The leopards of Bera in Rajasthan have been living in harmony with humans for decades.
Forty years ago, half a dozen of these leopards had descended from the nearby Kumbhalgarh National Park nestling in the Aravalli Hills and into the rocky mountains of Bera looking for browner pastures. Though it was the village of Bera that caught the imagination of nature lovers for the unusual sight of leopards walking elegantly on rocky slopes, there are actually over a dozen leopard sites that surround Bera in a radius of 10 km. And this area is known as Jawai Leopard Conservation Zone.
Today, the total number of leopards here has increased to around 30. The reasons for this are many. The path-breaking leopards who first came here found that the rocky mountains had two distinct advantages. Firstly it offered a vantage point from where they could be monarch of all they surveyed. Secondly, the mountains here had many caves that were interconnected. So when they had their litter, they could enter the cave from one point, and exit through another. In fact, they make it a point to move caves every three days here when they have cubs.
This strategy dramatically improves the survival chances of the cubs. While in the forests elsewhere in India only one out of three cubs survive, here in Bera, almost always, all three survive.
The other critical reason for their happy proliferation is that they live in perfect harmony with human beings here. Since they inhabit dry rocky mountain slopes, the food is scarce. They survive on wild hares and porcupines and sometimes langurs – though very often that becomes a very difficult proposition. Their food of choice actually is dogs and heads of cattle from the nearby villages.
The villagers don’t mind this for two reasons. One, whenever the leopards kill cattle, after an autopsy, the villagers are amply compensated under the Van Dhan Yojana. Secondly, it has to do with faith. For some strange reason, every temple in the neck of these mountains has an idol of the leopard next to the main deity. Thus proving beyond doubt that leopards hold a very special place in the religious ethos of these villagers.
The last 30 km of our journey set us back by two hours because of the pathetic condition of the non-existent roads. So when we reached Godwad Resort in Padarla, we gulped the welcome drink served by a Rabari man and jumped into the waiting Gypsies.
When we reached the village of Sena that boasts of four leopard sites shared by five leopards and two cubs, we could see the tall mountains peering inquisitively into the village. Cutting through the bylanes dotted with Rabaris, Meenas and their cattle, we reached a clearing that offered a majestic view of the yonder cliffs. And within minutes, the eyes of the trained binoculars spotted a mother leopard and two cubs in tow. Soon the cubs were deposited in the safety of a shrub by the mother, and she started looking down at us, watching our every move.
And then slowly she herded her cubs into her cave, never to be seen again.
After a wait of 10 impatient minutes, the guide-cum-driver undertook a break-neck ride over boulders to catch the last rays of the sun. And then after a 45-degree climb over a rocky slope, he stopped dead in his track to reveal the most awesome sunset I have ever witnessed. Across an orange gorge, across an orange lake, across the breath-taking orange horizon, the sun was setting on the backwaters of the Jawai dam. In the distance floating on the waters were six marsh crocodiles.
There are over 500 of them here, and once, hold your breath, the villagers had spotted 63 of them basking in the sun, all at once.
The next day too we set off early morning; this time to reach Sena by day-break. But we realized that in nature there is no action replay. Life happens once, forever. The leopard and her cubs were conspicuous by their absence. So we moved on to the other three sites. At the last site, we heard the frantic alarm calls of langurs, and saw them running along a vertical precipice without slipping, forcing me to rephrase the idiom and say “as surefooted as a langur.” We waited there till they calmed down and settled on the branches of a Gummat tree. But we couldn’t spot the leopard that the langurs had spotted.
The following day we drove to the village of Peherwa, where the maximum number of leopards has been sighted: eight in a single day. The leopards here are also known as Babaji’s Leopards as they come and sleep next to the temple priest in his temple compound. In fact, one of the things that made Bera famous is a documentary that showed Babaji living harmoniously with these wild leopards.
Just as we reached there, a leopard crossed the road from Peherwa village on the left to Babaji’s hill on the right. But only the Gypsy in the front saw him. He looked piercingly into the scared headlights of the Gypsy and walked nonchalantly into the hill on the right and disappeared into the moonlit morning. We didn’t get to see him anywhere later, in spite of waiting near the waterhole for close to an hour. As we were waiting there, we heard the bush chats chatting and the babblers babbling about the sleepless night they had spent, disturbed by the presence of a leopard.
Next on the trip was birding at Mount Abu, about 200 km away. A beautiful hill station in Rajasthan usurped by the people of Gujarat as their own due to twin reasons. Proximity to Ahmedabad; and more importantly, for being a wet state.
Photo credit: Suchitra Ambudipudi
Much like the invasive Australian Babool that was imported to Kachh, a shrub named Lantana was imported to Abu ostensibly to make it greener. Both turned out to be ecological disasters as they still continue to strangle and decimate local vegetation. The Australian Babool does it by spreading uncontrolled like a green cancer, and the Lantana by excreting chemicals around its base to kill any vegetation that tries to grow near it. In Abu we also saw the Mexican poppy that’s now growing wild near the dried-up streams. The only use of this plant is that its seeds are mixed with mustard to adulterate mustard oil!
The birding trip to the village of Oriyaa, just 15 km from Abu, was the most rewarding of all my trips to any rustic village.
We spotted close to 50 species in three hours, except the most wanted of them all, the Green Munia.
Photo credit: Suchitra Ambudipudi
Even at the Kali temple, which they frequently visit, they didn’t give us a darshan. On our way back to the bus, the over-enthusiastic guide lost his way and we hit a blank wall made of huge stone bricks. A frail Rabari lady, who was the lady of that house, dismantled the wall single-handedly and made way for us. This is what I call Indian hospitality.
In the evening was our last birding trip in the rich forests of Mount Abu, famed for the sighting of the Green Munia.
Photo credit: Suchitra Ambudipudi
But a kilometre into the trail, and I had to valiantly beat the retreat due to a severe muscular spasm. My wife Anita too turned back from the trail to be with me. In spite of being a die-hard birdwatcher, and very keen to see the Green Munia for the very first time in her life.
Just an hour after we returned, the owner of the hotel sent an attendant to tell my wife that the Green Munia has in fact come a-visiting his backyard. And my wife went to see it – and there she was; with three of her hatchlings tied to her apron strings. My wife captured it on her video camera and showed it to me on the monitor as I was lying in the bed, unable to move. And I saw these green beauties through my wife’s loving eyes.