For farmers working on the rural plateaus of Maharashtra on the western peninsula of India, encounters with leopards are not entirely uncommon. The state is home to India's third-largest leopard population and agricultural development has transformed habitats and created an overlap between human and big cat territories. So when a leopard cub was found seemingly abandoned in a sugarcane field in Waghale village earlier this year, the farmer that found her knew what to do. The Maharashtra Forest Department were contacted and quickly got to work initiating a rescue mission.

The local wildlife authorities called on the help of Wildlife SOS, a conservation charity that has successfully reunited over 100 leopard cubs with their mothers in the state since 2007. Wildlife SOS and Junnar forest division teams, along with veterinarians rushed to the scene to assist.

The two-month-old cub was found in a dehydrated state with minor wounds and scratches on her paws. After a thorough health assessment, the veterinary team got to work treating the tiny cat with topical ointments to address her injuries and fluid therapy to help alleviate dehydration. Once in good health, the cub was secured in a safe box and the team set about reuniting the youngster with her mother.

Female leopards typically seek out a safe spot to stash their newborns where the cubs will be shielded from potential threats when mom goes off to hunt. In Maharashtra – India's second-largest sugarcane producing state where agricultural land has been steadily increasing as more rural communities become dependent on the cash crop for their survival – the cats regularly use cane fields in lieu of more natural habitat.

Although leopards give birth all year round, Wildlife SOS has noticed that cats in Maharashtra usually have cubs in the winter months, which coincides with sugarcane harvesting season. When hacking down the long grass stalks, farmers sometimes inadvertently uncover the hiding spots of leopard cubs.

A veterinary team provide treatment on a two-month-old leopard cub rescued from a sugarcane field near Waghale village in Maharashtra. Image © Wildlife SOS/ Akash Dolas]

For the last 17 years, Wildlife SOS has collaborated with the Maharashtra Forest Department to rescue these hapless youngsters and reunite them with their mothers. Leopards spend the first two years or so of their lives with their moms. It's a critical time for the cats as they learn the vital skills they need to hunt and survive on their own, which is why it's so crucial that every effort is made to reunite 'sugarcane cubs' with their mothers.

Confident that the leopard mom would return for her cub, the team placed the safe box in the area where the cub had been found and deployed camera traps nearby to monitor the reunion. After nightfall, mom returned and cautiously approached the box. She could hear her cub's cries and clawed at the box until it toppled over and she could swiftly scoop up the youngster and retreat to safer territory.

Camera traps help teams monitor the reunion as well as ensure the safety of the leopard cub. Image © Wildlife SOS/ Akash Dolas

As human-wildlife conflict increases in many parts of India, the work of Wildlife SOS is providing young leopards with a fighting chance, and is integral to the long-term survival of the species. Visit the Wildlife SOS website to get involved.

Top header image: Mihael Hercog/Flickr