, Meghana on Sunday, 12 February, rescued a one-year-old leopard near Niddodi off Kateel, a village about 35 km from Mangaluru in Karnataka.
“At that moment, my whole concentration was on rescuing the animal without any harm to it,” she later said.
“Once the leopard was in the cage with me, there was that moment of ‘Oh My God’ feeling!” she recalled.
‘Each operation is unique and challenging’
Meghana, a postgraduate in wildlife medicine and surgery from Bengaluru, has been working with Chitte PIlli Research and Rescue Centre along with Dr Yashaswi Naravi for six years.
She said, “Every rescue operation is unique and challenging. I have so far been part of at least 50 leopard rescue operations, and six where I personally led the rescue. But, no one can predict how the situation is going to be and the decisions can’t be predetermined. We have to be prepared for everything.”
Meghana’s team is the go-to for people whenever the Forest Department needs help in rescuing any wildlife. It could be snakes, bison, tigers, leopards, or even elephants.
She said most of the training given to them was during their college days in zoos, where they were taught to load darts, administer anaesthetics, handle the animal before and after tranquillisation, not agitate the animal, and conduct the whole rescue operation.
Later, it was on the job that they took life lessons from each and every time they went for a rescue operation.
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Tryst with the leopard for 2 hours
Recollecting her latest rescue, Meghana explained that the team got a call around 9.30 am on Sunday from the Forest Department that a leopard had fallen into a 30-foot-deep well and had been in there for 36 hours.
The department had pumped out the water from the well and even tried to rescue the animal through a ladder, but to no avail.
As the well was very deep and had a caving-in, the young leopard had comfortably sat there and was possibly scared as there was a lot of commotion outside.
The department needed the help of wildlife vets to tranquilise the animal and bring it up safely as it could be dehydrated or even injured.
“As I said earlier, each situation can be different and tricky. We had to decide on the spot how to bring the leopard up. We gathered all the medicine and the department kept the crowd under control. The guns, transport cage and everything else were kept ready,” she said.
‘Decision to enter the cage was mine’
With the well being so deep, the leopard was nowhere to be seen from the top, and the team of four vets — Meghana with Dr Yasaswi, Dr Prithvi Salian, and Dr Nafisa Kousar — realised that they had no choice but for one of them going into the well.
“Since we saw the cage there, we decided that one of us had to get in it and go down. I took the call and decided I would go in, though the others were also trained to do that. It was my first time doing such a rescue. It was tricky, but I went in,” she said.
Meghana first took a few test shots of the anaesthetic darts.
She explained that this was an extremely important step before a rescue operation, as the pressure required to dart from a distance needed to be checked and one needed to know if the guns were working smoothly.
Some of these weapons end up being stored for months, and need a few test shots before shooting.
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Minutes with the leopard inside the cage
It was Meghana’s first experience of being in a cage with a leopard.
The locals and the Forest Department officials ensured that the cage was tightly secured by a rope, and Meghana, with the dart-loaded gun, entered the cage. They carefully slid the cage down the well.
“About 10 metres away from the leopard, I found that it was in a position where I could easily tranquilise it. I saw the leopard, and quickly calculated her weight and the dosage of the anaesthetic. She was growling continuously,” she recalled.
“I knew it would be best to tranquilise it with the very first shot. But, the leopard just crushed the syringe of the first shot — which stuck its thigh — with its teeth,” she laughed.
Meghana then waited patiently inside the cage for 10-15 minutes for the anaesthetic dart to work on the leopard.
She then informed the team that the animal was now safe to be pulled out.
As she knew that the leopard was heavy for her to pull out, a local resident boarded the cage, went down the well, and pulled the animal in.
For the next five to eight minutes, Meghana was alone with the one-year-old leopard inside the cage.
The officials and the locals pulled the cage up slowly and the leopard was checked for any fractures.
Once they determined that the animal was healthy, they gave it a reversal for the anaesthesia shot.
The animal woke up within half an hour and was ready to be let out inside the jungle.
“A kind of adrenaline rush is there at every rescue operation. However, in each situation, we ensure the safety of both the vet as well as the animal. All wildlife cases are challenging, but that’s my job and I enjoy doing it,” said Meghana.