Ukraine: India doctor stranded with a jaguar and panther

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Jaguar and pantherImage source, Girikumar Patil
Image caption,
Girikumar Patil bought a jaguar and a panther from a zoo 20 months ago

For more than a week, an Indian doctor in war-torn Ukraine has been holed up in a basement at home with his pet big cats - a black panther and a jaguar.

Girikumar Patil, who bought the two cats from the Kyiv zoo, says he will not leave home without his pets. He has lived for over six years in Severodonetsk, a small town located in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

After the war began, Mr Giri, who is single, has been stepping out of his cramped basement only to buy food for his cats - the male jaguar is 20 months old and the female panther is a six-month-old cub - after the curfew ends early in the morning. (The jaguar is a rare hybrid between a male leopard and a female jaguar, he said.)

So far, Mr Giri said he had bought 23kg of sheep, turkey and chicken meat from neighbouring villages at prices four times higher than normal.

"My big cats have been spending nights in the basement with me. There has been a lot of bombing happening around us. The cats are scared. They are eating less. I can't leave them," Mr Patil, 40, told the BBC.

"This is the second war I am living through. But this is scarier."

Mr Giri said he was earlier living in Luhansk, where Russian-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014 despite a ceasefire agreement. During the fighting in the region, his home and an Indian restaurant he opened in the area were destroyed, he said.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Ukrainian military forces walk in the small town of Severodonetsk, where Mr Patil lives

He then moved to Severodonetsk, about 100km (62 miles) away, bought a new place, began practising medicine and bought his new pets.

"Now I am stuck in a war zone. This time I am really worried. My parents have been calling me and asking me to come home, but I can't leave the animals," Mr Patil said.

Mr Patil, who hails from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, said that he spent $35,000 (£26,460) to buy the panther and the jaguar from the Kyiv zoo about 20 months ago. He said the zoo allowed private sales of animals provided the owner had enough space to keep them - Mr Patil showed the birth certificates of the animals supplied by the zoo.

Mr Patil said he arrived in Ukraine in 2007 to study medicine. Since 2014, he has been a practising orthopaedic doctor and now works in a government hospital in Severodonetsk which was shut after the war began. He said he also does private practice.

Image source, Girikumar Patil
Image caption,
Mr Patil says he will not return to India without his pets

In Severodonetsk, Mr Patil lives in a six-room two-storey house with a small enclosure for the animals. He said he spent most of his earnings on his pets - he also has three dogs - and tries to raise additional funds through his YouTube channels where he posts videos of his two big cats for some 85,000 subscribers.

"I have always been fascinated with big cats since watching my favourite southern Indian film star, Chiranjeevi, in a film with leopards," he said.

The son of a bank manager father and a school teacher, Mr Patil said he has always been an "animal lover", and kept dogs, cats and birds at home.

After high school and college, Mr Patil also dabbled in acting, doing small parts in Telugu soaps. In Ukraine, he said, he had done parts as a "foreign" character in half-a-dozen local films and series.

The border with Russia was barely 80km from home, Mr Patil said, but it was difficult to reach there because of Russian forces in the region. There had been intermittent power cuts and internet breakdowns in his neighbourhood, but he was able to post video messages on social media regularly.

"I am the only Indian out here, and at night I am alone in the neighbourhood. Most of my neighbours have moved to nearby villages. I am going to hold out," he said.

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