This Indian community welcomes leopards

Devotees of Shiva, the god of wild things, the people of Bera have figured out how to coexist with one of India’s most feared predators—the leopard.

 

The odds of seeing a leopard in Bera, in northwestern India, are 90 percent, says Shatrunjay Pratap, a wine-maker-turned-conservationist and wildlife cameraman. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking he was off his trolley. Not only is this not a wildlife reserve, it’s a region teeming with villagers and livestock—not the usual compadres of large predators.

Yet this pastoral region of just less than eight square miles in the Aravalli hills between the tourist meccas of Udaipur and Jodhpur contains the largest concentration of leopards on the planet. Some fifty leopards live here in rocky outcrops that rise amongst the irrigated fields and thorny desert scrub.

“Visitors can’t believe it,” says Pratap, who runs a homestay for leopard-seeking tourists. “We have people coming who have spent years on safari in Africa and never seen a leopard, and within an hour or two of them arriving here, we’ve shown them a leopard, sometimes even two.”

A leopard sits above an altar in Bera, where these big cats and humans live peacefully side-by-side.

Photograph by Shatrunjay Pratap

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, are devout Hindus. In particular, they’re devotees of Shiva—the god of wild things, who’s clad in a leopard skin.

The continent of India 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—a reflection, in theory at least, of the Hindu tenet of ahimsa, or non-violence. But as leopard numbers increase, human-leopard conflicts have also risen. Between 1995 and 2017, the nonprofit Wildlife Protection Society of India recorded 4,373 leopards killed. They were either poached for the illegal trade in body parts for medicines and aphrodisiacs or killed by farmers and villagers out of fear or retaliation for attacks on livestock.

 

In Bera, however, attitudes couldn’t be more different. When leopards occasionally vault into a livestock pen at night, dragging away a precious calf, goat or sheep, villagers are content to claim the modest recompense the State Forestry Department provides. They’ll get about $28 for a goat or sheep, $70 for a calf, and $280 for a bull or a camel—less than half the market price. Sometimes, they don’t even do this, considering the kill an offering to the god.

“If any leopard kills my livestock, Lord Shiva will give me double,” says Kesa Ram, 27, a herdsman and part-time leopard tracker for tourists.

Mutual Understanding

The leopards, in turn, seem to consider humans no threat. While, elsewhere in India, some 90 to a hundred are killed and nearly a thousand people are injured by leopards every year. But despite the high concentration of leopards, there’ve been no attacks on people in Bera for over a century, apart from one unfortunate incident 20 years or so ago when a leopard snatched a one-year-old in Vellar village. The girl’s family, however, considers themselves to blame, having left her wrapped in a bundle out in the open, near the cattle shed, late in the evening. When they shouted, the leopard dropped the child and ran off.

Santosh Kunwar Chauhan, now 24, and her family are undaunted by her brush with the predator, believing it even auspicious, the canine marks on her neck a talisman. She’s nicknamed Setri—the local word for a female leopard. Convinced the leopard made a genuine mistake, the villagers of Vellar still allow their children to play out in the open.

Close to a village temple, a female leopard waits for nightfall, when she’ll seek out a feral dog, goat, or calf as prey. When a village loses livestock to a leopard, they see it as an offering to the god Shiva. Photograph by Isabella Tree.

It’s an astonishingly forgiving response in a country where poisoned meat is routinely left out for leopards and tigers that stray into farmland and villages. Many Rabari believe it is their dharma—their religious duty—to respect wildlife, feeding wild peacocks and langur monkeys at temples, for example.

But there’s a practical element too. The leopards’ presence is welcomed for keeping neelgai antelope, wild boar, and chinkara (Indian gazelles) away from crops of cotton, maize, wheat, mustard, and groundnut.

With livestock easy pickings, and a plentiful supply of stray dogs (the leopards’ standard fare), numbers of leopards are higher amongst the ten villages of Bera than on any wildlife reserve. One female recently raised a litter of four, thought to be a world record. Behavior is different, too. Leopards are generally loners, but in Bera it’s possible to see as many as five adult leopards together.

