In the land of LEOPARDS AND SHEPHERDS
Spotting the spotted feline had never been so easy and so pleasurable. Welcome to Bera, where leopards roam free amongst the villages of shepherds.
Bera, a small village in Pali district of Rajasthan, is located around 140 km from the lake city of Udaipur. The significance of this village is it’s beautiful landscape with forest and Aravalli hills around it where leopards roam free. The rocky hillocks here have plenty of caves, providing shelter to the leopards. Close to the village of Bera, flows the river Jawai ( a tributary of river Luni ) and the Jawai dam ( western Rajasthan’s largest dam ) is built on it. The dam and the hills have created a beautiful lake, a scenic place amidst the hills and also home for crocodiles apart from a number of resident and migratory birds.
Though village Bera is famous for leopards, there are other animals to be seen here. The faunal population mainly includes crocodiles, nilgai, hyena, jungle cat, Indian grey mongoose, sloth bear. The place is also rich in avifauna with many migratory birds coming here. Birds like, owl, osprey, egret, pond heron, Indian robin, black shouldered kite, parakeet, common sandpiper, house sparrow, sarus crane, large cuckoo shrike, pelicans, ruddy shelduck, greylag goose, pelicans, Asian openbill stork, common sandpiper, grey-headed canary fly-catcher, Indian pond heron, black ibis, red throated fly-catcherand oriental magpie robin could all be seen.
Bera is not a part of any national park or wildlife sanctuary, hence most people are not aware of this place. It is off the beaten path of major tourist attractions, less explored by the hoards of camera-swinging masses. The leopard is a shy animal and so the sighting of a leopard is quite rare. However, in and around Bera, the sight of a leopard sunning on a rock or simply trolling cross the expanse of the road in front, is indeed quite common. I have been to almost all national parks in India, but was never lucky enough to see a leopard before. During our trip to Bera we did four safaris and were lucky enough to spot leopards in three safaris. I am at a loss to account for the reason why Indian wildlife lovers have not thronged this place, yet grateful for the peace which accords wildlife lovers some respite from the thronging crowd.
This place is unique in terms of co-existence of leopards and shepherds. The people of Bera have a wonderful relationship with the leopards. There is minimal conflict between leopards and humans here. Unlike in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries where the felines are elusive and solitary, leopards in Bera roam around freely and hunt as they like, without the fear of being hunted. There is even a railway track piercing through this place and several trains pass by throughout the day. These leopards are very much used to the lifestyle of human beings. They wander in and out of lairs in hollow hills openly, and the awed passerby can gape from the road below at the entire family of the feline. One may see males, females and cubs, the whole leopard family in broad daylight, walking in and out of the caves.
The Rabari or the Rewari are an indigenous tribal caste of nomadic cattle herders and shepherds that live in this vicinity. The Rabari shepherds take their cattle to the grassy land at the foothills of the rocky hillocks for grazing. Hence, these Rabari shepherds and the leopards quite often see each other from a distance but do not exhibit any sign of threat to each other. It does not matter to the leopards when the villagers climb up the hillocks to worship at the shrines or beat drums and chant hymns on festive occasions. The leopards watch the villages from their perch on the rocks and descend when hungry. The leopards, here, do not attack humans but kill cattle / stray dogs in the night for their survival. The villagers do not mind leopards killing their livestock for two reasons – first, whenever a leopard kills a cattle, after an autopsy proof, villagers / shepherds get sufficient compensation from Government for their loss under “Van DhanYojana”. Secondly, for some unknown reason, leopards are worshipped here – every temple has an idol of a leopard beside the main deity.
This leopards and shepherds coexistence has given rise to curious visitors, especially wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. To cater to the need of these wildlifers, safari lodges, camps, resorts, leopard safaris have sprung up in the vicinity of Bera and Jawai Dam, thus boosting the rural economy of this place.
The owners of these lodges / resorts have an influence on the local villagers and have intelligently groomed few smart villagers as guides, who studied the movements of leopards quite well. Manohar is one such smart guide, who keeps track of the movements of the leopards and guides enthusiastic photographers and wildlife lovers to the right spot to get a coveted view of the spotted feline. The leopards do not move in the day time. During the day, they rest inside or outside a cave, but at night they move out from their lair in search of prey. The guides carry high power torch to spot the leopard hidden in the blanket of natural darkness. With the help of such high power torch Manohar helped us to spot a leopard in the dark.
There is no proper count of these leopards in this area. The natives say the number is around 35 to 40. It’s a big mystery how and from where these leopards have landed here. It is believed that around 40 / 50 years ago, half a dozen leopards had descended from the nearby Kumbhalgarh forest and took shelter in the Aravalli hills.
Summers (March to June) are very hot, the temperature goes up to 45°C. While Monsoons (July to September) offer medium rainfalls. Winters (November to February) are quite cold, temperature goes down as low as 3 °C in December and January. November and February are pleasant with slight chill in mornings and evenings. Heavy woolen are advised during winter months and light cotton clothing are recommended during summers.
There is no restriction for viewing wildlife in any time of the year. But during summer, the weather is unbearably hot so the sightings too reduce, as leopards prefer staying inside the caves. During the months of October, November and February, weather is quite pleasant and one can see leopards for long duration without any difficulty. The months of December and January are quite cold but is the right time to see and enjoy the migratory birds in the waters of Jawai dam.
Advice for the visitors: carry good zoom lens, minimum 500 mm zoom, to capture good photographs. Unlike National parks and sanctuaries, leopards in Bera are quite far from the roads and can be seen only with good binoculars.