The twilight lit up the dappled pelt of a female leopard. The golden glow was enhanced as she performed a catwalk atop a rocky outcrop of Jagtala hillock for eager tourists, photographers and wildlife researchers. Simultaneously, at the base of the hillock, a Rabari goatherd walked his flock back to his village without batting an eyelid. This is an everyday scene in the arid surroundings of the Balwana, Bisalpur, Doodni, Jwevda, Kothar, Perwa and Sena hamlets, which are spread around the vast catchment area of the Jawai dam southwest of Rajasthan.

In recent years, a fascinating example of wildlife conservation free of animal-human conflict is unfolding in this rock-strewn landscape on the banks of the Jawai river, near Sumerpur town in Pali district. In the undulating terrain between the villages of Bera and Jawai, there seems to be an unwritten dictum between the villagers and the leopards: ‘You live your life, we live ours’.

Here comes the catgirl

“Today there’s a nascent tourism industry in our barren but beautiful rural area, thanks to frequent leopard sightings,” says Hidu Ram Devasi, a shepherd-turned-leopard tracker.

The lanky 50-year-old has been employed by a luxury hotel and his daily task is to sit and wait patiently for a feline to show up. You can see him occasionally sprawled languidly on a barren rock, using his scarlet turban as a pillow as he keeps a steady vigil. At times he strolls 4-5 km or more from his village Doodni to the different hillocks where leopards have their lairs. Wading through the scrub land, he watches for tell-tale signs of the leopard, particularly pug marks.

Once Devasi is convinced that a leopard will show up for its morning or evening catwalk on the rocks, he will flash a message to his employer. In a jiffy, the special guests of the hotel are ferried in four-wheelers. A temporary camp is set up for the visitors at a strategic point, about 150 ft from the hillock, and the wait begins for unhindered leopard viewing.

As a female leopard appears from the belly of the hillock, a hush descends, followed by excited murmurs and the click-click of cameras. Soon, as the inky darkness envelopes the leopard, she slips away into the nocturnal countryside.

“Being a mother, the leopard Neelam hunts regularly to feed her growing cubs ensconced in a cave,” explains Ravi Kumar Sharma, a researcher from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). He is studying the unusual phenomenon of the leopards here living in groups rather than leading solitary lives.

A unique symbiosis

“The relaxed nature of these animals in proximity with human culture is indeed unique; I’ve not known anything like it. It’s been like this for many years, according to local lore. Leopard attacks on humans are unheard of here and the villagers too are unfazed by the presence of the big cats in their daily life,” says Sharma.

“Leopards are worshipped as demigods here and the villagers will not object even if a calf, goat or dog is killed by a leopard. Unlike in other parts of India, the leopards here don’t live in trees; they take refuge in the caves in the Aravalli range,” says Ashish K Jangid, a resident wildlife associate cataloguing the animals.

All the leopards so far recorded through camera-trap methods have been found healthy and conditioned to the presence of people. Strangely, rather than natural prey, which is scarce in these parts, the big cats are heavily dependent on the sheep, goats and young camels belonging to the villagers.

Two years ago, in an admirable initiative, the villagers of three panchayats in Pali agreed to form a community reserve for the protection of the leopard. The existing ‘Jawai Bandh Leopard Community Reserve’, spread over 19 sq km, would act as a buffer zone. Once the government approves, the reserve would expand to 100-300 sq km. Devendra Singh Ranawat of Sena village belongs to the Raika camel-herding community and is now a leopard tracker. “Tourists and leopards have certainly brought prosperity to our villages because foreigners come in the season and I get good tips and gifts from them. There are 12 leopard trackers like me and at least 150 villagers who are directly or indirectly benefiting by working in the various hotels in this remote area,” he says

The writer is a photographer and wildlife enthusiast based in Noida