“Hey look! I see something up there!” I shouted in an excited voice. The brakes screeched, bringing our vehicle to a sudden stop. We all peered through our binoculars towards what looked like two adult Leopards striking a love pose. Pushpender, our driver cum guide, grabbed his binoculars- “No Madam, those are giant honeycombs!” he declared in a matter of fact voice, dashing all our hopes of a sighting. We had been driving for about two hours through the rugged terrain of the Aravalli foothills. Rocky outcrops and thorny bushes marked the desert landscape of the Pali district in Rajasthan. We drove in an open jeep, bumpily through unmarked trails, ducked to avoid the thorny brambles and scanned every cave and crevice in the rocky outcrops to sight the elusive leopards.

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The sun was staged to set, as our jeep balanced on one such rocky hillock- we looked up towards those honeycombs in the cave at a distance. Resigning to our luck or lack of it, in loud voices we raised a toast to the honeycombs in childish merriment. Pushpender, who was still scanning the hills around us, suddenly dropped his binoculars and abruptly gestured us to silence. He shifted gears and literally “took off” just as suddenly. As the jeep climbed the rocky barren hill slope almost at a 90 degree angle, we clutched the rails and protected our belongings, so that we don’t fall out of the jeep unceremoniously. As he brought the vehicle to a stand still, we saw. A different kind of silence befell us. We were staring straight ahead into the grey-green eyes of a huge adult spotted male cat. He looked down at us, from the same cave where the honeycombs were − just a little distance away from them. He seated himself, elegantly poised – as if he had stepped out on the balcony of his high-rise apartment, to take in some fresh evening air. There were us in an open-air safari jeep, him above us in the cave, the silence of the stony desert and the beauty of the setting sun. We were not sure how long the gaze lasted; finally, he averted his head, shrugged off our peering eyes- and with a shake of his majestic-looking fur was up and out of sight.

This was not the first time Pushpender maneuvered his jeep and us up a rugged hillslope to a height of 300-500 feet or so. Initially it catches you off-guard like in a joy ride, slowly you begin to trust the practiced hand and give in to the thrill of adventurism. You also realize that this is not an uncommon practice to traverse the rough terrain of the Jawaihills in pursuit of wildlife. Jawai Hills are located in Pali district of Rajasthan, and are a part of the Aravalli foothills. These hills were shaped by lava millions of years ago and now the latticed caves inside the granite outcrops have become home to leopards and other wild animals. Nestled in this desert bush land, dotted with acacia and granite hills, is a small village of Bera. What makes this small village very unique is the bond the villagers share with the leopards and how they co-exist together, as a community. Bera’s leopards roam free and are not bound by the rules of a National Park or sanctuary. Similarly, the villagers go about their chores freely and fearlessly. The bond that is shared by the leopards and the humans is one of mutual respect. There are over 300 solitary hills strewn across this region; temples that starkly stand out whitewashed against the mottled granite rocks, mark many of them. Often the entrances to these temples are low hanging caves − and often leopards and their cubs inhabit these caves. The leopard count around Berawas deemed at 64, and was growing. The villagers themselves had compiled this count. Every time a new leopard was spotted, the practice was to name the leopard.

Pushpender had grown up in Bera, and was the son of the village landlord, owning several farmlands. He knew each leopard by name, and could narrate their story, as if they were one of his own. That same day during our early morning safari that commenced at 7am; Pushpender tracked down the pugmarks of Neel, a young adult male leopard, near a watering hole by the village. He confidently told us that Neel would have been at the village looking for prey between 4-5am. There was no time to lose − so we sped through the village by lanes, hoping to catch Neel returning to his hill home. Leopards are solitary, territorial animals − as the male leopards come of age, they leave the family to seek out and mark their own territory. The story of Neel was similar. He had left his mother Neelam and had settled in a nearby hillock. So it was not surprising that as we neared that hillock, we sighted Neel. The rocks wore a golden hue in the early morning sun. Through the branches of the thorny acacia, we glimpsed Neel leaping from rock to rock to get to his lair. At a distance, we could hear birds chirping, peacocks scuttling and the village folk getting ready for their morning chores. This was just another routine day in the village of Bera.

Neel stopped in front of his cave, turned towards us, and that was the first time we experienced the “leopard stare” −as his piercing blue eyes looked straight at us. He was conscious of our jeep at the base of the same hillock, but seemed unfettered by its presence. The leopards rarely attacked the villagers or their cattle. Stray dogs were their common prey. The villagers often wandered close to the leopard lair, with their cattle herds, in search of tufts of fodder. They too appeared unfettered by the presence of leopards in such close proximity.

A few years ago, a television program had covered the lives of these villagers, alongside the Leopard lairs. Having seen that program, I had etched in my mind, the picture of Nagini with her 3 cubs, basking on the sunny steps of a white washed temple; while the village priest, clad in red attire, mounted the same steps to perform the daily rituals at the temple. Curiosity prompted me to ask Pushpender about this. Later that day, he drove us to that very spot and explained that in the last few years with the increasing number of tourists, the leopards have retreated from that hillock. Given their shy nature, seeing them in such close proximity, was a rare event.

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True, I did not see leopards sunning themselves in the open as I had expected after watching that television program; but then what took me by surprise was the sheer beauty of this barren terrain and the variety of wildlife that we chanced upon. Stretches of green wheat fields and pockets of yellow mustard cultivation colored the hilly volcanic landscape that displayed different shades of brown and black granite rocks. Near the Jawai dam, that was girdled with the Aravalli range, the blue waters reflected the clear desert sky and the horizon was speckled with a variety of migratory birds – Pelicans, Flamingos, Brahmi ducks and Cranes to mention a few. The flight path of the cranes and the silence of the surrounding hills cast a magical spell around the place. A closer look, revealed giant crocodiles along the water edge, camouflaged against the rocks. We had a few surprise encounters as well- the eagle owl, a rare species, perched on the hill top; the jungle cat that is very difficult to sight, bounding through the wheat fields and the rock python languorously winding its way across our pathway- bringing us to an unexpected stop.

At the end of each day, the practice was to gather around the camp fire, under the clear and starry sky to listen to stories − mainly about the leopards. We heard the story of Neel, how after he had separated from his mother, Neelam, had actually returned one day to the same hillock, as a grown male to win over her heart and capture her hill home. This was not uncommon amongst leopards, but in this case Neelam recognized Neel and stoically drove him away from her new family of cubs. The story of Nagini, was less fortunate. She died on a similar temple hill, where she had been photographed, fighting with an adult male to protect her newly born cubs. This had happened barely two weeks ago, and the villagers had cremated Nagini thereafter and her cubs had been given away to a nearby zoo.

By the time we started our journey back from the honeycomb hills, the sun had set and it was pitch black. Pushpender puzzled over our discovering a new male leopard, which was supposedly in Laxmi’s den. In jest we named him “Laxmi’s boyfriend”. As we left the hill we observed Laxmi’s boyfriend emerge from the cave, to the hill top to scan the surroundings for a prey. We had expected to see Laxmi follow suit, but we did not.

In the weeks to follow, we learnt from Pushpender the story of Laxmi and her boyfriend Katapa, as he had been named later, based on a tear in his ear. To protect her cubs, Laxmi had engaged in “false mating” with Katapa; to appease him. Subsequently she had left that hillock safely with her cubs, leaving the honeycombs and the hill to its new owner, Katapa.

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