Updated: Feb 22, 2022
Totally out of the blue, breaking the stillness that surrounded us, a party of peahens took off from near the crest of the hills in front, squawking in alarm, outlining themselves against the clear skies behind them.
We were instantly focused on the rocky hills trying to figure out the source for their fright.
A moment later, we could discern movement and soon in the midst of the rocky twists and turns and the odd cactus, the head of a leopard came into clear view, carefully scanning the surroundings.
Slowly, ever so cautiously, it began its descent, pausing every few seconds and looking around.
It was a young male. A new one and smack in the middle of the territory of another much older male. The leopard continued its descent. He was clearly nervous. He kept pausing, his tail twitching agitatedly, sniffing around, occasionally turning his bright eyes on us but clearly more worried about his immediate surroundings.
He was clear about his destination though.
Slowly but very definitively, he was going straight for the caves where a female leopard was. Along with her two sub adult cubs. Who had also recently mated with the reigning male king of the hills.
The youngster was obviously intruding. Both in another one’s territory and with his mate. To make matters even more fascinating, in the cave, along with the mother were the two cubs.
An intriguing situation and we wondered what will play out before our eyes.
A small, relatively unknown village till some time back in the eastern part of Rajasthan, in the Pali district, about 125 kms from Udaipur. In the recent past, it has become fairly popular amongst wildlife enthusiasts, however, I think, it should be far more well known for what it has achieved.
Bera is one of those rare places where there is minimal man-animal conflict. However, while that in itself is interesting, the more important reason why I believe that Bera should be more famous is because it stands out as one of the few battles in India where a decision was taken to let nature be and where commercial interests were pushed back.
It was in 2013, while on a small break at Bera, that Shatrunjay Pratap Singh heard a few blasts. He enquired about the reason for the blasts and got to know that the Government had handed over licenses for mining to be done in the area. Nineteen of them and many more in the pipeline.
Bera and the other nearby villages were around this cluster of rocky hills. Volcanic rock. Baked by the sun and curved and twisted by wind and the elements, over centuries. The perfect source for granite and other much in demand products.
And also the perfect home for leopards.
If the mining continued, the hills will be destroyed, and along with it, the homes of the leopards. That was unacceptable to Shatraunjay.
A new battle began in Rajasthan, very different from what this famed land was known for in the years gone by, but which required no less valour.
There was a long, flat piece of rock, like a stage near the mouth of the cave. The young male leopard that was the intruder, by now had slowly made his way to this flat piece of rock. If the wariness in his approach thus far was fascinating to watch, his extreme caution now was even more.
He constantly sniffed around, walking to and fro the entire length of the flat rock. Often it seemed as if he decided to give up and retreat. But, I guess, the instinct to mate was overpowering.
Finally, it seemed to summon all its courage and, I imagined, with a deep breath, vanished into the dark corners of the cave.
It would have been absolutely wonderful to have been able to see the interactions that might have happened inside the cave. A mother, two sub adults, a young and much stronger male leopard.
We waited. And waited.
Almost half an hour later there was another flurry of activity a little further away and we could see the two sub adults scurrying away. One of them turned around to see where its sibling was but didn’t wait for too long. It went on its way, followed by a few peahens that seemed intent on seeing it off.
“ This mother is already pregnant and will deliver three months from now. It is just a matter of time that these two sub adults will have to be on their own,” informed our driver, Mahendrasingh.
The intriguing stories that happen around us.
Shatrunjay made himself more comfortable as he began relating a tale that he would have told countless times.
He learnt more about the licenses and soon filed a case in the courts asking for the licenses to be revoked.
It would not have been an easy battle by any means. Fighting any government isn’t easy. Plus, there definitely would have been the pushback from the deep pockets of the mining companies.
On top of everything, his father in law was a Minister in the Government ! That would have been….hmmm…delicate.
However, more than the actual legal battle in the courts, it is the story of how the people themselves were mobilised and sprang up to support his cause that was enthralling.
The goats stared at me a little bemused. I was sitting bang in the middle of their path.
There were a couple of images that I was rather keen to take.
One, a rather stereotypical image of the shepherds taking their herds to graze, the herds kicking up the dust, the sun setting behind them, all combining to give a lovely idyllic feel.
At that moment, however, the sun was a still a little distance from setting, there was no dust that was being kicked up by this meagre herd. Needless to say, I couldn’t get my dream shot.
Two, I wanted a few lovely portraits of the shepherds or the cattle or camel herders – the Rabaris.
The Rabaris are a tribe mostly found in the Northwestern parts of India, who used to completely nomadic but have now mostly settled down. It could be their nomadic nature that explains the meaning of the word Rabari – outsiders.
It is believed that they migrated to India from Iran, through Afghanistan more than a thousand years ago but, as is the case with almost every theory, there is a counter theory here too.
The interesting bit that has relevance to our narration is a lovely belief that the Rabaris have about their origin.
The story goes that the Goddess Parvati moulded a camel from the dirt that was collected as she wiped off the sweat and dust off Lord Shiva’s face as he meditated. She gave it life – there is another story that says Lord Shiva created a camel to keep her amused – but the little camel kept running away and Lord Shiva created the first Rabari to mind it.
For the Rabaris, Lord Shiva matters a lot.
While the case was debated and fought in the Assembly and the courts, Shatrunjay was increasingly spending more time at Bera. ( He later built this lovely little place, which is where we were staying – https://www.berasafarilodge.com )
There was a small shrine midway up one of the hills. This temple was looked after by a sadhu who never left the hills to come down to the villages. Food for him was brought to him by any of the villages around.
Shatrunjay used to spend a lot of time chatting with him in the temple and once, while he was there, he noticed one of those ubiquitous calendars having an image of Lord Shiva. He noticed that the god sat on a piece of tiger skin and that a leopard skin covered him.
He turned to the sadhu and enquired of the sadhu, that if their God wears a leopard skin for cover, then leopards would be dear to him. And if leopards are dear to their God, then they should matter to his followers too, the Rabaris. And, if the leopards are important, then should the Rabaris not be worried that the mining will destroy the homes of the very creature that was sacred to their dear God ?
The sadhu thought about it for a while and agreed.
All the villages were roused up. People would mean votes. Villages would mean lot of votes. And votes matter to the politicians.
That, possibly, was the game changer in the fight against the mines.
We were waiting near the hills where we saw the first family when we got an excited call from our trackers. From a few kilometres away. We hit the main highway and sped away. Soon we took a turn to the left leaving the well paved roads behind.
It was a narrow dusty path, with houses on either side. A sleepy and clearly unhappy at being woken up, young boy around five years old, sitting at the doorstep of his house, looked at us drive past in a distinctly cheerless manner.
It was still relatively early in the morning. We had to be more careful of the odd hen and the goat kids that kept darting around, than the buffaloes who obstinately, though rightfully, claimed right of way and bellowed their indignation about our presence.
The smell of freshly laid cow dung and hay wafted through the air. We could hear the calls of the peacocks and soon, as we passed through small fields, we started seeing them.
We reached the spot where the trackers waited in their jeep. In front of a broad rocky hill. And there, sprawled in regal splendour lay a young, incredibly pretty female leopard, studying us intently.
Leopards, like most cats are most active at night and the chances of this one doing anything other than sleep were slim, but with nothing better to do, we decided to wait. The other jeep, having finished their job of getting us to the place, went off to other places in search of more leopards.
And then Lady Luck smiled benevolently at us.
Something caught the leopard’s eye and she was transformed from a role model of lazy elegance to a fully alert cat and stepped out of the comfort of the shadow of the rocks. And as it stealthily advanced down the rocks, we briefly saw another leopard appearing on the crest of the hills before vanishing.
Two of them !!
Siblings. Sub adult cubs. A male and a female. We were informed by our driver.
And then a third one ! This one was making its way up from the bottom.
“Mother and her two cubs. I thought she had pushed them away,” mused our driver. “She is again pregnant.”
For the better part of the next couple of hours we feasted on the sight of a fascinating interaction being played out between the mother and the cubs.
There clearly was tension in the air. A lot of snarling took place with the male before a sharp smack from the mother settled matters. Soon, the mother haughtily walked away leaving the two siblings behind.
We must have taken more than a thousand images each. Utter bliss.
A question that stayed in my mind was how is it that the Rabaris don’t mind the fact that the leopards regularly snatch their goats away. That, usually, is the start of the man-animal conflict.
Shatrunjay, as always, provided the answer here too. Quite simple when you think of it. First of all, the Rabaris were told that if a leopard takes away their goat, it should be considered as an offering to their God.
Secondly, the Rabaris get compensation from the Government for the loss of any animal to the leopard attack. With that compensation, they could buy themselves a female goat which will naturally provide them with goat kids soon.
You give an offering to God, you will get rewarded by your God in multiples.
Of course, it doesn’t always work so easily. We heard stories of how the Rabaris run after the leopards, sometimes even into the dark corners of the rocky hillsides to get their goat back. However, what is most important is that they hold no rancour towards tshe animal for doing what is natural to it.
Interestingly, there has been no reported instance of the leopard attacking any human.
All said and done, it is a remarkable little place.
A wonderful story of how conservation can work. And how tourism can help. The impact of tourism was evident everywhere. Numerous places to stay, from resorts to homestays, have sprung up all around the villages. Many of the villagers work as trackers and naturally shops to cater to the needs of the tourists thrive.
Economically, they were benefiting from the tourism. Most of the Rabaris continued with their traditional work. Herds still set out to graze. Peacocks still call loudly from the fields.
And the leopards continue to rule the hills.