Bera: Leopard Country

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Bera, a remote boulder-strewn habitat in Rajasthan that boasts one of the densest leopard populations in India

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For a place not notified as a national park or sanctuary, there’s surely a lot of wildlife action in Bera. Located at the foothills of the Aravalli range near Jawai baandh (dam) in Rajasthan, Bera is a rocky tract surrounded by villages, scrub forests and privately owned agricultural fields, making it a challenge to be earmarked as a wildlife reserve. Yet, this boulder-ridden landscape is a unique habitat that is one of the finest bastions of the leopard in India.

Almost equidistant from Udaipur and Jodhpur, Bera lies an hour’s drive from the Jain temple at Ranakpur and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kumbhalgarh Fort. As we drove in, Bera’s pastoral charm was evident – the fields were full of lacy fennel and maize, white tufts of cotton, golden ears of wheat and pink-stemmed castor.

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Our base was Varawal Leopard Camp, a clutch of six Swiss tents and a cottage run by Pushpendra Singh Ranawat and his sprightly sister Rajeshwari. Over lunch, we learnt that the Ranawats claim descent from Maharana Pratap; Pushpendra represented the 17th generation after the legendary Rajput ruler and retraced the origins of Bera…

Back then, this tract of southwest Rajasthan bordering Gujarat was called Gorwar or Godwad. Since it lay on the lucrative trade route from Jodhpur to Mewar and Ahmedabad, there was regular traffic of traders, and hence dacoits. Once, Maharana Pratap’s fourth son Rana Shekhaji was accompanying his mother on a pilgrimage to her isht devi (family deity) in Mt Abu.

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While conversing with the general of the small batch of accompanying troops, they rode ahead of the royal entourage. The queen’s palanquin was waylaid by dacoits and she had to hand over her paayal (anklet) for safe passage. She didn’t mention a word about the incident but when they returned, Maharana Pratap enquired about the trip. In reply, she displayed her bare leg. For his negligence, Shekhaji was exiled from Mewar and he set out with a band of men to carve out his own fiefdom.

Returning to these badlands, Shekhaji killed the dacoits and captured the area from the local Chauhan king Munja Balia. The Ranawats set up their first dera (base) at Juna (Old) Bera at the foot of the Aravallis under a banyan tree, finally moving their thikana to its present location 3km west.

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Not many know that this small principality hosted several royalty who came here to hunt leopards. The maharajas of Mewar, Marwar, Indore, Rajkot and Bhavnagar all shot their first leopards at Bera. After hunting was banned and the Land Ceiling Act took away their lands, Bera’s erstwhile royal families turned into conservationists, helping wildlife enthusiasts and photographers track leopards using the knowledge of their ancestors passed down over generations.

In 1957, Umaid Singh ji of Jodhpur built a dam on the Jawai river, creating one of the largest manmade reservoirs in western Rajasthan. It became a haven for flamingos, geese, cranes and aquatic birds. We were visiting at a time when most of the water had been drained for agriculture and dark streaks on boulders marked the level when the dam was full… Wildlife trails reveal hyena, wolf, desert foxes, sloth bear, jungle cat, mongoose, antelope and smaller game though we spotted owls and the Isabelline and Bayback shrikes. However, the apex species is undoubtedly the leopard.

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Over 64 leopards can be found in a radius of just 25 km, the highest leopard density in India. The reason was the inter-connected cave systems, an excellent spot for leopards to seek respite from the hot sun before they stir out to hunt. Leopards only choose caves that have cross-ventilation and an emergency exit. Being a hot-blooded animal, such an air-cooled habitat helps them maintain their body temperature. Pushpendra admitted that he learnt the ropes as a kid while holding the spotlight for his uncles on night drives. “My teachers were Neelam, Nagini, Ziya and I learnt all about leopards while observing their behaviour,” he says.

Bera’s tryst with leopard spotting began with Ziya’s grandmother and Zara’s mother Mangoli. Devi Singh ji’s pioneering resort Leopard’s Lair opened in 1997 and soon other brothers followed suit. Thakur Baljeet Singh started a heritage hotel at Castle Bera. Shatrunjay Singh Pratap and Katyaini run Bera Safari Lodge with stone cottages under the theme ‘leopards and shepherds’ – how wild creatures and pastoral Rabari herdsmen have coexisted for centuries.

