The odds of seeing a leopard in Bera, in northwestern India, are 90 percent, says Shatrunjay Pratap, a wine-maker-turned-conservationist and wildlife cameraman. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking he was off his trolley. Not only is this not a wildlife reserve, it’s a region teeming with villagers and livestock—not the usual compadres of large predators.
Yet this pastoral region of just less than eight square miles in the Aravalli hills between the tourist meccas of Udaipur and Jodhpur contains the largest concentration of leopards on the planet. Some fifty leopards live here in rocky outcrops that rise amongst the irrigated fields and thorny desert scrub.
“Visitors can’t believe it,” says Pratap, who runs a homestay for leopard-seeking tourists. “We have people coming who have spent years on safari in Africa and never seen a leopard, and within an hour or two of them arriving here, we’ve shown them a leopard, sometimes even two.”
The leopards’ conspicuous presence is due to a unique relationship with the Rabari villagers. The Rabari, a tribal caste of semi-nomadic cattle herders and shepherds believed to have migrated to Rajasthan from Iran via Afghanistan a thousand years ago, are devout Hindus. In particular, they’re devotees of Shiva—the god of wild things, who’s clad in a leopard skin.
The continent of India is home to as many as 14,000 leopards, up from a historical low of 6,000 to 7,000 in the 1960s. Leopards, like all wildlife in India, are protected by law—a reflection, in theory at least, of the Hindu tenet of ahimsa, or non-violence. But as leopard numbers increase, human-leopard conflicts have also risen. Between 1995 and 2017, the nonprofit Wildlife Protection Society of India recorded 4,373 leopards killed. They were either poached for the illegal trade in body parts for medicines and aphrodisiacs or killed by farmers and villagers out of fear or retaliation for attacks on livestock.
In Bera, however, attitudes couldn’t be more different. When leopards occasionally vault into a livestock pen at night, dragging away a precious calf, goat or sheep, villagers are content to claim the modest recompense the State Forestry Department provides. They’ll get about $28 for a goat or sheep, $70 for a calf, and $280 for a bull or a camel—less than half the market price. Sometimes, they don’t even do this, considering the kill an offering to the god.
“If any leopard kills my livestock, Lord Shiva will give me double,” says Kesa Ram, 27, a herdsman and part-time leopard tracker for tourists.
The leopards, in turn, seem to consider humans no threat. While, elsewhere in India, some 90 to a hundred are killed and nearly a thousand people are injured by leopards every year. But despite the high concentration of leopards, there’ve been no attacks on people in Bera for over a century, apart from one unfortunate incident 20 years or so ago when a leopard snatched a one-year-old in Vellar village. The girl’s family, however, considers themselves to blame, having left her wrapped in a bundle out in the open, near the cattle shed, late in the evening. When they shouted, the leopard dropped the child and ran off.
Santosh Kunwar Chauhan, now 24, and her family are undaunted by her brush with the predator, believing it even auspicious, the canine marks on her neck a talisman. She’s nicknamed Setri—the local word for a female leopard. Convinced the leopard made a genuine mistake, the villagers of Vellar still allow their children to play out in the open.
It’s an astonishingly forgiving response in a country where poisoned meat is routinely left out for leopards and tigers that stray into farmland and villages. Many Rabari believe it is their dharma—their religious duty—to respect wildlife, feeding wild peacocks and langur monkeys at temples, for example.
But there’s a practical element too. The leopards’ presence is welcomed for keeping neelgai antelope, wild boar, and chinkara (Indian gazelles) away from crops of cotton, maize, wheat, mustard, and groundnut.
With livestock easy pickings, and a plentiful supply of stray dogs (the leopards’ standard fare), numbers of leopards are higher amongst the ten villages of Bera than on any wildlife reserve. One female recently raised a litter of four, thought to be a world record. Behavior is different, too. Leopards are generally loners, but in Bera it’s possible to see as many as five adult leopards together.
A favorite leopard haunt is a cave adjoining a small temple set 30 feet up in the crevice of a rocky outcrop. The evening we visited, villagers were climbing the steps with offerings, unconcerned that a young male leopard was emerging from the shadows with his sister. Just as nonchalantly, the leopards padded across the mouth of the cave and flopped down on a lookout rock. Fully grown, yet still playful, they rubbed muzzles and swatted each other with soft paws. They seemed indifferent to our vehicle and two others from a neighboring camp that had joined us, but at 7:30 p.m. we backed off and left them to it. The curfew is self-imposed by the Rabari, who have a saying: “The day belongs to humans, but nights belong to the leopard.”
Local Businesses Versus Hotel Industry
Tourism is still low-key here and welcomed by villagers. Men are employed as trackers and alert hotels to leopard sightings. Women work in hotels as housekeepers, maids, and cooks, earning independent incomes for the first time. “With tourists coming to see the leopards, we women are starting to move out of our houses to work,” says Kesi Rabari, a 37-year-old housewife whose daughter works for Bera Safari Lodge. “Earlier our lives were just restricted to the fields.”
But word is getting out, and the big hotel industry is poised to move in. It’s a powerful economic force in India with strong connections to local government and the Forestry Department. Concerned about the impact on the landscape and their culture, the Rabari villages, aided by Pratap, are campaigning to have Bera designated a “community reserve,” only the second in India. It would ensure regulation—and income—remains in the hands of villagers.
“At the moment,” says Pratap, “You can expect to see maximum four or five tourist jeeps at a leopard sighting. It’s sustainable. But if we don’t get community reserve status, this site will go crazy. We’ll be overrun by overlanders and safari trucks charging in from every direction. Already, every year, three or four new hotels are built, and at the moment there’s no restriction where they build them. Obviously the sites they go for are the most scenic—the rocks where the leopards live.”
Under community reserve law, development within the area would be prohibited. The villagers would have the power to dictate the number and size of hotels serving the reserve and the number of jeeps allowed on safari at any one time. They would be able to enforce a nighttime curfew for leopard-watching and—crucially—ensure that locals continue to benefit from the jobs arising from tourism.
A pressing concern is that big hotels will import their own guides and staff. Marginalization of local people, Pratap argues, is where the national and state parks of India go wrong. Without the direct involvement of local communities acting as wildlife protectors, poaching, particularly of tigers and leopards, is rife.
As yet, though, the villagers’ petition for community reserve status to the chief minister of the government of Rajasthan, submitted in 2015, has been met with silence. According to Pratap, big hoteliers have been putting pressure on local government to “put the file to rest” and are trying to convince villagers that it’s in their interest to work with the industry rather than push for their own reserve. Almost all 21 villages in Bera had originally petitioned for the community reserve, but several villages have changed their minds. The longer the file sits unanswered in local government offices, the harder it will be to get a community reserve off the ground, Pratap believes.
“When we are demonstrating how well we can do as guardians of the leopards,” says Pratap, “why can’t we keep this place in the hands of the community, as an example to the world about co-existence?”