Katapa, Laxmi and other leopard tales

Is it me you’re looking for: Every leopard in Bera has a name. Villagers say this has helped them keep count of the animals   -  IMAGES: RETO HAEFELI

A village in Rajasthan continues to script an unusual story of mutual love and respect between leopards and human beings

“Hey, look! I see something up there!” I shouted. The brakes screeched, bringing our vehicle to a sudden stop. We peered through our binoculars at what looked like two leopards striking a love pose. Pushpender, our driver-cum-guide, grabbed his binoculars. “No, madam, those are giant beehives,” he declared matter-of-factly, dashing our hopes of a sighting.

We had been driving for about two hours through the rugged terrain of the Aravali foothills in Rajasthan’s Pali district. Our jeep dealt with bumpy, unmarked trails while we ducked now and then to avoid thorny brambles and scanned every rocky outcrop for leopards. The sun was ready to set as our jeep ascended a rocky hillock. We looked up in the direction of the giant beehives sheltered by a cave. Resigned to our luck or the lack of it, we greeted the sight of the bee-made structures with loud claps. Pushpender, who was still scanning the surrounding hills, suddenly dropped his binoculars and gestured to us to be silent. He shifted gears and took off just as suddenly.

As the jeep climbed the near-vertical face of the rocky slope, we held on to the rails (and belongings). None of us wanted to roll into the presence of a large male spotted feline. The leopard’s green-grey eyes were fixed on us from the same cave with the beehives. The vehicle came to a stop. As did our chatter and giggles. Silence of a different kind enveloped us. We watched speechless as the predator sat down at the entrance to the cave — as if he had stepped on the balcony of his high-rise apartment, to take in some fresh evening air. In addition to the silence of the stony desert, he had before him a group of nervous tourists in an open safari jeep and the beauty of the setting sun. We were not sure how long the gaze lasted; we stirred only after he shook his head, stretched his limbs and went into the cave.

This was not the only time Pushpender manoeuvred his jeep, and us, up a rugged slope to a height of 300-500 ft. Initially it catches you off-guard, like in a ride, then slowly you begin to trust the practised hand and give in to the sense of adventure. You also realise that in the hills of Jawai, it is commonplace to embrace the rough terrain in the pursuit of wildlife.

Jawai Hills, also a part of the Aravali foothills, were shaped by lava millions of years ago; the latticed caves in its granite outcrops have, over the decades, become home to leopards and other wild animals. Nestled in this desert bushland is the small village of Bera. What makes this place unique is the mutual respect and understanding its residents share with the leopards. Bera’s leopards roam free even as the villagers go about their chores without fear of confrontation with the animals. There are over 300 solitary hills strewn across the region, many of them with whitewashed temples that stand out against the mottled granite rocks. In many of these structures, the entrance is a low-hanging cave — often with leopards and their young living in it. Bera has 64 leopards, according to the villagers’ count. They have given each leopard a name to help keep track of them.

Come, all ye faithful: There are many whitewashed temples atop the many hillocks in and around Bera

 

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Bera native Pushpender’s family owns several farmlands in and around the village. He claimed he knew each leopard by name, and could narrate their story, as if they were his own. It was sometime later during our morning safari, which had commenced at seven, that he tracked down the pugmarks of Neel, a young adult male, near a watering hole by the village. Pushpender was confident Neel would have been at the village between 4 am and 5 am, in search of prey. There was no time to lose, so we sped through the bylanes, hoping to catch Neel on his wayhome.

Like tigers, leopards are solitary, territorial animals. When the males come of age, they leave the family to seek out and mark their own territory. Neelleft his mother, Neelam, to settle in a hillock nearby. We found him there. The rocks wore a golden hue in the early morning sun. Through the branches of the thorny acacia, we watched Neel leap from rock to rock to get to his lair. At a distance, we could hear birds chirping, peacocks calling and the village folk getting ready for morning chores. It was just another day at Bera.

Comfort zone: Villagers often wander close to the leopard lairs without fear of attacks

 

Neel stopped in front of his cave, turned towards us and looked straight — it was our first “leopard stare”. Though he was aware of the jeep at the base of the hillock, there was nothing to suggest he was bothered by it. Leopard attacks on the villagers or livestock are rare in Bera. Stray dogs are the big cat’s favourite food. Villagers often wander close to leopard lairs in search of food for their cattle. They, too, seem to be at ease with the solitary cats.

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My first encounter with the Bera leopards was on a TV programme a few years ago. Since then, the image of Nagini and her three cubs basking on the steps of a white temple under a desert sun was etched in my memory. The village priest, as shown in the same show, used the same flight of stairs every morning and evening. Clad in red, the man looked fearless as he went about his work at the temple. Curiosity prompted me to ask Pushpender about the priest. He drove us to the spot. The leopards, Pushpender explained, no longer visit the hillock. An increase in tourists seems to be the reason for it. But not all leopards are so shy. That explained our group’s luck in sighting them.

True, I did not see leopards sunning in the open; but what took me by surprise was the beauty of this barren land and the variety of wildlife it supported. The occasional stretches of green wheat fields and pockets of yellow mustard flowers broke the brown-and-black monotony of the volcanic landscape.

Near the Jawai dam, girdled by the Aravali range, the blue waters reflected the clear desert sky, speckled with a variety of migratory birds — pelicans, flamingos, Brahminy ducks and cranes, to name a few. A closer look revealed giant crocodiles along the edge of the reservoir, camouflaged against the rocks. We had a few surprise encounters as well — the eagle owl, a rare species, perched on a hilltop; the shy jungle cat bounding through wheat fields; a rock pythonwinding its way across the road we were on.

At the end of each day of our two-night stay in Bera, the practice was to gather around the camp fire, under the clear and starry sky, to listen to stories — mainly of the leopards. We heard about how Neel, after his separation from his mother, returned to her den as a full adult. The idea, according to Pushpender and other folks, was to acquire the mother-leopard’s home. But Neelam was not one to be fooled or emotionally blackmailed. She chose to stand by her new family of cubs, thus driving Neel away from her abode. The story of Nagini was less fortunate. She died on a hill with a temple, fighting an adult male to protect her newborn, two weeks before our visit. The villagers cremated the mother before sending the cubs to a zoo.

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On our way back from the cave with the beehives, we drove under a pitch-dark night sky. Pushpender seemed perplexed by the appearance of a “new male” in the leopard Laxmi’s den. We decided to name the fresh entry “Laxmi’s boyfriend”. He emerged from the cave, walked to the top of the hill and scanned the surroundings, presumably for food. Laxmi remained out of sight.

In the weeks to follow, we heard more from Pushpender about Laxmi and her boyfriend Katapa, as he had been named later. It was said that Laxmi had feigned “mating” with the new suitor in order to protect her cubs from his fury. Subsequently, she moved out with her young, leaving the beehives and an empty abode to the usurper.

Chandana Ghosh is a freelance writer based in Kolkata

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Published on April 05, 2019

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