A favorite leopard haunt is a cave adjoining a small temple set 30 feet up in the crevice of a rocky outcrop. The evening we visited, villagers were climbing the steps with offerings, unconcerned that a young male leopard was emerging from the shadows with his sister. Just as nonchalantly, the leopards padded across the mouth of the cave and flopped down on a lookout rock. Fully grown, yet still playful, they rubbed muzzles and swatted each other with soft paws. They seemed indifferent to our vehicle and two others from a neighboring camp that had joined us, but at 7:30 p.m. we backed off and left them to it. The curfew is self-imposed by the Rabari, who have a saying: “The day belongs to humans, but nights belong to the leopard.”

Local Businesses Versus Hotel Industry

Tourism is still low-key here and welcomed by villagers. Men are employed as trackers and alert hotels to leopard sightings. Women work in hotels as housekeepers, maids, and cooks, earning independent incomes for the first time. “With tourists coming to see the leopards, we women are starting to move out of our houses to work,” says Kesi Rabari, a 37-year-old housewife whose daughter works for Bera Safari Lodge. “Earlier our lives were just restricted to the fields.”

But word is getting out, and the big hotel industry is poised to move in. It’s a powerful economic force in India with strong connections to local government and the Forestry Department. Concerned about the impact on the landscape and their culture, the Rabari villages, aided by Pratap, are campaigning to have Bera designated a “community reserve,” only the second in India. It would ensure regulation—and income—remains in the hands of villagers.

A tourist watches a male leopard on the rocks nearby. Villages in Bera are seeking recognition as a community reserve so that they can maintain local control over the tourism sector, but already big hotel businesses are trying to move in. Photograph by Isabella Tree.

“At the moment,” says Pratap, “You can expect to see maximum four or five tourist jeeps at a leopard sighting. It’s sustainable. But if we don’t get community reserve status, this site will go crazy. We’ll be overrun by overlanders and safari trucks charging in from every direction. Already, every year, three or four new hotels are built, and at the moment there’s no restriction where they build them. Obviously the sites they go for are the most scenic—the rocks where the leopards live.”

Under community reserve law, development within the area would be prohibited. The villagers would have the power to dictate the number and size of hotels serving the reserve and the number of jeeps allowed on safari at any one time. They would be able to enforce a nighttime curfew for leopard-watching and—crucially—ensure that locals continue to benefit from the jobs arising from tourism.

A pressing concern is that big hotels will import their own guides and staff. Marginalization of local people, Pratap argues, is where the national and state parks of India go wrong. Without the direct involvement of local communities acting as wildlife protectors, poaching, particularly of tigers and leopards, is rife.

As yet, though, the villagers’ petition for community reserve status to the chief minister of the government of Rajasthan, submitted in 2015, has been met with silence. According to Pratap, big hoteliers have been putting pressure on local government to “put the file to rest” and are trying to convince villagers that it’s in their interest to work with the industry rather than push for their own reserve. Almost all 21 villages in Bera had originally petitioned for the community reserve, but several villages have changed their minds. The longer the file sits unanswered in local government offices, the harder it will be to get a community reserve off the ground, Pratap believes.

“When we are demonstrating how well we can do as guardians of the leopards,” says Pratap, “why can’t we keep this place in the hands of the community, as an example to the world about co-existence?”

 

Note: This article appeared originally in the website of national geographic. The link is here

 

Piplantri- A Village that Plants 111 trees for Every Girl Child Born

Piplantri is a village in India, where villagers plants 111 trees every time a girl child is born. The local community ensures that these trees survive and attain fruition, as the girls grow up. Piplantri village is situated in Rajsamand district, Rajasthan, India.

