Jawai: An Indian Paradise

Rajasthan is India’s largest state, but enjoys only one percent of India’s water. Half of that one per cent is to be found in a remote area called Jawai, about an hour’s drive to the west of Ranakpur.  Some 60 years ago, the daughter of the Maharaja of Jodhpur was to marry a young man from Jawai. As a gift to the local community, the Maharaja built a dam to create a wondrous lake which collects water from the surrounding hills of the Aravalli range and supports intensive farming.

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The lake can been seen from a number of vantage points atop the granite outcrops of these same Aravalli Hills which surround us in Udaipur, the views changing dramatically with the light from sunrise to sunset.

Soon after dawn, the local inhabitants head out to the fields which support a number of harvests during the year. We saw black mustard growing in fields which will soon be a brilliant sea of yellow, after which wheat and then sesame will be planted. Water is pumped from a series of wells into the fields in which the farmers employ the traditional system of gravity irrigation.

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The lake itself is also stocked with fish which provide a varied diet not only for the locals but a huge population of large crocodile, a species related to the Nile crocodile, which would bask on the lake shore in the warm sun later in the day and give a very different perspective to the unsuspecting on the blissfully peaceful waters.

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We met a local man with two of his three daughters. He has devoted the last five years to studying the wildlife in the area, in particular the leopard (of which more below). His obvious enthusiasm and dedication has inspired his daughters who all want to become involved with wildlife – a rarity for young women in India and to be encouraged. When we met him as we stood by the lakeside,

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he was about to give a lesson on how to row a small boat on the lake. Such fun – but watch out for the crocs!

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Many of the local people are Rabari, traditionally semi-nomadic herdsmen with distinctive deep red turbans. The turbans in rural Rajasthan typically denote an occupation. Late one afternoon, we meet a group of women, also with glorious splashes of deep red in their clothing, with a herd of goats returning to the village, large bundles of greenery balanced on the heads.

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A flashing smile reflected the warm and welcoming nature of the local community.

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The area is rich in culture, with temples built into the hillside. Some, like the one below, even have shelters at the entrance for the leopard.

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This one is a temple to the god Kali.

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A troop of langur monkeys below the temple have been treated to a large crop of peanuts, and young and old tuck in gustily.

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We had only recently learnt that a tented camp

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had been established in Jawai in December of last year to enable visitors to explore the beauty of the countryside and see at close hand the remarkable co-existence of the local community devoted to agriculture and livestock and one of India’s elusive wild cats: the leopard.

On our first afternoon, after some lunch and a brief rest, we headed out at around half past four as the sun, losing its scorching heat, began its slow descent to the horizon in the hills beyond the lake.

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The area is largely granite and the coarse nature of the surface of the rock enables a Maruti 4×4 to climb the steepest of slopes to reveal sensational vistas.

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We were accompanied by the head naturalist from the camp who had trained in South Africa and, by amazing coincidence, had been at the same safari reserve on the Sabi Sands as our younger son, Toby, and even played in the touch rugby games which Toby organised for the rangers. Adam is a big cat expert, having been involved in guiding and specialist projects not only in South Africa but Brazil (where he helped establish a reserve on which jaguar could be tracked and observed), North America (a cougar project) and now India. Adam has spent the last year studying the behaviour of the local leopard population, and has recorded sightings of over 25 individuals. We did not expect to see a leopard and were very happy to enjoy the scenery and learn about the local Rabari people who inhabit the area. But, as we scaled one of the outcrops, our local driver, Narayan, a young man with the sharpest of eyes, pointed to a far hill on which he had spotted what turned out to be a large male leopard – even Adam, with all his experience of finding wildlife, thought this a most remarkable spot. We drove to a vantage point and alighted from the vehicle to sit watching the leopard across a ravine, only for Adam to spy, on another hill not far from the male, a female with three cubs. Five leopards before our eyes as the sun set!

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We watched as cows and buffalo wended their way back to the village which, we were told, was just behind the hill on which the cubs were playing. On another evening, the Maruti climbed a hill from which we could see the lights of the village and, immediately behind it, the hill on which we had seen the leopard.

