Herding cats

A leopard peers around a rock. Wild side: looking for a leopard on an afternoon game drive. Photo: Michael Gebicki

Rabari herders. Photo: Michael Gebicki

The Jawai communal tents. Photo: Michael Gebicki

Accommodation at the Jawai Leopard Camp.

In southern Rajasthan, man and beast enjoy a rare co-existence, writes Michael Gebicki.

With the instinct of a starlet, the leopard has chosen one of the few spots in the rock face that are being spotlit by the early morning sun. It is the male, one of several leopards that inhabit this particular rock dome, my guide, Adam Bannister, says.

It is lying on its front, handsome and sleepy-eyed, and relishing the warmth after the cool night, with the supreme confidence of a predator at the pointy end of the food pyramid. We are close enough to make out the bees buzzing from the three hives anchored to the roof of the indentation where the leopard is lying, yet he does not even turn his head in our direction.

Nor is he looking at the Rabari shepherd driving his goats through the kardhai scrub little more than 100 metres away, and certainly not the pair of camels grazing on the trees behind with delicate lips. Nor does he turn his head even when the braying of a multi-tone bus horn – “do-re-me-fa”, dropping suddenly when it gets to “so” – sounds from Highway 62, running less than half a kilometre away.

All this – grazing animals, shepherds, vehicles – are just part of the background noise to the leopards that live in this southern region of India’s Rajasthan, about midway between the cities of Jodhpur and Udaipur. Apart from the vehicles and we foreigners, it has been this way for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands.

Around us is a bleached, bone-coloured plain bisected by lumpy granite outcrops similar to the one where the leopard is sitting.

These are the southern eruptions of the Aravalli range, folded mountains that were formed from the collision of tectonic plates. Eons of wind and rain, hot days and cool nights have resulted in a process known as onion-skin weathering, leaving a loose outer layer that peels away in slabs. That weathering has ground these mountains into stumps and left them pitted with caves and crevices that make this an ideal leopard habitat.

According to Bannister, perhaps 100 of the spotted cats live in the hills that stretch to the horizon, about 30 of them within reach of the game drives that take place daily from Jawai Leopard Camp.

Opened at the end of 2013, the camp is part of the Sujan Luxury collection, established by Jaisal and Anjali Singh. The brothers cut their teeth in the safari business with Sher Bagh in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan’s east, one of the best places to see tigers.

While Ranthambore is an exclusive tiger preserve, the aim at Jawai is to offer visitors an intimate and exclusive window on the remarkable interaction between herders, cultivators and leopards that exists here.

Most tented safari camps make a stab at camouflage, but not so Jawai. Spread across a generous area of tawny grassland, the eight cream-coloured tents sit on elevated slate platforms covered with soft reed matting. Black poles provide the vertical supports.

Apart from the plush sofas and lounges, chairs are chrome and black leather. There is a nod to nostalgia in the articulated desk lamps and the big metal steamer trunks, and an echo of local culture in the splashy red cushions.

Bathrooms are big and smartly tailored and equipped with double sinks and rain showers.

The centrepiece of the camp is a dining pavilion open on three sides and an adjacent bar/lounge/library with a swimming pool on one side, possibly the ultimate indulgence in these parched surroundings.

Beyond the wall of sticks and cactus that defines the camp’s perimeter is village India. When a turbaned man unzips my tent to deliver masala chai at 5.30am, it is to the high-pitched music of a Bollywood soundtrack coming from the nearest village.

The first game drive begins half an hour later, when guests set off along bush tracks aboard open-top Mahindra jeeps. Even at this hour, when it is dark and cool enough to require a jacket, there are a few Rabari herders about, tending the animals that are their livelihood.

The Rabari are an indispensible part of the Jawai mosaic. You are here to see leopard in the wild, but without the Rabari in the frame, you are missing a big part of the picture. How is it that hunter and herder tolerate one another?

Usually the interaction between wild animal and agriculture is a zero-sum game with wildlife on the losing end of the scale, yet here both live amiably together.

A tribal caste of cattle and camel herders and shepherds, the Rabari probably migrated from Persia or Afghanistan, yet today they are Hindus and predominantly vegetarian. Rabari men wear white, except for a huge and elaborately knotted crimson turban, essential for keeping a cool head in the heat of the desert.

The women wear a chunari, a cotton veil, often red and either block printed or richly embroidered, a skill for which the Rabari are famous. For dressier occasions, such as religious ceremonies and the child marriages for which the Rabari are also known, the women wear enormous nose rings and bracelets that circle their arms from wrist almost to armpit. In modern India, where jeans and T-shirts are the norm, the Rabari remain staunch upholders of a colourful way of life.

Most of the country they inhabit in this region is dry scrub, suitable only for grazing animals, but closer to Jawai Bagh, the big reservoir on the Jawai River, the fields are ploughed and irrigated for chickpeas and mustard. One evening, we watch egrets spearing frogs on the margins of the bagh while pink flamingos stroke the water with their beaks.

Away from the villages, the game drives reveal a surprising abundance of wild animals. There are small family groups of gazelles that make leaping escapes, lithe as ballet dancers, and once we startle a nilgai, the Indian name for a blue bull, Asia’s largest antelope, which goes crashing off through the undergrowth. There are mongoose and peacocks and a saw-scaled viper that writhes across the sand in front of our wheels, tiny and highly venomous.

Apart from the snake, these are all part of the diet of the leopard, Jawai’s apex predator. Unlike in Africa, there is no need for a leopard to drag its kill into trees to keep it out of reach of jackals, hyenas and wild dogs, and no lions to fear. Although they are solitary animals and elusive, the chances of a leopard sighting are high.

Guests who book in for two nights have at least an 80 per cent chance of a sighting, according to Jaisal Singh.

At the convivial communal breakfast at the big table after the game drive, everyone has seen a leopard, either that morning or the previous day.

On our evening drive, we watch as about 100 black-faced Hanuman langurs scamper across the fields and slowly make their way up and across the granite face in front of us. It is clock-on, clock-off time, Bannister says. The leopards sleep among the granite domes by day and hunt on the plains by night, the langurs feed on the plains by day and spend the night high in the rocks, but it is a dangerous time for the langurs and a surprise encounter could lead to disaster.

While we drink our afternoon tea and munch fresh biscuits, we watch them move in a slow rolling wave following a handful of scouts, first from left to right, then they climb higher and sweep back across in the other direction.

We are still watching when an elderly man wearing white robes with a scarf wound around his head approaches the rock dome, each step stirring a puff of dust that snares the light of the setting sun around his feet in a golden ball. It is the priest who lives in the temple halfway up the hill. We watch as he begins to climb the long staircase stretched across the rock face. Leopard encounters must be an everyday occurrence for him, yet he has been living here alone and unmolested for many years.

Fascinated by a terrifying possibility, we follow his progress, not speaking until he passes through the low wall around the temple, rings the bell and shuts the door, safe and sound.

The writer travelled as a guest of Singapore Airlines and Banyan Tours.



The nearest railway station is Jawai Bandh, a 30-minute drive from the camp, which can be reached via an overnight train from Delhi. Another option is a flight from Delhi to Jodhpur and a two-hour drive. Singapore Airlines has one-stop flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi. See singaporeair苏州美甲培训.


Banyan Tours can put together a personalised itinerary that covers transfers, train and domestic air travel and accommodation anywhere in India. See banyantours苏州美甲培训.


The rate for a luxury tent is INR40,000 ($A710) a night for two. That includes twice-daily game drives, all meals, soft drinks, house wine and beer.

See sujanluxury苏州美甲培训/jawaileopard-camp.



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