WHILE elsewhere in India the loss of prey base has made the wily leopard ( Panthera pardius fusca ) intrude into residential areas to prey on dogs or attack people, for more than a century the animal has been held in veneration by the agricultural and pastoral communities of Jawai, Bera, Perwa, Sena, and other villages in the sparse and scattered dry, deciduous region of Pali district in Rajasthan. These rock-strewn villages with the Aravalli mountain range in the backdrop are acclaimed leopard pockets. The leopard wanders in the human-dominated landscape without facing any conflict, preying on the livestock of the semi-nomadic Rabaris in the dead of the night and retiring to its lair in the cool fissures of the rocks by day.
Habitat loss and fragmentation have made the leopard vulnerable in the regions where it is found. Jawai has some 40 leopards, but the animal is not known to have attacked humans who share the same terrain. This animal-human coexistence has naturally given rise to curious visitors, especially wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. The leopard’s unobtrusive presence has in fact given a boost to the rural economy. Leopard safaris and camps have sprung up in Jawai and Bera in the vicinity of the Jawai dam (built across the Jawai river, a tributary of the Luni) to cater to these eager tourists.
God’s own country does not necessarily come draped in greenery, cloud-topped mountains and murmuring streams. “Our God [read leopard] is visible, wanders on these rocky hillocks and lives with us,” says a proud resident of Jawai.
The leopard of Jawai-Bera-Perwa appears to have developed a rare emotional bent of mind and vision. It does not lurk or lurch to make an assault. It watches people pass by like a domestic cat, content in its comfort zone. It does not matter that people climb up Dev Giri or other hillocks to worship at the shrines or beat drums and chant hymns on festive occasions. It watches the villages from its perch on the rocks and descends when hungry. The leopard preys on monkeys, peafowl, rabbits, and nilgai by throttling the animal and devouring its flesh, but it always eyes the livestock reared by the villagers. Some of the rocks are occupied by sloth bears and porcupines, but the local people have not seen the animals in conflict. The loss of cattle does affect the livelihood of the Rabaris, but they see the leopard’s kill as a sacrificial offering.
The area around the Jawai dam, a spread of 48 square kilometres, is rich in flora and fauna. The catchment area has enthralling rocky mounds. Along with Perwa and Bera, spread over 24 sq. km, Jawai is the only wilderness spot of magnificence in India where leopards are found at such close proximity to villages and have built up a unique rapport with humans.
As in Ranthambhore (Rajasthan) and Kanha and Bandhavgarh (Madhya Pradesh) where the tiger seems gentle in appearance, the leopard of Jawai offers an incredible spectacle, sprawled languidly on the vast rocks, the rosette pattern on its fur alone exposing its presence—a visual treat for those accustomed to the leopard as an arboreal animal.
It is well known to wildlife enthusiasts that leopards remain unperturbed only when they rest on treetops, with their tails dangling, as can be seen at Kabini in Karnataka. Those spotted on the ground take to their heels. Not so in the Jawai area, where they can be spotted easily as they do not shy away at the sight of human beings.
Panic and menace
In the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, leopards are known to have occasionally intruded into the nearby residential areas to prey on stray animals. They create panic and are seen as a menace. In Pauri Garhwal, Uttarakhand, leopards have caused much distress by attacking women and children. In Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, a leopard strayed into a hospital in 2014 and mauled many people. In April 2016, a leopard created panic in an Army Cantonment area after it attacked three construction workers. The district administration closed schools and colleges for two days. Forest and wildlife officials were able to catch the animal after a 45-hour hunt. Human-leopard conflicts are numerous in the tea estates in the Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu and in Assam. In these places, leopards live close to human habitations and are a perpetual menace.
In August 2016, a seven-year-old boy was mauled by a leopard near a tea estate around Rajabhatkhawa forest near the Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal.
News reports of leopards on the prowl or trapping and caging of leopards is so common that Jawai seems like another world altogether. Although Jawai and the surrounding villages come under the jurisdiction of the district administration/Revenue Department as it is not a forest area under Section 36A of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the government declared the Jawai dam a leopard conservation area in 2003 to protect the landscape and the leopard habitat. The undulating granite hills, the vast open landscape and the meandering river amid small patches of mustard fields offer the leopard a serene habitat, and a situation where it does not have to adopt cunning methods to catch its prey. However, the granting of mining licences in nearby areas has sparked a controversy over the protection of the animal.
Valmik Thapar, India’s foremost conservationist, highlights the ethos of the villages when he says: “The villages are examples of people’s dedication for the protection and conservation of leopards. They are on a high pedestal of conservation in the whole world. The Forest Department has no role to play in the survival of the leopard in this ecological region. The villagers are confident that the leopards [of Jawai] are their guardian angels. So they worship them, and the dreaded predator survives along with the people.”
Devotees say they have seen pugmarks on the oily floors of the many shrines located on the hillocks. The confidence the predator and the people have reposed in each other has over the years grown into an emotional attachment. Hunting is not permitted in the Jawai area, and if anyone is found to have malicious intent, the people take immediate action.
First-hand experience Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, the wildlife photographer who drove all the way from Kochi in Kerala to Rajasthan to get a first-hand experience of the leopard five months ago, said: “Leopards are charismatic. The greatest advantage of Jawai and the nearby leopard pockets is that you can spot the animal without straining a nerve. You may have to wait for some time, but a good sighting is assured. On certain occasions, you may stumble upon them resting on rocks and basking in the sun. Photographers have an exhilarating experience going after them. I had the best close-ups from many parts of Jawai. I saw them in different moods.”
Pushpendar, the guide who accompanied Shefiq Ahammed in Jawai, was quite knowledgeable about the movement of leopards. Shefiq Ahammed said Pushpendar would come early in the morning to take him out unmindful of the chilly wind blowing. He was so familiar with the leopards that he could distinguish between each of them at any time.
Ritesh Viswakarma, a wildlife researcher who studied the leopard-Jawai connection as a part of his postgraduate degree in wildlife biology, interviewed many villagers and examined records relating to the history of Pali and its wildlife. He said the local people are spiritually connected to the predator. They believe that the leopard is an incarnation of Amba Mata (goddess of bravery) and they are mere subjects. They believe that if the leopard is harmed untold misery will befall them. That is why they do not try to save their livestock from a leopard attack. Losing a sheep, a goat or a calf does not alarm them.
Ritesh Vishwakarma thinks the leopards of Jawai have adapted themselves to the human presence and changed their innate behaviour over several years. There are many anecdotes left by British Army Officers and naturalists on the “grey ghosts”, as leopards are referred to. The journals of the Bombay (now Bharat) Natural History Society (BNHS) have numerous articles on observations on the leopard made during field trips. One of the highly informative books on the Indian leopard was written by the late J.C. Daniel, who served as curator of BNHS and as its first Director in the 1950s. Now, there are several authentic studies on the ecology and behaviour of leopards by wildlife scientists.
Shefiq Ahammed says although the leopards of Jawai appear unassuming, they are ever alert to sounds of any kind. Leopard sighting is common during winter because the animal prefers to bask on the rocks during the day. Between the summer and the rainy seasons, the sightings are fewer because the animal retreats into the caves. More sightings are possible near the mouth of the caves that are close to the villages.
G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi.
Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, who has travelled widely in India and abroad, is a Motor Vehicles Inspector in Kochi.