Leopards Of Bera: The Mitigation Of Human-wildlife Coexistence

The leopard is the most elusive among all big cats in the world. It is estimated that the Indian sub-continent is home to as many as 14,000 leopards, up from a historical low of 6,000 to 7,000 in the 1960s. Leopards, like all wildlife in India, are protected by law. But as leopard numbers increase, human-leopard conflicts have also risen. Between 1995 and 2017, Wildlife Protection Society of India recorded 4,373 leopards killed. The leopards were either poached for the illegal trade in body parts for medicines or killed by farmers and villagers to prevent them from killing humans and livestock. As the human-leopard conflicts increased, so did the number of man-eating leopards. The Leopard of Rudraprayag was a man-eating leopard, reputed to have killed over 125 people. It was eventually killed by hunter Jim Corbett, who is also credited to have shot several man-eating tigers and leopards in India.

However, man-eating leopards are very rare. The increase in human population and the burgeoning settlements near wildlife territories often lead to human–animal conflict. This conflict possess a serious threat to long-term conservation of wildlife. The most common outcome of human-animal conflict is the drastic decline in animal population and even extinctions. The human-animal conflicts are also found to create social tensions and law and order issues. The mitigation of human-wildlife conflict is a matter of great significance. Effective steps towards mitigation depend largely on a deep understanding of the factors that drive towards the conflict. Further, a robust long-term monitoring, engagement and participatory system with the communities dwelling around the forests will definitely help in reducing the animosity against wild animals.

The unique case of peaceful coexistence of human and animals is the Bera in Jawai region of Pali district of Rajasthan (India). It is a rocky village situated in the Aravalli mountain ranges. The uniqueness of this region is that leopards wander in the villages without any conflict with the humans. It is estimated that there are around 40 leopards in the region. The area is also inhabited by sloth bears and certain other smaller animals. There has been practically no instance of leopard attack on humans in the area for a long time. Bera is not a protected wildlife sanctuary, in this particular area, the leopard cohabits with the villagers and other animals but curiously no major cases of man-animal conflict have been reported as yet.

The leopard hills of Jawai are located in the Pali district of Rajasthan are one of the locations which offer rare sights of leopards roaming freely out in the open. These hills are surrounded by Jawai Bandh and grasslands while the area is enclosed by the Aravali range. The Jawai hills were shaped by lava millions of years ago and now the natural caves house leopards and other wild animals of the area. The leopards of Jawai not only live together but also in harmony with humans. It’s one of the best places where you can easily spot a leopard during the day. In these parts, there is a spiritual connection with the leopard. The locals consider it to be an incarnation of the goddess Ambe Mata. The Jawai leopards reside in a stunning landscape surrounded by granite rocks, the Jawai dam — the biggest dam in western Rajasthan. The leopard hills of Jawai are the only place in India that has the highest density of leopards. Jawai dam crocodile sanctuary, Jawai hills leopards sanctuary and Kambeshwar ji leopard sanctuary are located in and around Jawai. The Bera leopards are unique as compared to their cousins in other part of India. The leopards in other part of India are known to dwell on trees in order to find their preys and to protect themselves from their bigger cousins — The Tigers. But in this region, the leopards, due to absence of predators and dense forest prefer to perch themselves on top of the hills and choose the place where to go and hunt.

As the tract of Bera is different from the other forest reserves, the way the animals hunt their prey is also different. This place is unique in terms of co-existence of leopards and humans. The people of Bera have a wonderful relationship with the leopards. There is minimal conflict between leopards and humans here. According to the local villagers, the leopards watch over the area while sitting atop the hill and decide where they want to go for hunting. The people who have settled in the villages nearby say that the leopards have never attacked a single human being in all these years. Sometimes, they do attack their cattle but the villagers don’t mind as they get a fair amount of compensation under the Van Dhan Yojana. Another reason to bear with them is that the villagers believe that the leopards have a direct connection with their local deities. The leopards in Bera roam around freely and hunt as they like, without the fear of being hunted. There is even a railway track on which several trains passes through this place throughout the day. These leopards are very much used to the lifestyle of human beings.

The leopards’ conspicuous presence is due to a unique relationship with the Rabari villagers. The Rabari, a tribal caste of semi-nomadic cattle herders and shepherds believed to have migrated to Rajasthan from Iran via Afghanistan a thousand years ago. They are now living as an indigenous tribal caste of nomadic cattle herders and shepherds in this vicinity. Many Rabari believe it is their dharma to respect the wildlife and they also tend to feed wild peacocks and langur monkeys at temples as part of their religious duties. The leopards’ presence is welcomed by them for keeping neelgai antelope, wild boar, and chinkara (Indian gazelles) away from crops of cotton, maize, wheat, mustard, and groundnut. Occasionally the leopards prey on livestock of Rabari villagers. However, these attacks are considered by the villages not as loss, but as their sacrificial offering. The local villagers attach spiritual significance to the leopard. They believe that leopards are incarnations of the “Goddess of bravery”, and if they are harmed misery will befall them. As such they don’t mind losing a livestock and consider the preying by the leopard to be an offering to God. Hence, due to plentiful supply of livestock and stray dogs, the density and numbers of leopards in Bera are higher amongst any other wildlife reserve in India.

As the leopards are listed under endangered species in India, hence in order to protect this magnificent species, the government of Rajasthan became first in the world to announce “Project Leopard.” The initiative started in 2018 with the inauguration of the “Leopard Reserve” at Jhalana forest. The project is being implemented in a phase-wise manner. Proposal at seven more leopard projects in the state including Kumbhalgarh, Jaisamnad, Shergarh, Mount Abu, Khetri, Jawai Bandh Conservation Reserve and Bassi are under construction. The project Leopard will aim at bringing down the man-animal conflict in selected areas of the state while also in accordance with greater conservation to these felines. The main focus under the project would be to end the human–animal conflicts. There are projects like Project Tiger, Project Elephant, Project Rhino in various areas of the nation, however, no project related to conservation of leopards has ever been launched in the nation. Thus, this is a special project that focuses on these rosetted felines. Habitat improvement will be one of the prime focus in the project.

The Bera leopards could be role models for man-animal relationship as the latter live in peaceful coexistence with the humans. The peaceful co-existence enjoyed by the humans and wild life in this region is unparalleled. This co-existence has been developed over a period of time and the villagers never attempted to offset the delicate equilibrium set by their ancestors. They never tampered with the fine balance with the forest land. Let us hope that the spirit of the settlers of Jawai region is transmitted to other areas, and there is a peaceful co-existence of all the creations on earth. 

16 December 2021
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