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Sujan’s Jawai, designed by owners Anjali and Jaisal Singh, takes luxury camping to another level with 1930’s industrial style tubular brushed steel furniture. Varawal Leopard Camp was started as recently as 2013, but still manages to holds its own thanks to Pushpendra’s keen wildlife knowledge and on-ground experience.

All the lodges are virtually enclosed by leopard country. Private decks offer uninterrupted views of the wilderness and the dramatic landscape of granite formations, scrub and sandy riverbeds. Experienced guides help track the elusive big cats in open jeeps.

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Pushpendra drove us to Devgiri Mataji temple, accessible by an arched entrance and a long flight of steps leading up to the cave shrine. The idol is believed to have manifested itself on its own and the cave split to reveal it. The shrine is guarded by an idol of Bhairon and rock bees who are considered as the devi’s army. Leopards stir out moments after the priest leaves after performing his daily puja!

The oldest leopard in the area is Nagini’s father Daata. The leopards were named after their distinguishing attributes or habitats. Taking inspiration from the Nag Bavci Mandir or temple of the snake god where they were frequently sighted, the female leopard was named Nagini and her mating partner was called Nagvasi. Marshall was so named because he strutted around like one and was very strong.

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Shadewood loved sitting in the shade of trees to make himself near invisible. Neelam was always spotted against a backdrop of ‘blue’ skies. She was challenged by her offspring for territory, who was thus called Baghi (rebel). Neelam’s range spanned 67 caves and 40 acres of boulders and we were lucky to spot a male from her current litter of three at Jag Talao.

Sighting is not easy as one must scour the hills with binoculars. Don’t even attempt photography if you don’t have a tele zoom. While leopards in other areas and forested tracts have more yellow to merge with the foliage, the ones at Bera were a little grayish and muted for better camouflage against the lava rocks or grey granite.

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Trackers spread out in the surrounding villages of Kothar, Siyana and Batu and the three hills Liloda, Badala and Pola to track their movement. The next morning, our pointsman Govind confirmed some activity at Kothar, where we spotted one of Nagini’s three cubs.

“Undoubtedly, females like Ruby, Ziya, Neelam and Baghini have given better sighting,” remarked Pushpendra as his 4X4 negotiated the treacherous incline of the granite hills with practiced ease. All around was an endless lair of boulders and rock, surrounded by a patchwork of fields and the Jawai reservoir shimmering in the distance. One of the caves Bhadreshwar Mahadev is believed to have a Shiva linga installed by the Pandavas.

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Back at Varawal, we watched fascinating leopard videos and were treated to delicious home cooked fare personally supervised by Pushpendra’s mother. Their 120-acre farm has horses and cattle with fresh butter, ghee and chhaas available. Many of the local Rabaris serve as drivers, trackers or attendants at the resorts.

Our ‘man Friday’ Motiram Devasi looked magnificent in his traditional attire – gamchha, baudiya, dhoti, chain, kada and a bright red saafa (turban) that doubled up as a wallet to store things, a tiffin box to stash away a snack and a rope in emergencies, measuring up to 9m! He bid us a cheery goodbye and as we drove out, we saw locals busy in their fields. In a time of frequent man-animal conflicts, Bera was a shining example of conservation and peaceful co-existence…

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Fact File

Getting there
Fly to Jodhpur (160 km) or Udaipur (150 km) and drive 3½ hrs to Bera. Jawai Bandh (12 km) and Falna (30 km) are the nearest railheads. Ranakpur is 60km away while Kumbhalgarh is 85km.

When to go
Bera is great all year round. Winters are most comfortable though summers give the best sightings. By July, the rains arrive and the Jawai river gurgles to life and the reservoir fills up, with water lasting till December, a good time for birding.

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Where to Stay

Varawal Leopard Camp
Ph 9694889207, 7742133581
www.varawalleopard.com

Bera Safari Lodge
Ph 9413312133
www.berasafarilodge.com

Castle Bera
Ph 02933-243186, 9829877787
www.castlebera.com

Sujan’s Jawai Leopard Camp
Ph 011 4617 2700
www.sujanluxury.com

Leopard’s Lair
Ph 8239365771
www.leopardlairresort.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Shubh Yatra magazine.

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