Delhi to Bera: Leopard country
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The cameos were unscripted and the “stage” was sans distracting props. The terrain was vast, rocky and inhospitable, with granite outcrops of pink and rust looming in the distance like lumbering dinosaurs.
Suddenly, low growls rode on the air and two sub-adult leopards tumbled out of a fissure on to a rocky ledge, grappling with each other, only to disappear again into the crevice.
We were in Jawai, a cluster of around 20 villages in the backyard of nowhere, near Jawai Bandh, one of Rajasthan’s largest reservoirs. The Jawai and Bera region (Bera lies to the east of the Bandh) is leopard country, a pleasant change from the much touted tiger lands of India. We were here to get away from the grind of the city for a wildlife- filled weekend.
As we waited with bated breath in our jeep for the squabbling duo to re-emerge, we saw something that is branded in our collective memory forever. A dhoti-clad bearded priest was descending from a cave temple via a flight of steps carved into the rock face of the hill. He walked down nonchalantly, and seemed unfazed by the sight of a lithe leopard stretched out lazily above him on a protruding lip of the hill.
We lost sight of the priest as this drama played out, threatening, we thought, to turn into a Greek tragedy. A few heart-stopping seconds later, a female feline emerged from a bush, sauntered up the same steps that the priest had descended, and disappeared into the cleft to join her cubs.
That sighting powerfully underscored for us the fact that in leopard country, man and beast have struck a centuries-old truce; locals coexist peacefully with the felines they view as protectors of their hilltop temples and shrines.
At the swish Jawai Leopard camp, we met Adam Bannister, a South African naturalist who has studied leopard behaviour around the world. The most intriguing thing that Bannister noticed about the leopards in the region was their social interaction. “Leopards around the world are solitary and fiercely territorial animals. Here they seem to behave more like lions and live in prides. Nowhere else are you likely to see a model of how land is managed, without man and animal conflict.”
Indeed, in the last two centuries, not a single incident of a leopard killing a human has been reported.
This region is not a sanctuary or wildlife park with stifling rules and regulations. It snuggles in the ancient Aravalli Hills: swathes of wild tawny grassland, arid stretches interspersed with misshapen rocks and boulders which evoke apocalyptic end-of-the-world images—post-nuclear explosion mushroom clouds and snarling mythical beasts. Safaris are better booked as part of the package with your stay. Three days are ample for at least four safaris through the forest and other open degraded forest areas to spot the big cat.
As one drives around, the poetry of the harsh terrain softens to showcase rippling fields of wheat and mustard, sesame and maize. The dun-coloured landscape is inhabited by Rabari herdsmen—tall and statuesque, heads topped with tightly wound red turbans that weigh a cool one kilogram. They stroll companionably with their cattle under a harsh unrelenting sun, clucking fondly to keep them in line.
Undeniably, the leopard, the fifth largest feline in the world (after the tiger, lion, jaguar and mountain lion), is the showstopper in this region but there are equally entrancing, smaller players. One evening, we spotted a red-rumped vulture by the molten gold waters of the Jawai Dam; an Indian rock python slithering across a dusty road; a hyena scavenging on a kill.
Yes, over a long weekend, we had stumbled on a secretive, inviolate slice of the country where time seems to go into rewind.
Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The authors tweet from @GustaspJeroo.