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Killing Buddy MacKay

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 4, 2016

Leopard  in Nagarahole (Photo: K Subbaiah, WCS India Program)

Leopard in Nagarahole (Photo: K Subbaiah, WCS India Program)

When researchers are trying to understand how leopards live, where they go, and what they need to survive, their best hope is still to go into the bush with them, by vehicle and on foot. That hasn’t changed despite the coming of ubiquitous digital camera traps, satellite tracking, and other technologies.

It is difficult, sometimes dangerous work. The leopards face the usual pathological hatred human dole out to big, dangerous predators almost everywhere, only more so.  Their lives often end by poisoning, trapping, or shooting at the hands of angry livestock ranchers.  Some of that animosity also rubs off on the people who study leopards.

The standard procedure for radio-collaring a leopard is to lure it, with bait, into a box trap and sedate it.  The biologist then has less than an hour to work with the animal as it recovers, taking samples, making measurements, and fitting the collar.  When it wakes up again, the leopard goes free. The biologist may never see it again in the wild, even when the slow, high-pitched bpp…bpp…bpp picked up from the radio collar via earphones reveals that the leopard is just 50 meters ahead. Leopards are the grand masters of staying hidden in plain sight.

And yet because researchers often work alone, amid hostile neighbors, the bond with that unseen animal can become their best consolation. Their great fear is not that the leopard might turn on them, but that the steady pulse from the collar will suddenly double, meaning an animal has gone motionless for too long, not rolling over in its sleep, not shaking its head.  That’s called the “mortality signal.”

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of sad stories from leopard researchers about their study animals, but none stuck harder, for me, than the lynching of Buddy MacKay.  I heard it one night last year, sitting on the verandah of a forest bungalow, drinking whiskey, in the

Western Ghats Mountains.  My host was Ullas Karanth, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in India.  For him, the animosity had played out in the tabloid press for five years in the mid-1990s as he studied tigers and leopards at Nagarhole National Park in southern India’s Karnataka state.

Karanth (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Karanth (Photo: Richard Conniff)

One night back then, Karanth said, his box trap attracted the attention of a big male leopard.  But this newcomer just circled the trap night after night and then walked cautiously away.  “I kept seeing this guy’s tracks and saying ‘Baddi maga! Baddi maga! Baddi maga!’” It’s a local curse, best translated simply as “Bastard!”  (But worse: At one time, a debtor who fell behind on his interest payments could be obliged to surrender his wife to the lender for a time.  Any resulting child was the “baddi maga,” or “interest child.”)

Finally, an American colleague named Mel Sunquist who was helping Karanth with the work asked, “Why do you keep talking about Buddy MacKay?” Sunquist was on the faculty at the University of Florida and to his ear, “baddi maga” sounded like the name of a politician then plastering posters all over the landscape back home.

Eventually, the big leopard turned up inside the trap, and that name stuck.  For the purposes of science, Karanth identified the tigers and leopards he was following only by their radio collar signals, and this new leopard entered his field notes as L-01. But to himself, Karanth could not help thinking: “Buddy MacKay.”

Tracking that leopard over the next year or so “was the most amazing experience,” Karanth recalled. “I could hear him close by,” but the leopard was too careful at first to let himself be seen.  “He was very diurnal.  That’s when I realized how diurnal they are, going after monkeys.”

Karanth began to map out Buddy MacKay’s home range, which was just seven square miles, incredibly small for an animal that can easily roam 10 or 20 miles in a day.  “I realized the country could be full of leopards at these densities.” After six months, the big leopard became accustomed to Karanth, no longer bolting when he was nearby in his vehicle, or on foot.  “He would blend into the grass.  You couldn’t see him, but he was right there.”

Karanth was eventually able to stay close enough to observe Buddy MacKay on the hunt.  Once, he was tracking by vehicle when he heard the distress call of a langur monkey.  “So I got out of the car with the antennae, and we walked and we saw this sight.”  Buddy MacKay and a female companion had run up a tree to grab a monkey.

“I had a research building, and I would come home dead tired from tracking these four tigers and three leopards, and this guy would come right outside 50 meters away—hughgh hughgh, hughgh—you know that sawing noise they make. Then I would put the antennae on, and that’s how I would know it was him.  It was L-01.” Buddy MacKay.  “So it’s kind of a … You live with a cat, you get to know a cat.”

At about that time, one of Karanth’s collared tigers turned up dead.  Inevitably, “in a species with 20 percent mortality, animals die.”  But Karanth’s work on behalf of tigers and leopards had made him enemies.  He and the park ranger, who was a friend, had been fighting corrupt government officials tied to illegal logging and poaching in the park.

“So they made a big story that this new, dangerous technology” —meaning radio tracking—“is being used by this corrupt forest official and this scientist to kill tigers and export their skins, and they convinced the stupid politicians to stop my project.”  Karanth still keeps a fat file of court papers and tabloid headlines from that era. The fight led to his own exoneration, and defamation judgments against his accusers.

“This stuff deserves a novel,” he said. “It was not a comfortable telemetry study. I was operating under all these pressures. But anyway, I tracked this animal Buddy MacKay for two years. I knew him.  In some sense I knew the animal personally.

“And one day, with all this pressure on me—Ullas Karanth is killing tigers, he’s killing leopards, blah,blah,blah—Buddy MacKay’s motion sensor signal was inactive. Every time one of my animals went inactive I was in a panic, because I was under so much pressure, tabloid pressure. Every day of tracking was such stress, because tigers sleep, leopards sleep.  They don’t shake their heads for an hour, I start going into seizure. Three hours total stillness. He was old when we caught him.  Seven, eight.  These guys then get challenged, others kill them, it’s not that they don’t die.  I called the ranger, the guy who was my friend.  He came and we went out tracking,” certain they were hearing the mortality signal.

“We tracked, and it was really beautiful, the light through the trees. The flowers.  It was like a kaleidoscope of yellow, like some Chinese theater thing.  We walked through this tunnel-like area and then we saw it.”  Buddy MacKay had walked into a crude, hand-made snare set by indigenous hunters in the park to catch pigs. “Normally when they’re strangled, they’re flat on the ground. But he was a very powerful animal so he’d kind of jumped around,” and the sapling bent over as a spring for the snare had sprung upright. “So he was actually hanging like a man hanging.”

They cut him down, and the tabloids pounced on the story.  “Next day, the headline—‘Ullas Karanth Accuses Indigenous People of Killing His Leopard.’ The third day, in the little town of Hunsur, the local politicians called a huge meeting, 500 people, the mikes blaring, blaming me for attacking the innocent indigenous people for killing the leopard, which died because of my dangerous, dangerous technology. Radio tracking!”

Karanth sighed, then took a sip of his whiskey.

“That’s the story of Buddy MacKay,” he said.  “Just …” He grimaced back the emotion.  “I mean, it’s all objective.  Leopards die.  But that was like seeing a friend hanging.”


Here’s a link to one of Karanth’s recent papers, about wildlife conflict situations in India.



One Response to “Killing Buddy MacKay”

  1. UPDATE June 28 2016 Here’s a podcast interview with Ullas Karanth about tiger science: Podcast link:

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