Neem tree which is seen at PiplantriNeem tree

Planting trees when a a girl child is born, is unique to this village. Piplantri may be the only village in the world, known for planting a tree for the birth of a child. The villagers contribute Rs 21,000 collectively. The parents contribute Rupees 10,000. They deposit the total amount in a bank fixed deposit. The villagers also make the parents to sign a legal contract, which restricts them from marrying the girl child off, before she attains the legal age for marriage.

Shyam Sundar Paliwal, the former elected village head, was instrumental in starting the birth tree initiative in 2006. He did so in memory of his late daughter Kiran.

Neem, Mango, Amla and Sheesham trees are planted as birthday plants. This has helped the ground water level to increase. 2.5 million Aloe Vera plants were planted to keep the termites away. Aloe Vera is processed and marketed as a medicinal pant and this helped the villagers to increase their earnings.

How Do I Go to Piplantri?

Piplantri is at a distance of around 15 kilometers from Rajsamand. Rajsamand town is named after the Rajsamand Lake. Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan, is at around 330 kilometers distance from Piplantri.  Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, is at around 335 kilometers distance.

Charbhuja road railway station is at around 30 kilometers distance. Nathdwara railway station is at around 27 kilometers distance. Mavli junction railway station is at around 53 kilometers distance.  Khemli railway station is at around 64 kilometers away.

Maharana Pratap Airport at Udaipur is the nearest airport at around 87 kilometers distance.  Jodhpur Airport is at around 185 kilometers distance. Deesa Airport alias Palanpur Airport at Deesa, is at around 274 kilometers away from Piplantri village.

Keoladeo Ghana National Park – Ramsar Wetland Site & UNESCO World Heritage site

Keoladeo Ghana National Park alias Keoladeo National Park is a famous avifauna sanctuary that is home to  thousands of birds, situated at Bharatpur, Rajasthan state, India.  It is also a Ramsar Wetland Site and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park, BharatpurKeoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur.

Keoladeo wildlife national park was previously known by the name Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, as it is situated at Bharatpur.  It was named as a national park on 10th March, 1982. It was previously declared as a bird sanctuary on 13th March, 1976. In October 1981, it was declared as a  Ramsar site. In 1985, this national park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Keoladeo Ghana National Park is a man made wetland, built around 250 years ago mainly as a waterfowl hunting ground. A bund was constructed by Maharaja Suraj Mal, the king of the princely state of Bharatpur,  at the confluence of two rivers, the Gambhir and Banganga river. The reserve is spread over an area of  29 square kilometers (11 square miles) and is locally known as Ghana.  Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India from 1936 to 1943, shot thousands of ducks at this park in a single day!

There is a boundary wall along the sides of the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, thus restricting the encroachment by humans. Cattle gazing is banned inside Ghana National Park. Unlike other national park,this one does not have any buffer zone and is surrounded by heavenly populated villages numbers around 15.

Flora and Fauna at Keoladeo Ghana National Park

The park is rich in flora and fauna. 379 floral species are found in this wildlife park.  50 species of fish and 13 species of snakes are foound in this national park.  It is also habitat for a large number of other fauna. Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary is believed to be one of the world’s best bird sanctuaries.

Keoladeo Ghana National Park is home to around 230 species of birds. A large number of migratory birds comes to this park during the winter months.  A total of 366 bird species were found in this park. Ornithologists  throng this sanctuary in large numbers. It is a bird watchers paradise. There are three watch towers inside the sanctuary.

How Do I Go to Keoladeo Ghana National Park?

Keoladeo Ghana National Park is situated at around 2 kilometers from Bharatpur town. It is close to the

Agra city, famous for the world wonder, Taj Mahal, is at around 55 kilometers from this wildlife national park. The nearest airport is at Agra.

Jaipur and New Delhi are  at around 180 kilometers distance from Keoladeo National Park. Mathura, the birth place of Lord Krishna, is at around 35 kilometers from Keoladeo Ghana National Park  at Bharatpur.

