The birds of Delhi line the road to greet me as I'm driven from the airport. First a red-wattled lapwing, spindle-legged and quiet in the shade of a roundabout bush. It's likely - I've been so many times - that, though the airport and the arteries of roads around it have hugely changed, I saw this lapwing's parents near here, and grandparents too. Then there are pigeons. Always in Delhi there are pigeons and, reaching my grubby guest house in East Patel Nagar, I see from the scattered feathers in the bathroom that one has been here too. There are mynas, common and bank, a rose-ringed parakeet and many kites wheeling on the hot air of summer Delhi.
Yes it is hot. In June I have known it ten degrees hotter, but just shy of forty degrees today it is the sort of heat I love: dry and solid, bouncing back from the black asphalt of the road. Dogs pant, and brown cart-pulling boys in tank-tops sweat, and Madagascar flame trees blaze in the heat.
I am here for less than a day. A full stop at the end of my three-month journey through Asia in search of cats. Early this morning I arrived from Malaysia, to collect my snow-leopard-watching kit from storage with our ground agency. A little after midnight I fly home to the UK. I hear it's cold. At least now I have my thermals again, though these will be scant protection against our new government.
By now they have gone the snow leopards from our camp in the Rumbak valley, gone to the mountain pastures with the blue sheep and the spring emergence of the marmots. Perhaps the leopard who called above camp for a night was indeed a female. Perhaps a male came to her and she fell pregnant. Perhaps now, three months later, she is searching for a high cave in which to bring her fluffy, eye-closed cubs into being. Perhaps.
My friends from camp - Sonam, Sonam, Angchuk, Nurboo, Gyatso, Gyaltsen - will be beginning now their season trekking over passes, between homestays, seen by the leopards but almost certainly not seeing them. Chosphel will be back in Zanskar, working with local people, spreading the word, with the Snow Leopard Conservancy, that the shan is a friend, an asset, a treasure. I wish them all fortune this summer on the high mountain passes.
In Tadoba P1's two tiger cubs are now sixteen months old, lying in waterholes, panting through the summer heat, easy to see by anyone tough enough to brave it. May is a boom time in tiger-watching. In Pench, old Collar Wali will have had her last litter. By now they're squat and tubby, sniffing round the bush or cave where she has denned them, still small enough that when they have to move she carries them secretly in her mouth, away from males, away from leopards, away from tourists.
In Gir the lions too pant through the brutal heat of Gujarat in summer. Stalking chital by night, and roaring to the waning moon, they rest by day in the dwindling shade of leaf-dropping trees. Monsoon is coming and with it water, leaves, flowers, fruit, insects, birds and abundance. Manisha will be there to watch, with her friends the guides and forest guards, pouring her love onto people, trees, snakes and lions alike.
The small cats live their small lives still beside the great this May. Jungle cats twitch their ready ears in the dry grass of Velavadar, leopard cats crouch round and bright-eyed by the roadside in Tabin, and along the Kinabatangan a tiny flat-headed cat peers from the elephant grass, then slips away into its breeze-rippled vastness.
In time they all slip away these cats, like leopards into the dapple of the forest. They slip into the imagination, the were-they-real? was-I-there? could-it-have-been? imagination inhabited by wild cats. No sooner seen than longed for, wanted, dreamed of, they are a drug.
I've had my fix, these past four months. In Tanzania, in Ladakh, in Madhya Pradesh, in Gujarat, in Borneo. I've seen wild cats, more than a hundred and thirty of them, wherever I've looked. But still I crave them.
Before there will be more cats in the wild, there will be summer in England: swifts, nightjars and natterjacks. There will be time to think on all I've seen, all I've learned, all the people who have given so much of themselves, and to write about them too, I hope.
For I have some small thoughts of big cats to share here; and in the autumn there will be wild cats again. At home in South America. My home: donde durante diez años maravillosos viví.