The Cat in the Ghat

The Western Ghat Mountains are one of India's best-kept secrets. In his own words, Icon Films' chief executive Harry Marshall writes about the technical and logistical challenges of filming in this region, and why it was completely worth it.
January 15, 2009

The Western Ghat Mountains are one of India’s best-kept secrets. Although they snake 1,600 kilometers down from Gujarat in the North to the Southern tip of the country, this biological treasure trove offers one of the most beautiful but least known wildernesses on the planet.

Ghat means ‘step’ and the Western Ghats rise like a grand stairway up from the hot dusty plains to wettest and highest peaks south of the Himalayas. Below, the mountain foothills are ringed by dry jungles, home to the most iconic of India’s wildlife – tigers and elephants – but as you ascend this unique staircase so you become immersed in less familiar worlds.

The scrub soon gives way to dense rainforest where pockets of thick mist and luxuriant growth ensure that visibility is down to a few feet in places. One of the world’s rarest monkeys – the Lion Tailed Macaque – is found here, as is the world’s largest venomous snake – the King Cobra (all 18 feet when fully grown). Although only 10 percent of these lush forests are left, there are still extraordinary riches to be found. It was here, for instance, we were able to find and film new species such as the bizarre Purple Frog, an extraterrestrial creature looking like a scrotum on legs with the snout of a small pig.

Rising further still, and far above the jungles, we found ourselves in an extraordinary high altitude grassland of endless panoramic views. We had come here to see if we could film a mysterious species of cat known locally as the Pogeyon. The idea that here in 21st century India, a nation of over one billion humans, there might yet be an undiscovered carnivore, is the stuff that natural history filmmakers dream about.

With its very distinct habitats, a portrait of the Western Ghats Mountains presented a variety of technical and logistical challenges; hot dusty foothills, impenetrable humid rainforest and windswept and cold high-altitude grasslands. With 8,000 mm of rain a year this is also one of the wettest places on earth and for several months the slopes became impassable and the jungles alive with leeches. To try and film a new species for the first time in these conditions, across a vast space meant coming up with remote solutions. Over 40 camera traps – triggered by movement or heat – were strategically placed in areas where the Pogeyon had been sighted. The boxes had not only to be waterproof, but also tough enough deal with the unwelcome curiosity of the local elephants – who still managed to trash several cameras.

The Mountains of the Monsoon, which airs on BBC2′s ‘Natural World’ and Animal Planet’s ‘Mutual of Omaha’ strand, was the result of an obsession to find and film the zoological Holy Grail of a new species, the elusive Cat in the Ghat.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.