An article I wrote for CondeNast on my visit to see the leopards of Jawai.
Here is the unabridged version:
Being a seasoned urban escapist, the Indian jungle has always been a convenient sanctuary for me. The need for getting as far away from crowds, away from the claustrophobic urban sprawl of Delhi and into the beautiful solitude-inducing wilderness comes quite naturally. However, these days it seems that even the jungles are fast becoming urbanized. Burgeoning towns in the buffer zones, large scale commercial activity and a renewed- if somewhat misplaced -enthusiasm for wildlife amongst our teeming millions seems to be blurring the lines between what is urban, rural, and wilderness.
On safari in some of the popular game parks, it is now commonplace to see noisy picnicking tourists or a tiger being hounded by 20 or more tourist jeeps. The drivers and guides fight and shout at each other while jockeying for prime viewing positions. You could just as easily be in a traffic snarl in a big city, except that here there is a bewildered tiger trying to find his way through this chaos.
It is against this backdrop that I first heard about Jawai. When Sujan’s Director of Wildlife experiences, Yusuf Ansari told me that they had recently set up a camp, which was very far from the madding crowds, my ears perked up.
Sprawled between Udaipur and Jodhpur, Jawai is one of a series of hamlets strung around the Jawai dam in the Aravalli hills of Rajasthan. A place of dramatic beauty, the panoramic vista is dotted with cactus-like scrub, Flame-of-the–Forest trees, sparsely populated farmland and African kopje-like hills that surround the water body.
The picturesque dam is teeming with exotic birdlife and crocodiles.
This land belongs to the Rabaris, a tribe of ancient nomadic shepherds and herders who once roamed the deserts of western India. Their farmlands encircle the hillocks and extend to the water bodies further down to the plains.
This is also is the home of the Jawai leopard, which lives cheek–to-jowl with the Rabaris.
Driving into the exhilarating windblown panorama of the landscape with the Jawai dam sparkling in the distance, through the sprawling green & gold meadows, up the granite formations which make you feel like you are in a lunar buggy on the moon- Jawai was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
As the evening sun gradually turned to gold on the horizon, we zoned in on a likely leopard sighting on one of the hills. At the base of this hill we came upon a frugal Rabari dwelling. We could hear prayers being chanted to the soft tinkle of hand-bells in the hut. Through the smoke of the cooking fires, we could see a young girl playing with her dog, watched over fondly by her grandmother, who peeled vegetables on a cot nearby. Watching this happy family moment, our eyes slowly panned up the rock face just behind the hut. Instantly, a familiar silhouette appeared against the jagged outline of the granite. A leopard was sitting proudly and gazing downwards, overseeing this tranquil scene.
Our wildlife guide, Adam Bannister, a big cat expert who has also studied Leopards and Lions in Africa and Jaguars in Brazil, believes these leopards to be very happy and healthy. “ There are about 30 in these Jawai hills and about 50 in the region. They are some of the largest leopards I have ever seen”. There is a good population on these hills, which is visible, breeding and raising cubs. They seem to be fairly safe from the dangers of human intervention. The numerous crevices and caves that are carved through these hills provide a natural foolproof shelter. No humans can physically enter these caves.”
The bizarre incongruence of this setting is reminiscent of Noah’s Ark where predator and prey lived side by side, in relative harmony. What makes this relationship even more remarkable is the fact that the leopard has no natural prey here. Their diet consists of small mammals and the occasional village dog or a herdsman’s goat.
Oddly, these herdsmen are accepting of this. Losing a goat or a village dog to the leopard is a small price to pay. This ‘acceptance’ is rather unusual, given the fact in most other zones of man/animal conflict around the world; the animal is always seen as a threat-to livestock, people and to urban development. It is inevitably killed, beaten- or as it happened in one ghastly case in Uttarkhand- burned alive by the locals.
On investigating this curious relationship further it seems, the Rabari feel a kinship and protectiveness towards the predator. They don’t get in each other’s way. The leopard is nocturnal. He is active while the village is asleep, but more importantly; he preserves their way of life. Simply by being there.
