”Ioan-Sir! Wake Up! Leopard is here.”
We fumble with the zips on our sleeping bags, pull on our jackets and hats, a bit more zip fumbling releases us from our tent and we scramble out into the half-dawned day.
And they’re off, past the large open well where the pigeons roost, past the farm ‘house’, an unsealed structure under development, against which lean the two organic structures that are home to the Bhil families that work this land. I hesitate, I need the toilet. How very typical, the leopard is here and I need the loo. There is no delaying, ever since my bout of sickness in Jasialmer there has been an air of urgency around such matters, so off I shuffle into the fennel field, where a ‘flushing’ latrine has been created for us.
The peacocks are ‘mowing’ and the langur monkeys ‘whooping’ – leopard is definitely here. I make my way through the rows of fennel to catch up with the others. It is cold and I pull my wool shawl tighter around my down jacketed shoulders. I try to move slowly, quietly. Manwhar finds me and leads me through the thorn fence – ‘Careful Ma’am. Slowly’. (We have tried repeatedly to get everyone to stop calling us Sir and Ma’am but to no avail!) We join the others on the edge of the cleared fields where all eyes – bare, lensed or magnified – are trained on the rocks beneath the leopard’s cave. Ioan is beaming; she is here – it is Christmas Day.
The men are creating the irrigation channels along which the water flows, it dries white on the soil creating a crust. They are bare foot and wearing cotton shirts and denim jeans, I shiver. Pavan, Bhanwar and Manwhar’s 70 year old mother, crouches down to build us a fire, the cow dung smoulders before it catches. The old man who protects the fennel crop from wild pigs squats down and draws smoke from his chillom. And up there on the rock, the leopardess warms herself in the dawn light. She yawns and we all take a little in-breath of awe as she stands to stretch and re-position herself. She flops down belly up – big Kitty, lonely Kitty. She is pure muscle and much bigger than I had imagined. And with her movement the alarm calls of the langurs and peacocks sound again. All eyes are on her.
She stays an hour before slinking cave-side, in that beautiful skin that covetous men so envy. ‘By night she is much strong, sir.‘ We are told tales of leopard’s paws swiping puppies from beneath beds, just inches from sleeping human heads. Of Jagat, father of Bhanwar, walking home when he was a young man, along the water channel that runs beside the mustard field (a different year, a different crop on this understood and tender-tended land) and meeting a mother and her cubs. Creeping in the dark, heart beating hard. Memories of when grandfather – big father – a government worker in the Forestry Department was mauled by a sloth bear. ‘Big scars, sir‘.
Word reaches us that last night a leopard killed one of the dogs from the temple next door. Leopards live close to people here, they have no choice. The human world is forever expanding, reducing the leopards natural habitat at an alarming rate. According to a recent National Geographic article 85% of their range has disappeared in Eurasia, with the worst of the losses occurring in the past 5 years. Habitat and prey loss alongside hunting – by herders to protect livestock, for fur or body parts used in traditional medicine, or just for the thrill – are all impacting on leopard numbers; they are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
Here in this remote corner of the Arvali Range committed people like Bhanwar, Manwhar Dheeraj and Dilip are doing what they can to protect the leopards that live nearby. They share information with herders and the local government provides compensation for the loss of animal stock. It is hoped introducing small-scale environmentally minded tourism in this area will further raise awareness about the value of leopards in creating a balanced eco-system and sustainable economy.
The leopardess graced us with her presence three more times that day and we felt honoured to have such a wild Christmas gift.
For more information about organising homestays in Nandia, wildlife safaris or trekking to local tribal villages please contact Bhanwar Singh – firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: (+91) 9460063475