Image courtesy Rawla Bisalpur Jawai
To Jawai, on the trail of the leopard
From Udaipur in Rajasthan (India), there is no public transport to Jawai, the domain of the leopard. So we booked a taxi through the Ola app, as even Uber doesn’t go there. The village of Bisalpur, in Jawai, is too small for the American giant. It is quiet on the road to Jawai. Only some women in colourful clothes carrying firewood on their heads and wandering cows attract attention in an otherwise terracotta-coloured landscape.
The road to Jawai is framed with tamarind, while pink oleander provides colour in the central area. Although the road surface is in good condition, we occasionally bump our heads against the roof when the driver hits an unannounced and largely invisible speed bump at full speed.
Fifty kilometres before our destination, we leave the main road. Hundreds of cows block our passage while a smaller herd with curled horns trots towards us. Water buffalos, sheep and goats are our fellow road users. The driving pace is now considerably lower than before. The driver must dodge potholes, boulders and stray cattle as we wind our way to Jawai between boulders, cacti and small villages.
Our destination is a small palace built in Indo-European 17th-century style, the Rawla Bisalpur. The building stands against a granite rock wall that is occasionally visited by one of the fifty leopards that live in the Jawai area. A few dozen green parakeets suddenly make a loud sound when they land on the premises. Otherwise, only the bells of a Hindu temple penetrate the palace.
Inside the compound, former Marwari horse stables have been transformed into four luxurious hotel rooms by Bhanwar Vinod and Paramveer Singh, sons of the prince who owns the complex. Yellow trumpet flowers, oleander, and agave colour the courtyard, where two green parakeets are flirting with each other and palm squirrels trip silently over the palace’s walls.
Jawai Reservoir, a bird paradise
When making our way through the village, the manager of a Jain temple invites us in. We get a tour and instructions on which gods we should photograph. The Jain faith has as many as twenty-four. In the white-with-gold temple, thanks to the gods, there are only four. According to the temple caretaker, Jain, the prophet, must also be photographed.
When we exit, wild boars roam the village streets. On the dirt paths outside the village, wiry Rabari shepherds herd cows, goats, sheep or a combination of these armed with a long stick. They take them to a more protected area where the leopard cannot strike so quickly. The shepherds wear white robes, a solid contrast to their sun-tanned skin. These nomadic herders are recognisable by their red turban. The turban is a symbol of pride and honour and is considered a symbol of strength and courage.
Leopard hunting ground
The herds block the way to the leopard’s hunting grounds. The reddish-brown granite rocks of the eight-hundred-million-year-old Aravalli Mountains are covered with slender cacti (euphoria caducufolia) and shrubs with graceful yellow flowers, the senna auriculata. The plant is not only beautiful, it has all kinds of medicinal properties. 🛈
High on the rocks, a half-meter-high Bengal eagle owl stands on the lookout. Birds of prey circle above our heads, kingfishers fly at eye level, and the Chinese spur cuckoo sits low to the ground, just like the many peacocks we see. Antelopes, buffalos and piggies are the eye-catching mammals. Enchanting as they are, they are not the reason we came. That’s the leopard. However, this species is more challenging to spot or photograph. It does not matter. The excitement of a blurry leopard seen through binoculars is much better than seeing the same animal up close, confined in a zoo. In this region, the leopards live spread over an area with twenty-four villages.
The Senna Auriculata also has antibacterial properties. The root is used against fever, diabetes, urinary tract diseases and constipation. The leaves have laxative properties. The dried flowers and flower buds are used as a tea substitute for diabetes patients. The powdered seed helps with conjunctivitis.
Crocodiles in the Jawai Reservoir
In the reservoir behind a gigantic dam, fed by the Jawai River, there is a coming and going of long-legged birds. Several species of herons, cormorants, ibises, storks and avocets are just the species I recognise. The guide warns us not to get too close to the water because we have to be mindful of the hundreds of crocodiles in the water. Luckily, the reptiles keep a low profile because the reservoir is full after the monsoon rains. The crocodiles are having fun in the deep. Only one specimen is lazing on an island.
Image courtesy Rawla Bisalpur Jawai
Just before sunset, a group of safari-goers gathers at a place where leopards are known to be found. A family of leopards, a couple with three cubs, live among the rocks about a hundred meters above sea level. Our waiting is rewarded. After a while, we see the female. She sits in the cave on the lookout, quietly staring into space. Maybe she wonders what that herd of people is doing down there. More likely, she’s annoyed by our unabashed voyeurism. When her partner joins her after his siesta, a wave of excitement enters the crowd in front of the cave.
The male walks out of the cave, stretches his paws and scratches his head on a tree. After this, he paces up and down a few more meters and returns to his cave. He behaves like an absolute crowd-pleaser. Although his performance lasts less than five minutes, the mood among the spectators is festive. This is why we did it. Safari goers have travelled hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres for this spectacle. Soon, when it is dark, the leopard will go hunting. On the way back, we are rewarded with an exclusive performance—this time by a family of leopards about fifty meters away. Mom, Dad and two cubs are hunting in the low bushes in the dark. Their eyes light up in the flashlight’s glow that the guide uses to scan the area.
Ecotourism in Rajasthan
The leopards’ diet in this area mainly consists of monkeys, peacocks, and stray dogs. It is easy prey. All three animals are present in large quantities. The leopards even go into the villages where countless dogs are up for grabs. Puppies sleep in the middle of the street. Cars swarm around them. Cows, pigs and goats are in no hurry to make way for motorised traffic. Despite the ‘alternative’ driving style of the average Indian driver, there appear to be few animal victims. There are also no known incidents between leopards and the local population. It’s live and let live.
Ecotourism has flourished in Jawai for a few years, even though the area is not protected. Unbelievably, it is not an official nature reserve. What’s even more remarkable is that it’s mainly clean. There is very little litter, whereas garbage is unfortunately omnipresent a few meters outside the natural area, like almost everywhere in India.
Why the Rajasthan leopard should not be kept a secret
For sure, the Rajasthan leopard won’t remain a secret much longer. Usually, that is a bad thing, but in this case, it is positive because ecotourism provides income for the often poor local population. The money made from tourism helps safeguard the leopard from the encroaching urbanisation of the area. Hopefully, the area will soon receive official recognition. With official status comes more protection and conservation efforts. So that future generations can continue to enjoy this beautiful animal in the wild.
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