The leopards of Bera in Rajasthan have been living in harmony with humans for decades.
Forty years ago, half a dozen of these leopards had descended from the nearby Kumbhalgarh National Park nestling in the Aravalli Hills and into the rocky mountains of Bera looking for browner pastures. Though it was the village of Bera that caught the imagination of nature lovers for the unusual sight of leopards walking elegantly on rocky slopes, there are actually over a dozen leopard sites that surround Bera in a radius of 10 km. And this area is known as Jawai Leopard Conservation Zone.
Today, the total number of leopards here has increased to around 30. The reasons for this are many. The path-breaking leopards who first came here found that the rocky mountains had two distinct advantages. Firstly it offered a vantage point from where they could be monarch of all they surveyed. Secondly, the mountains here had many caves that were interconnected. So when they had their litter, they could enter the cave from one point, and exit through another. In fact, they make it a point to move caves every three days here when they have cubs.
The other critical reason for their happy proliferation is that they live in perfect harmony with human beings here. Since they inhabit dry rocky mountain slopes, the food is scarce. They survive on wild hares and porcupines and sometimes langurs – though very often that becomes a very difficult proposition. Their food of choice actually is dogs and heads of cattle from the nearby villages.
The villagers don’t mind this for two reasons. One, whenever the leopards kill cattle, after an autopsy, the villagers are amply compensated under the Van Dhan Yojana. Secondly, it has to do with faith. For some strange reason, every temple in the neck of these mountains has an idol of the leopard next to the main deity. Thus proving beyond doubt that leopards hold a very special place in the religious ethos of these villagers.
The last 30 km of our journey set us back by two hours because of the pathetic condition of the non-existent roads. So when we reached Godwad Resort in Padarla, we gulped the welcome drink served by a Rabari man and jumped into the waiting Gypsies.
When we reached the village of Sena that boasts of four leopard sites shared by five leopards and two cubs, we could see the tall mountains peering inquisitively into the village. Cutting through the bylanes dotted with Rabaris, Meenas and their cattle, we reached a clearing that offered a majestic view of the yonder cliffs. And within minutes, the eyes of the trained binoculars spotted a mother leopard and two cubs in tow. Soon the cubs were deposited in the safety of a shrub by the mother, and she started looking down at us, watching our every move.