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The livestock were blissfully unaware of the dangers above them until the female leopard, coming down through the undergrowth, surprised a straggling group of one cow and three buffalo, one quite small and a possibility for the leopard’s supper. The prey scattered and headed to a rocky slope pursued by the female leopard. They were now trapped since they could not climb higher or move quickly on the rocky surface and their exit was blocked by the leopard, which crouched down and played a waiting game. As night fell, two local herdsmen could be heard some way off calling out in a vain attempt to locate the missing livestock. One felt that some small boy whose responsibility it surely was to bring these valuable animals home safely would be in serious trouble!

The leopard waited until the men’s voices could no longer be heard. She then circled around the petrified cattle under cover and found a spot just above them on the rock, ready to pounce on the young buffalo. We watched, spell-bound. Surely, we were not about to witness a leopard killing a domestic buffalo for supper!

In the end, the female, sizing up the adult cow which stood close to the young buffalo, and the cow’s impressive horns, must have decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and that suffering an injury going for such an audacious kill would leave her three cubs unprotected and without food. Slowly and gracefully, she moved away – not that the livestock knew this: they were still rooted to the same spot the following morning when we came back to follow up on developments.

But the cubs did not go hungry. Their mother, as we were to discover the next day, then found a stray goat which she killed and dragged back up the rock to a safe cave to which she took the cubs.

Now, surely, the local Rabari goatherd would be out for revenge and hunt the leopard. Not a bit of it. The local people will candidly explain that they are the new residents in an area which is the leopard’s traditional habitat and that, over the years, they have killed or frightened off the wild prey species on which the leopard fed. The locals therefore accept that they owe it to the leopard population to allow them to take the occasional goat and even cattle. It is remarkable that man and leopard live in harmony in this area: there has been no report of a leopard killing a human here for over 150 years. The sheer proximity of these wild animals to the local population is extraordinary. We saw the female and cubs looking down on villagers and temple-goers a hundred metres below,

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and this is a daily and normal occurrence for both animals and humans.   ‘Unique’ is a much over- and incorrectly used word but, Adam assured us from all his experience, the right one to describe what we were witnessing.

We knew that the female leopard had killed a goat when, setting out before daybreak the following morning, Adam saw drag marks across a dusty road and surmised from the marks that it was a goat being dragged back to the cubs. There were two possible vantage points from which, with luck, to view the mother and cubs. The one selected involved a drive up such a steep slope that we dared not look back on the ascent (and going back down wasn’t much better!),

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followed by a trek across the rock

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to a point from which we hoped to be able to look down on the leopard but, in any event, watch the remarkable sunrise.

As it transpired, the cave into which the mother had dragged the goat was directly below us and we could not see the leopard, but we did see the sunrise

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and have a wonderful view of the countryside around stretching away to the hills in the distance.

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This was a true test for Felicia’s foot and the healing 5th metatarsal, which passed with flying colours, even if crossing some crevasses in the rock’s surface was a little hairy and required a helping hand from the attentive Narayan

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as Adam took the even steeper route all the way down on foot to look for evidence of the leopard kill!

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Without knowing it at the time, he apparently passed very close to the cave in which the mother and cubs were enjoying a goat breakfast.

Having tried one of the two viewing options, we later tried the second and were rewarded with a wonderful sighting of the mother returning to the cave and of the cubs. The light was good enough to take some sharper photos, even if at some distance.  John had not been expecting to do any wildlife photography on this trip to India and had not brought his longer lenses but, as Adam commented, the images show not only the animal but also the environment in which it lives on these rocky slopes in deepest India!

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We had been spoilt with the sightings we had been privileged to experience, but our luck continued when, on our last morning, again going out before dawn, we found the large male leopard sleeping on a rock in full view. He raised his head to observe us not far below him in the Maruti,

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before slumping back down to resume his slumbers. It is remarkable how quickly the leopards are becoming accustomed to the vehicles, recognizing that they represent no threat. On the other hand, as the locals start to head out to the fields on foot, the leopard finds a comfortable cave in which to spend the day away from human activity until dusk leads men, women and children home to the village, and the outcrops and fields below become the undisputed kingdom of these majestic cats – much larger, we are told, than the leopard we are more used to seeing in Africa: doubtless thriving on the local diet. We also see a nilgai, Asia’s largest antelope and a natural wild prey species for the leopard.

And the bird population is outstanding too with some 200 different species recorded by Adam and his team – a twitcher’s paradise.  This bee-eater was polishing off its breakfast as we headed back for ours!

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But that is what Jawai is: a paradise. We can’t wait to go back!