Seeing Spots with the Leopard Man

Bera: a small rural community in Rajasthan's south, 150 kilometers from Udaipur- home to about 7000 people, mainly farmers and herders. While it's a pleasant, albeit dusty, little village with many colorful Rabari men and women, nothing seems to be extraordinary about this town. In the even smaller villages that surround Bera, women carry water to their houses in stainless steel pots perched on top of their heads and children in blue and white uniforms ride one speed bicycles through the sandy tracks that weave through the countryside on their way to and from school. Charming, but a pretty common scene in India. So what sets the area around Bera apart from other villages in Rajasthan? Well, when we watched the women carrying water from the well down the road to their modest homes, a mother leopard was hiding a few short yards away on one side of the road and calling out to her two young cubs visible on a rocky hillock on the other side. The hills around Bera are alive with leopards! When one thinks of Rajasthan, many things may come to mind; towering stone forts, men with turbans and impressive mustaches, camels, sand dunes, intricately chiseled havelis, and perhaps if one did associate a big cat with this place it would probably be one of the few remaining tigers found in Ranthambore National Park. Leopards are not often associated with Rajasthan.

We first heard about the leopards of Rajasthan quite by accident. We were up on top of a hotel not yet completed in Udaipur enjoying the setting sun when the hotel owner came up and chatted with us. He told us about his family, some of their history, and about his brother- the King of Nana, another small town not too far away from Bera. “Do you want to see leopards?” the man inquired. “What, like in a cage?”, I asked. “There are many leopards living in the hills around my brother's castle, and if you wish to see them you can stay with my brother and he will show you”, he replied. Within a couple of minutes I was on the phone with the King of Nana himself who invited us to stay with him in his fort and promised us that he would indeed lead us to many leopards. Still skeptical, I said I would call him back. I did some research over the Internet that evening and discovered that these stories of leopards up in the hills around Nana were true. I also learned of a place- Bera, and a man who was quite famous in the area for the work he has done in the field of leopard conservation. I called him up, instead of the king, to see if now was a good time to spot some of these big cats. He said it was. So we hired a motorcycle and drove 150 kilometers down roads which steadily deteriorated until we reached the town of Bera and our leopard expert, Mr. Devi Singhji.

Thankur Devi Singhji, also a descendant of Rajput royalty and owner of Leopard's Lair Resort, has had a history with the leopards of Bera since he was four years old. As a toddler he was frightened by these animals, as a young man he hunted a few of them, and then something changed inside him. He told me that “when you hunt an animal your experience with it is over the moment you pull the trigger, but when you shoot an animal with your camera, you learn its behavior, its routines, its personal characteristics”. His passion for these animals is obvious. He lives for these creatures, and on the many days in the year when he is not guiding guests to the regular leopard haunts, he will be there watching them from his gypsy nonetheless. He never misses a day and he never stops taking pictures and videos of his one true love. He has over 20,000 pictures and 54 DVDs of video to prove it! We watched a couple of his favourite DVDs with him over beers in the evenings after our outings. In between our safaris he spoke with such profound compassion for his leopards. He would tell us about the latest WWF findings that state '5 leopards in India are slaughtered each day', or the moment he first set eyes on Zara's new cubs, and so on. But he does more than just talk. The dry landscape around Bera supports little in the way of natural prey for the leopards. They hunt the occasional peacock, rabbit, or monkey, but their main sustenance is comprised of the livestock that graze in the fields and forests below. This created a problem with the local farmers and herders whose very own subsistence was being threatened by the leopards. Their response to their predicament was to poison the meat of the goats, calves, and sheep that the leopards killed (they often return to their kills over a period of days to finish their feast) thus killing the leopards. In the absence of any government intervention, Devi Singhji stepped in and offered the shepherds 2000 rupees (about $40) out of his own pocket for each of their livestock lost (with adequate proof that it was killed by a leopard). This financial gesture really helped to turn around the relationship between the herders and hunters, and one can only imagine how many leopards have been saved due to Devi's generous compensation pact. He affectionately has given many of the leopards names which include Zara (his main love), Charger, Cutear, and Devraj to name just a few. These creatures are his extended family, his children. His expertise on the leopards of Bera has garnered him some international attention as well. A few months back the BBC spent a couple of weeks with him shooting for a documentary not yet released. National Geographic has also dropped by. Now it was our turn!

Over three days we went out in Devi's gypsy four times. During our four outings we had 15 sightings in total with six separate leopards spotted- but to Devi Singhji this is not out of the ordinary. He prides himself on his 95% sighting success rate, and with us, it was 100%. Leopards are known to be elusive animals though. With equal parts determination and luck, one would have a far better chance of spotting tigers and lions in India than leopards- but not in Bera. Bera is different because of the lack of any thick vegetation impeding ones vantage of these animals, and, there can be no doubt that Devi's familiarity of their routines and anticipation of their next moves has much to do with it as well. With all that said though, leopards have a very different schedule than us humans. They hunt at night and sleep in the day which leaves only a couple short windows of opportunity to fraternize with these felines. They can be seen for a couple of hours after sunrise and again for a couple of hours before sunset. If you're lucky you can see them in good lighting but the tall rocky hills, and shadowy boulders in which they call home make that very difficult- and even more difficult to photograph! They are incredibly camouflaged with their environment as well which just adds to frustration of photographing these animals. I only wish I left Bera with a few of the quality leopard pictures that Devi Singhji has in his collection. If only I had more time. But photos or no photos, watching the leopards with Devi was an experience I won't soon forget. His love for these animals is infectious and in the immediate days after we left I couldn't help but think of them often.

Even in photographs these leopards are hard to see

The leopards of Bera are healthy and safe today because of the efforts of one man. But a different kind of threat is now on their doorstep. Devi was the first to offer guided leopard excursions in the area and has been doing so for quite a few years. A couple others have followed suit over the years, but still the rural town of Bera remains blissfully devoid of any real tourism. However, still more people, businessmen from Delhi and other cities in India, are buying-up property with the intentions of developing safari-style lodgings and running leopard tours in the area. These are the kind of people who put profits before preservation and could have a real negative impact on the future of the Bera leopards. The hills and jungle around Bera are not a part of any national park, wildlife sancturay, national forest or any other protected area, which means there is no governmental constraints on development. All animals need a healthy amount of privacy and if tourism descends on this area as it has in other parts of India, the leopards will have no choice but to find new homes in an altogether different area. There they will once again face the struggles that they faced in Bera during the early years, and wherever they finally decide to settle down, there might not be a man like Devi Sighji around to look out for them.

As we drove down the narrow streets of Bera and the sandy roads through the small villages with Devi in his Mahindra jeep, many people bowed or passed him subtle hand gestures of respect. This is most likely due to his status as a nobleman, but I would like to think, and I'm sure Devi would like it too, that these were given to him because he is the one true “Leopard Man” of India.

 

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