After a big team effort, animal rescue experts and villagers saved a leopard from drowning in a large open well in India.
The rescue took place Sunday in Pimpalgaon Siddhanath village, in the Junnar division of Maharashtra, in west-central India (the state is best known for the city Mumbai). That morning, a resident heard the distressed cries of an animal bellowing from the bottom of a 60-foot (18-meters) well.
The farmer contacted officials at the country's forest department, who in turn reached out to the nearby Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre, which is run by the nonprofit animal advocacy organization Wildlife SOS. The center oversees the care of 31 leopards that have been rescued from similar encounters.
After getting the call, three Wildlife SOS staff members and six forest department officials rushed to the well, led by Wildlife SOS veterinarian Ajay Deshmukh.
"The terrified leopard was on the verge of drowning and was desperately clinging onto a rope to stay afloat," the group writes in a statement.
The animal likely fell in the well while chasing prey, the group adds.
Once assembled, the team sprang into action. First, they lowered a wooden platform into the well. The leopard climbed on board, exhausted. Next, the team lowered a cage.
At first, the frightened cat swiped at the metal cage. But eventually, it jumped into the box. The villagers and rescuers then carefully hoisted it up.
The leopard—a four-year-old female—was examined and found to be in good health, then released back into the wild.
"This is an incredible, heartwarming story of a community coming together for the benefit of wildlife," says Luke Dollar, a conservation biologist who runs National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.
"So often we see that when people and big cats come into contact, it is not nearly so positive for wildlife," Dollar says.
Still, the big cat isn't necessarily out of the woods, Wildlife SOS warns. Leopards in India "are struggling to find a foothold in the vanishing forests due to habitat modification," the group says.
In fact, Andrew Jacobson, who has studied leopards and is a graduate student at University College London and the Zoological Society of London, says "this type of thing is happening all the time in India. About once a week it seems there is a story of a leopard drowning in a well and very frequently there is a dramatic rescue."
The rescue Sunday was particularly complex, notes Jacobson, who has worked with the Big Cats Initiative.
Just to the south, National Geographic explorer Krithi Karanth has been pioneering a project that helps Indians receive compensation for injuries or damage to property caused by wild animals. Called WildSeve, Karanth hopes the effort will encourage communities to embrace, instead of persecute, leopards and other animals.
With this latest rescue and WildSeve, "it is great to see such interest in conservation in India," Dollar says. "It is setting an example for other countries."