His constant presence around the temples, many of which are carved into these hills, make him an integral part of the Rabari divinity. They consider the leopard to be the guardian of the temples and going by folklore, he is the manifestation of a striped or spotted half man/tiger/leopard deity known as Nahar Nath. Since tigers have long disappeared from these hills over a thousand years ago, he proclaimed that the leopards would always live in these parts. Today even if a herder loses a goat to the leopard, it is seen as auspicious- an offering to the Gods. There are seldom any revenge killings. The last recorded case of an attack on a human was 150 years ago, I’m told.
On the drive back to the lantern- lit camp, I couldn’t help thinking of the alarm bells that are ringing around the world about all the rapidly shrinking wild spaces and how we are literally erasing the wilderness out of our lives at a speed that would baffle Mother Nature if there ever were such a person.
Recently these bells rang in Jawai too. News of mining leases in the greater Jawai area, (Kothar, Vellar) created enough panic to halt approvals for now but this tug of war isn’t over yet.
To me, Jawai is a one-of-a –kind, or should I say the last-of-its-kind places on earth, a beautiful little dot on this planet where at least for now, life exists as it should, in equal splendor, for all creatures great and small.
But is Jawai indeed unique? Would it survive the onslaught of the modern world? Could this little patch of ecological equilibrium be preserved against heavy odds?
I certainly hoped so, but I turned to Vamik Thapar, one of the world’s leading natural historians and tiger conservationists for some deeper answers.
“If we understand the old linkages that keep the web of life alive, then Jawai will live on. But all government must be kept away. For this balance of life to be maintained, local issues must be settled by local people and not by bureaucrats- just like the Bishnoi community of the Rajasthan deserts who keep all their wildlife alive by chasing, if not killing poachers themselves. The locals of Jawai need to be strengthened in their endeavors by sensible tourism and other non- govt. players”
I asked if Jawai was the only remaining flicker hope for or were there other such pockets of resistance? Places where an older, more graceful way of life still flourished?
“ There are a few other places where traditional people and their beliefs have protected the natural world.
The Blackbuck & Chinkara in the deserts of Rajasthan is alive because of the Bishnois, the village of Khichan near Jaisalmer protects thousands of Demoiselle Cranes, the Aborigines of Kakadu national park in Australia protect their wilderness and many parts of Africa have examples where species have survived because of the belief of the local people.” he said.
Belinda Wright, another leading conservationist and the Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India is also an optimist but for different reasons.
“ I have great faith in the inherent resilience of nature and I also believe in the magic of India. It is a country of great accommodation and tolerance and despite its multitudes and its diversity, its inhabitants have always found a way to co exist.”
In the end, Jawai made me smile. On the inside. I have often asked myself why I have been such an escapist. Having lived quite happily- or so I thought-both in New Delhi and in New York all my life, I have found my constant need to get away, intriguing to say the least. Experiencing Jawai helped me identify it. It was a need for a connection. Everyone needs one. I suppose some people find it in friends, family and careers, others in God and meditation etc, I had felt it in the utopian balance of life that is Jawai.
Sitting in a jeep, cresting a granite hill, a strong, clean wind blowing through my hair, the waft of the fresh harvest in my nostrils, watching flights of flamingoes studded against the golden sky, I was quietly content in the knowledge that a leopard could be bunkered under the very rock upon which we were driving.
However, unlike me, and not prone to sentimentalism and drippy nostalgia, Valmik puts the future of Jawai in practical terms.
“Our endeavor must be to encourage the best practices of both, the Old and the New World. In the meeting point of both will lie real solutions for the natural world around us. Jawai for me is a great source of learning and should be for all those who care.”
Sujan’s Jawai Leopard Camp is no doubt the best vantage point from which to experience this little Eden in luxurious tented comfort, but more importantly in the company of people who totally ‘get it’. They aren’t just great hosts but also formidable champions of wildlife conservation and Ecological awareness.