Leopards in the land of Shepherds
Leopards, early from the pen of Jim Corbett to the current connotation of “man-eating leopard”, have reached a different level of interaction with humans. There are ample reports in which both leopards and humans are usually killing each other when in the direct contact. The study of the peaceful coexistence of the two species in Jawai presents a different picture.
Female on the top of Jagtala hillock.
When my ancestors talk about the Creator they say: He is with us… We sleep with him. We hunt with him. We dance with him” – Francis Nnaggenda
“No human attacks so far! You can see leopards incredibly simply in the rocky outcrops of Jawai”, said Mr. Balaji Kari, DFO-Pali. I heard this while at the lunch in the Forest guest house in Pali, on the way back from the Wetland-National Park tour in (February 2016). This tour was part of the Master’s program at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). Sultan, one of my hostel-mates, had the idea of working in this area, but somehow, he changed his area of interest, so I took over and started browsing about Jawai continuously. I remember my iOS mobile gallery was full of leopard photographs of Jawai, sometimes at the temple, but most of the times on the granite rocks. This paradoxical situation was perplexing my mind. I kept wondering ‘How are these leopards and humans living in harmony?’ I started reading various articles and blogs, all of them showing variation in the leopard numbers of Jawai region, with some saying that leopards are living in groups, and many more other myths. But being a master student of wildlife sciences, I developed an idea with the help of colleagues and my supervisors, Prof Qamar Qureshi, scientist and Dr. Abhijit Das, scientist. They all helped me in designing a study to crack the mystery of Jawai leopards numbers, while researching the people’s perception towards leopards, as animals’ perception towards us cannot be deciphered clearly.
15 December 2016, on a foggy early morning, I started my journey to the challenging dream land of Jawai with Rawat ji accompanying me in driving. There were loads of thoughts hitting my mind like “How, Why, What, and When” regarding initiating my field work- the first step. I had an official permission from the Forest Department, Rajasthan; however, interestingly, the area falls under revenue land and I was wondering about my acceptance by the local people. Just a thought “Where acceptance of a person for another person is exigent, how leopards are being accepted by them” but somehow I managed to start my field with the help of forest staff, Shri Ratan singh, Awasthi Ram, and Vikram singh. During the study I was being treated like an official, a fact that was encouraging for me. With no vehicle, and no transport to reach the study sites, I would never forget my first journey to the village Chamunderi on a tractor. Other interesting reality was the language quandary. People were speaking in Marwari – the local dialect, and initially most of the time I responded with a monosyllabic “Yes or No” to most of the initial conversations and queries.
I managed to get a motorcycle in a few days and started my field without any assistant, but again with the help of local staff I managed to get a local assistant cum tracker (Nathu ji) for a few days. During reconnaissance surveys, I was identifying the leopard occupied hills to deploy cameras, meeting local people to make them understand about the purpose of my being there. I started frequent visits to random local tea shops to make people remember my face. All this was while I was scared of the fearsome looking local people, wearing fancy big red turbans and axes in their hand- “RABARI”. These little things proved to be a hindrance, not helping me much, as not having any permanently hired assistant was becoming a problem. Nathu ji used to visit during field mostly one time a day, rest of the time I was all alone. So I asked my friend, Ritesh for help, he spoke to the nearby university about an opportunity for an assistant in Jawai for six months, resulting in two fellows who came and met me. I took them on a visit with me to the study sites and somehow I acquired an assistant named Ashish Jangid, with a hard working enthusiast personality, incidentally hailing from one of my study villages (now a colleague).
Ashish Jangid and one of the local Rabari assisting me in camera deployment.
The Field Days
It was a cold and tough wintery morning, the first day of reconnaissance survey, I was lying down on a small hillock with a wildlife devotee guy Nathu ji. Both of us were scanning the den in the hillock at the other side, around 50-60 meters away from us. We waited almost for two hours from 5 o’clock in the morning. That site was very close to the village, a black dog came and sat beside me and started looking at a small hillock. I started following dog’s eye and I saw a brown yellow colored animal at around 80 meters on the same hillock where the dog was staring. Ahh that’s a Nilgai, I mused, but looking through the binocular, I realized that was a Leopard. It was an unforgettable sight, as the sun just rose up the sky, making the spotted cat appear more and more charismatic to my eyes.
The first day click: Spotted cat, the one I was confused with a Nilgai.
One day during my field work, I was climbing a hillock to check camera traps with two of my assistants. Both of them, being local and familiar with the landscape, climbed quickly, leaving me behind. I fell back from my assistants as I walked while looking out for animal signs on the way. While taking a shortcut to reach them quickly, I felt that the rocks under my feet were very hot due to the scorching heat, when I suddenly slipped. I tried to balance myself by holding onto the rocks, but they were too hot to touch with bare hands. While rolling down the hillock from a height of 20-30 meters, I surrendered myself to my fate midair. Much to my surprise, I suddenly discovered a bunch of thorny shrubs of Euphorbia in the direction I was falling! I can still feel the pain of those Euphorbia thorns from when I landed on them!!
The surrendered place: I can still feel the pain of Euphorbia thorns!
I wondered on the tolerance of the locals in the presence and frequent sighting of a large carnivore. I became friendly with people and they also started recognizing me and used to say “Cheetro wala aiyo” (Leopard man has come) whenever I visited any village.
A walk to remember ‘chitro wala aaiyo’: near the village Kothar.
The sign survey: Predicting the marking sight of leopard and camera installation
I started deploying my camera traps based on the study design from WII; however, it was challenging to deploy the cameras in revenue land, yet somehow I managed and luckily started getting good number of leopard pictures. Meanwhile I collected scats (defecated material) to learn about the actual diet of leopards as there were many stories that the leopards of Jawai only depend on domestic prey and occasionally wild. I also conducted a social survey to understand the local’s perception towards leopards.
Conventional method of camera deployment was followed and I used paired camera in each grid. I conducted this study in 309 Km2 area of proposed Jawai Leopard Community Conservation Reserve. All the analysis was done in a scientific framework. I did not find much difference in the contribution of domestic prey than wild prey in leopard’s diet. Based on several model of analysis, I found the leopard density, 6.38 leopard ± 2.24(SE)/100 sq. km.
The social survey was another challenge due to the language issue; Ashish and my intern, Lalit were the solution as they belonged to the neighborhood. I used to visit the people with Ashish and all conversation with locals were recorded in the phone, as it went for 30-45 minutes each. This survey helped me a lot in solving the mystery of the acceptance of people toward leopards.
Jawai is speckled with rocky outcrops in the vicinity of human habitation, and I learnt here that there are various factors which are responsible for the balanced human-leopard survival. Fortuitously, I have sighted leopards more than 200 times (not individuals), along with other mammals of Jawai, Hyena, Sloth bear, Jungle cat, Porcupine to name a few.
In lieu of this I would say, religious sentiments attached with leopards, traditional beliefs of locals, and money flowing in hotel businesses (tourism) are the key behind the peaceful coexistence of the people of Jawai and leopards. Another essential fixation that I brought with me was that science without understanding the perception of local communities cannot solve conservation conundrums. Based on my learning I can only suggest the need for similar long term studies to document micro-level changes in all their aspect.