Days after photos of a majestic Black Panther roaming the jungles in Karnataka caught the fascination of netizens, people in Mirik in Darjeeling have reported sightings of two such black cats in areas surrounding the Thurbo tea garden. While people have reported sightings of the rare animal in the Hills in the past too, the fresh sightings come amid the Covid-19 pandemic and less human interference in the wild due to the lockdown.

A man in the Lower Division of the Thurbo tea garden, Bikash Rai, said that he, along with some other workers of the tea estate have been sighting the two black cats for at least a month now. “The recent sighting was some days ago. While they do not come near human settlements like the other normal leopards do, we see them either sleeping or resting on rocks or walking among the tea bushes or the hill slopes far away,” Mr Rai said.

According to him, villagers have also been sighting spotted leopards, which he claimed have eaten goats, dogs and even chicken in his area. Another man in Mirik said that he had sighted the “beautiful panther with the longest tail I have ever seen” near the Thurbo factory in early April this year.

“I was headed for Okayti tea estate from Thurbo to drop my relatives that night when we saw the panther on the road at the big bend after the factory. I wanted to click pictures with my mobile phone, but we were all afraid and it was dead in the night,” recalled Deepen Chettri. Also, one resident of Thurbo late last month posted a video of a deer entering her garden in a thickly populated area and eating grass and plant leaves there.

A popular Facebook page in the Hills had in 2019 posted a video of a black cat purportedly doing the rounds in the Pandam tea estate in Pulbazaar Block in Darjeeling. The video clip was then taken and sent by a reader, Pankaj Subba, from that area. In 2016, forest sources had said that trap cameras had clicked images of a black panther in the Buxa Tiger Reserve in Alipurduar district, arguably for the first in the region.

Recently, images of the black panther captured by a wildlife photographer in the jungles of Kabini in Karnataka went viral on Facebook and Twitter, while netizens said it reminded them of Bagheera, a character in English author Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

Experts, meanwhile, say that the Black Panther is not a separate species and they are actually leopards, but they are black due to melanin pigmentation, while they also have their typical spotted markings. According to the Divisional Forest Officer, Kurseong, J Sheikh Fareed, he has asked his officers to keep an eye on the area and that they have asked local people to report any such sighting to the forest department.

“However, no one has so far come forward to tell us about such sightings and the instances of their domestic animals being taken away,” Mr Fareed said. According to Animesh Bose, the programme coordinator of the Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation (HNAF) in Siliguri, there are black panthers in north Bengal and that all leopards, including them, go to areas near villages for easy prey where they eat goats, dogs and other domestic animals.

“There are black panthers in the Neora Valley, Buxa tiger Reserve and some in the Hills. Leopards usually go to the tea gardens to give birth as the trenches there are safe places for the young ones,” Mr Bose said.