Accommodation  is available at Bharatpur Forest Lodge, inside the national park. There are 17 air-conditioned rooms at Bharatpur Forest Lodge. It is  run by the government and is situated inside the National park. There are many hotels and restaurants at Bharatpur city.

Vinay Vilas Mahal or City Palace and State Museum at Alwar

Vinay Vilas Mahal or City Palce at Alwar in Rajasthan state, India, is a magnificent palace which was built in 1793 CE, by Raja Bakhtawar Sing.
State museum inside Vinay Vilas Mahal (City Palace) at Alwar

This ancient palace is a fusion of Rajputana and Islamic architectural styles. The city palace has marble pavilions on lotus shaped base in the courtyard. There is a golden Durbar hall in the palace.

The palace houses the state museum. It has a good collection of manuscripts. One such ancient manuscript depicts the life of Emperor Babur. Among other items on display are Ragamala paintings and miniatures. Ancient swords that once belonged to Emperor Akbar, Emperor Aurangzeb and Muhammad Ghori are also on display at Alwar Government Museum. Writings and Paintings on palm leaves by scholars, kings, etc, are on display at this local museum. This ancient museum was started in 1908.

Vinay Vilas Maha has been converted into a District Administrative office. It houses the District Court offices also.

Alwar fort or Bala Qilla as is known, is situated in the Aravali Mountain Ranges in Alwar town. This fort  has never been  conquered nor invaded by any kings.

How Do I Go to Vinay Vilas Mahal at Alwar?

Vinay Vilas Mahal is centrally located with frequent bus services to other parts of the city.

Alwar Junction railway station under Jaipur railway division (on the New Delhi – Jaipur railway line), is situated at around 4 kilometers from the city palace. AWR is the station code for Alwar.

New Delhi Airport is the nearest airport at around 143 kilometers away. Jaipur Airport is  at around 165 kilometers away from Alwar.

Get Treated like Royals at Lallgarh Palace Hotel in Bikaner

Lallgarh Palace is a century old palace located at in Bikaner in Rajasthan state,India. It is located deep in the heart of the Thar Desert.

Lallgarh PalaceLallgarh Palace at Bikaner in Rajasthan, India.

Lallgarh Palace was commissioned by Maharaja Ganga Singhji (1881–1942) of Bikaner. It was built in Indo-Saracenic style of architecture in between 1902 and 1926, as the existing Junagarh Palace was thought to be  unsuitable for the young and  modern monarch like him.

Bikaner Laxmi Niwas Palace, which is part of the Lallgarh Palace,  was constructed in 1902. Remaining three wings were completed in stages with final completion of the place was  in 1926. The Karni Niwas is the palace with Durbar Hall (King’s noble court) and an indoor swimming pool.

Lallgarh Palace  is at a distance of around 5 miles from the old Junagarh Palace. Junagarh Palace is located inside the Bikaner Junagarh Fort.  The three story Lallgarh palace is coated in red sandstone obtained from Thar Desert. The dining room have a capacity to  seat 400 diners!

The palace was named after Maharaja Lall Singh, father of the young monarch. The architect was Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob (British architect).

Two wings of the Lallgarh Palace,  and  have been converted into luxury heritage hotel. There are  59 rooms in this hotel. The palace is also available for corporate conferences and weddings as well as film and photography shoots.

The Maharaja Ganga Singhji Trust was formed in 1972 by the legal heirs of the royal family and  transferred two wings of the palace into the Trust. In 1974, this trust started running this heritage hotel from those two wings.

How Do I Go to Lallgarh Palace Hotel?

Lallgarh Palace Hotel, the best among hotels in Bikaner, is located near the roadway bus stand in Bikaner city. Bikaner is well connected by roads, train and flight to other parts of the country

Bikaner Junction railway station (station code BKN) is the railway station located in the city.

Bikaner city is well connected by roads. NH  11,  NH 15 and NH 89 joins at Bikaner. There is an airport at Bikaner which is connected with daily flights to Jaipur and New Delhi.