This is the first story in a series of articles launched by Woodland and Nature inFocus, where we bring you stories and snapshots of explorers' journeys as they traverse the great Indian wilderness.
Rajasthan is a place known for its cultural expanse and countless historic monuments. But tucked away in this land of forts and deserts is a small region with a unique story. The Jawai-Bera region is home to the nomadic Rabari tribe, who live in makeshift houses and who, for most of the year, travel across these lands with their herds of goats and sheep, looking for greener pastures. The Rabaris share their home with an elusive cat species – the Indian Leopard.
I have been working in Jawai-Bera for the past year or so now, and even before spotting my first leopard, I was fascinated by the beauty of this landscape. The whole region is dotted with age-old hills of the Aravalli Range, and the vegetation is mostly dry shrubs – keekar, palash and other desert species. My first visit was during winter, we drove past a myriad of villages, scanning every hill and rock face, until we spotted a leopard perched gracefully on an outcrop, with everything around it glowing in the leftover orange autumn colours. Even though the cat was at a distance, what I saw through the camera viewfinder, felt as if the leopard was sitting on its throne, watching over its kingdom. Two more visits during the same season brought along more encounters, and with each trip, I witnessed how the landscape changed as the weeks went by.
The summers are harsh and difficult. The hills are barren, covered in dry yellow grass and a scattering of danda thor. The caves and crevices are easily visible, and it is not uncommon to see a leopard resting on an overhanging outcrop in the evenings and early mornings. The changing seasons seem to change the landscape thoroughly, a completely new experience with every passing month. My last visit was during the rains, and I could hardly recognise the huge rocks that I had become so accustomed to. Everything had a carpet of green on it, and the trees seemed to have grown into massive curtains of jade canopies, safely guarding the caves where the leopards rested. The langurs ran and jumped on the temple steps, but the temple itself had disappeared behind a sea of green, with only its red flag visible as it danced in the monsoon wind.
One evening, I got news that a leopard with two young cubs had made a kill in a field nearby. I could hear them, in fact, pinpoint the exact location where they were feeding. But no matter how hard I tried, with the grass so tall and thick, in shades of green difficult to describe, I just couldn't see them. As the sun briefly peeped out from the clouds, I returned to the lodge, without a single camera shutter being fired, but with the satisfaction that I had spent an entire evening close to a wild cat and her young ones.
Jawai-Bera is an incredible landscape, with an even more incredible story of peaceful human-animal coexistence. In my conversations with the locals and Mr Gopal Singh, owner of the Woodland Hotel, Jawai, I have learnt that there hasn’t been any conflict here for the past 100 odd years between the Rabaris and the leopards. In my time here, I have seen the locals walk the same village tracks as the leopards. The Rabaris are devotees of Lord Shiva and consider the leopard a depiction of the god. There is also folklore which suggests that the people in Jawai-Bera are cursed and that they will forever be ruled over by leopards. Hence these cats stay in the hills, while the Rabaris live in the land below, grazing their cattle. Due to the absence of natural prey, the leopards here hunt the sheep and goats of the herders. But, the community doesn’t hold it against the cat, they believe that Shiva will increase their cattle tenfold, for the goat killed was an offering to the Lord himself.
This area is known to have the highest density of leopards in the world. But this is being threatened now, with the construction of new railway tracks across the heart of this land. With an already existing train track, there have been reports of cattle deaths and some wild species like hyenas. The leopards also regularly cross these tracks. As more railway lines are laid, the chances of cattle being hit and run over will increase, which will then pose a threat to the leopards as they will get closer to the tracks for feeding on such kills. Although there are underground drainage tunnels in place, if proper fencing is not done along the main lines, both the leopards and the Rabaris will get affected adversely.
Leopards are one of the most adaptable predator species, and our country has enough examples where these cats live in close quarters with their human neighbours, like in the Aarey forests of Mumbai and Jaipur’s Jhalana forests. It is quite common to hear stories about leopards straying not only into village areas but also in urban and densely populated metro cities. In the past few years, there have been reports and visual documentation of the violent conflict that arises when man and animal come face to face. I am sure we all remember the images of leopards being hung alive, burnt alive, stoned and beaten to death. Apart from issues such as habitat loss and a lack of prey base, the absence of awareness and timely interference by the authorities are responsible for such incidents of not only leopard encounters, but also other wild species.
Whatever the reason, it is difficult to understand what leads to such violent reactions towards living creatures, especially in a country where wildlife has been worshipped as counterparts of our gods and goddesses. In such complicated times, when both man and animal are fighting for their survival, this story of tolerance, respect and peaceful coexistence in Jawai-Bera gives us hope.
Watch Shatabdi's journey into the 'Land of Leopards' here: