I wake up at the crack of dawn with strange bedfellows. An arm’s length away is a three-month-old calf. Further away, under a tree swishing its tail feverishly stands a black horse. Perched on the trees are desi hens, and somewhere on the ground hobbles an injured eagle-owl called Ganguraja.
Just beyond the wall of this menagerie that is Raju’s courtyard is an outcrop of rocks I can see lying prone on my string cot. Somewhere in its fissures lives a leopard (or panther, as it is referred to in these parts).
Despite the assurances, it is not easy sleeping out under the stars barely 50 metres from the leopard’s lair. I startled myself awake several times in the night to the mating croaks of frogs and the impatient stomp of the flea-harassed horse. My host Raju, 21, slept like a corpse, tucked in his cot with a red shawl, from head to foot.
The only comforting sight was the tawny calf. The leopard would definitely pick him over me, I told myself as I tried to sleep.
But except for the infernal din the rooster has begun to raise, it is all peaceful in the morning. I walk out of the courtyard and see Raju’s cows. They are tethered just a bound away from the leopard’s hideout. Could it really be true, as Raju claimed, that the leopard comes at night to drink from the cattle trough?
Raju, tousle-haired and sleepy-eyed, emerges with a plateful of dried corn. “Let’s go. It’s time,” he announces indicating to the outcrops. This is nothing but foolhardy. We are heading to the leopard’s den. We cover the short distance and climb the rocks. Raju clambers up with practiced ease and is soon on the top scattering the corn. Peacock feeding is a family tradition. His father did it regularly, taking him along, and now after his death, Raju has taken his mantle. He is often joined by his 12-year-old brother Manohar and six-year-old sister Pranchi.
Raju indicates a cleft in the rock below us, barely a few metres away. “This is where the panther shuts himself off during the day,” he says, sitting down. Heralding the dawn, the sky in the east is just beginning to turn from pale pink to orange. It’s time for the leopard to return from his nocturnal hunt. What if it comes now as we sit a few feet from his den?
“Let him come. He will go into that crack, what else?” he says. Won’t he feel threatened by our presence? “He has seen me many times with my siblings. He knows we mean no harm and he won’t have his guard up,” he says.
The previous evening, just after sunset, I had my first glimpse of the spotted cat from Raju’s house at almost the same place where we were now sitting. The feline head was silhouetted and it was surreal to watch it merge into the blackness of the sky.
There are more than two dozen villages like Raju’s scattered over 11 panchayats in Pali district in Rajasthan where people have lived in eerie harmony with the felines. The rocky outcrops in which the leopards live stand like islands in their fields. The farmers tend to their fields with the confidence that can only come with complete trust.
There are many like Raju who have their houses next to these outcrops and see the antics of leopards everyday from their rooftops.
Peace has prevailed for generations. Occasionally a calf or a goat is lifted, and sometimes even a cow, but unlike other parts of India, the cattle carcasses are not left poisoned for the predator. This is surprising as the compensation offered is paltry. About Rs 5,000 for a cow and Rs 1,000 for a goat.
The leopard had entered Raju’s courtyard just a few days ago and made away with one of his hens (perhaps the reason why the hens have taken to sleep in the trees.) But Raju downplays it. “The young leopard just learning to hunt sometimes may do that. It’s a rare event. And, anyway, it was just one hen,” he says. There is no compensation for hens.
Raju, perhaps, best epitomises the unique respect for the wild that is characteristic of this region. After his father’s death a year ago, the burden of providing for this family rests on his shoulders. He has grown-up sisters but the Rajput clan they belong to forbids women from working in the fields. He has to work singlehandedly to make ends meet, but that does not stop him from feeding almost half a kilo of dried corn to the peacocks every morning. It did not stop him from adopting Ganguraja, the injured owl, for whom he buys 100 rupees worth of liver everyday.
It was 20 years ago that a leopard picked up a child in this region — the only incident of its kind. In Vellar village, not far from Raju’s own, lives Santosh Kunwar Chauhan, 20. She was barely one year old when a leopard scampered down from the rocks and picked her up. Vellar village fringes the hillock inhabited by leopards. Santosh’s house is on the outer fringe.
“It was about 9 in the evening. We were sitting in our homes when a panther picked her up from her neck and scurried away. We made a noise and the leopard immediately dropped the girl near a temple. It looked confused and then ran up the slope. Santosh was crying. There was a deep flesh wound on her upper back from the canines. We took her to the local hospital, where after administering some first-aid, she was okay,” says Ranjeet Singh, 60, Santosh’s chacha.
Santosh has teeth marks to show for the story. There is a blackish sutured smudge on her upper back. Her life did not change except that she was given the nickname Setri — the local word for a female leopard.
Ranjeet and other village elders who were witness to this event are more inclined to blame themselves than the animal. “Santosh was wrapped up in a bundle and lay out in the open near the cattle shed. The leopard could have easily mistaken the girl for some other animal. She should not have been kept there,” says Ranjeet.
Santosh’s lifting up is seen as a freakish event rather than a future possibility. The children as small as two years play about in the same spot and beyond from where Santosh was picked up. There is no fear. There is only a calm acceptance of how nature works. The occasional calf or goat that is preyed upon by the leopards is taken in stride as though it was an offering to the gods.
Santosh summed up the attitude succinctly. “The leopards don’t eat grass. They have to eat flesh. So what’s unusual about it?”
“People here have traditionally accepted the leopard’s ways and they don’t react violently if it does pick on their cattle,” says Rahul Bhatnagar, Chief Conservator of Forest, Udaipur Division.
Thankfully, however, the favourite animals on leopard’s menu are not the farmers’ cattle but dogs. And there are many a proliferating packs of strays in the region which have fed a legion of leopards since decades. Dogs are preferred even over the other wild animals found here like the neelgai, the wild boar and the chinkara. Donkey makes the second best choice.
“The leopards here are almost like pets. They seem tame, but are wild all the same. But the harmony between man and predator here has lasted because there is no disturbance from either side. In the day the leopards lie in the caves and the shepherds are outside, but neither disturbs the other,” says Jaswant Raj Merwar, Pradhan of Samunderi village.
The farmers here who grow cotton, maize, wheat, mustard, groundnut in fact welcome the leopards’ presence. Big cats keep the neelgai, the wild boar and other herbivores that raid their fields tucked away in the forests.
But, could the menacing march of consumption couched in slogans of ‘development’ engulf this unique leopard habitat one day? The day I arrive at the Jawai dam area, the Forest Department was in a huddle over a leopard’s death. A big healthy male leopard was found dead on a transformer. “Apparently he was chasing a peacock and he jumped on the transformer after the bird, electrocuting himself. The body was found almost three days later by school children,” said Narpat Singh, range officer. The body, bloated, disfigured and swarming with worms, raised a nasty stench.
But the biggest danger is the mining lobby which has set its eyes on the vast riches of granite and other stones this area is replete with. There are more than 140 proposed mines here. The Forest Department gave the No Objection Certificate (NOC) for mining for some of these mines. Because of the objection raised by the villagers, the state government overturned the NOC and put a ban on any mining in the area. Conservationists and forest officials agree that the only way to safeguard this unique leopard habitat is to make it a community reserve area.
“If the area is declared a community reserve, there won’t be any mining. There will be rules for building hotels. The leopard is a shy animal. Any commercial activity here will drive it away,” says Shatrunjay Pratap Singh, 31, a conservationist and hotelier belonging to this region.
Besides stopping the mining and construction, it will regulate and restrict the flow of tourists which can often get out of hand.
“A lot of people from nearby towns and beyond come in droves during the weekend. They make a lot of noise, often throwing stones in the caves if they don’t see the leopard. This should stop,” says Shatrunjay.
“If there is a community reserve, tourists can be ticketed and the revenue collected can be used to dispense compensation if any cattle is taken by the leopard,” says Rahul Bhatnagar.
However, only three panchayats out of the 11 have given their approval for a community reserve so far. Shatrunjay says that mining lobby is working overtime with its propaganda, misleading the villagers. The battle is on and no one knows which side it will swing.
This is a unique leopard habitat. It’s a place where leopard sightings are a matter of course. Serious wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, filmmakers and photographers are drawn to this place from all across the world. One evening, I join a group of wildlife photographers and sit for hours in the bushes waiting for the leopard to emerge from the hillock across from us.
At first it seems a fruitless exercise. The sun was already low on the horizon. The granite rock face before us betrayed no sign of the leopard and I had gotten wary of staring at nothing. There were no alarm calls by the peacock. A stripped hyena walked lazily by the foot of the cave. But, like clockwork, just as the sun was poised to disappear beyond the Aravallis, a leopard emerged.
The photographers said it was a female leopard. They had photographed her with her two cubs in the morning. The big cat sat on the rock majestically surveying the lands swaddled now in the golden glow of the setting sun. It comes as a shock to realise that its rock faces like these that the mining companies are eyeing. Not far were farmers in their fields wrapping up for the day. It’s reassuring to see them and to be secure in the knowledge that as long as their love for the cats remain, this unique leopard habitat will survive.
But this remarkable attitude towards the wild percolates much beyond Pali’s borders. The Bishnois of Jodhpur who worship all life and would give theirs to save any animal, is legendary. In Jodhpur district, there is a wildlife vigilante group called Bishnoi Tiger Force, that is a menace to any poacher prowler. They undertake daring animal rescues battling gun-wielding poachers in the dead of night.
In Kichan, a nondescript village in western Rajasthan, villagers feed sacksful of birdfeed to the migratory demoiselle cranes who fly here in thousands in winter, all the way from Mongolia. About 30 km short of Bikaner on the Jodhpur-Bikaner highway stands the famous Karni Mata Temple which is overrun by rats that are revered as gods. There are remarkable individual stories like that of the 77-year-old Ranaran Bishnoi of Ekalkhori village in Rajasthan who singlehandedly planted over 25,000 trees to stop the march of the desert, or of Kiran Bishnoi, the famous Bishnoi woman who breast-fed a chinkara kid when it lost its mother.