NATIONAL

Leopard safaris put Rajasthan on tourist map

On the prowl:There are as many as 30-40 sites in Pali district — situated in the middle of the Kumbhalgarh-Mount Abu corridor of the Aravallis — where one can sight leopards.Gopal Singh

On the prowl:There are as many as 30-40 sites in Pali district — situated in the middle of the Kumbhalgarh-Mount Abu corridor of the Aravallis — where one can sight leopards.Gopal Singh  

For over a decade, Patik Patel, an Ahmedabad-based wildlife photographer, has been a regular visitor to Sheoganj in Rajasthan.

The area — dotted with low hills and lacking in vegetation — is the place to be if one wants to spot some leopards, the most shy and elusive among the big cats.

There are 30-40 sites in neighbouring Pali district — situated in the middle of the Kumbhalgarh-Mount Abu corridor of the Aravallis — where one can sight leopards. The popular among them are located in villages such as Perwa, Jivda, Bisalpur, Sena, Mori, Raghunathpura, Kothar, Velar, Chamunderi and Lundara.

As a result, leopard safaris have become common in these areas.

‘Sighting guaranteed’

Sheoganj-based Hotel Woodland, started in 1996, is a pioneer in leopard safari in this region.Its owner, Gopal Singh, claimed that tourists never go back disappointed.

“This region has a far better sighting rate for leopards compared to national parks or sanctuaries. This is because it has a lot of barren hills,” said Mr. Singh.

A wildlife enthusiast, Mr. Singh recced the area for two years before conducting safaris.

Another operator, Thakur Devi Singh Ranawat, a descendant of Maharana Pratap, started the Leopard Lair Resort in Bera village around the same time.

Devi Singh’s brother Thakur Baljeet Singh followed in his footsteps to convert his ancestral haveli into “Castle Bera -- A Heritage Home Stay”, one of the most sought-after resorts in the region.

Many more followed suit over the few years.

Harsh Vardhan, an environmentalist, told The Hindu that the leopards in this region mostly come from the sanctuaries in Kumbhalgarh and Mount Abu.

Their population has also increased considerably due to good hideouts available in the hills and easy availability of food.

“This region is full of granite hills, with cavities which act as good hideouts for the animals. For food, they are dependent on cattle in the nearby villages. They also feed on rodents in the hills,” said Dr. Vardhan.

‘No man-animal conflict’

He pointed out that the most remarkable feature of the leopards in this region is that they have learnt to live in harmony with humans.

“The leopards in this region live in harmony with the villagers. They hardly prey on sheep, and instead feed on chicken, peacocks, rodents and dogs. Also, it does not need as much food as a tiger requires,” said Dr.Vardhan, who has worked extensively on leopards.

Nandu, a resident of Badla village, said they have become accustomed to sighting leopards.

“Every village in a way supports a bunch of five-six leopards who frequent the area in the dark to prey on cattle or dogs and quench their thirst at handpumps and wells. But the instances of human-leopard conflict are unheard of in this region,” he said.

Aslam, an auto-rickshaw driver in Jawai Bandh in Pali district, claimed that the animals often stray into the railway station and the bus stop.

Dr. Vardhan said the forest department should declare the region a community reserve.

“It is not a forest land, but the forest department should declare it a community reserve. At present, there are no fixed timings for tourists to visit these areas. Those conducting leopard safaris use search lights, disturbing the predator, the villagers and the cattle,” he said.

Chief Conservator Forest, Udaipur, Rahul Bhatnagar, claimed that 19.58 square km area in the region around Jawai Bandh was declared a leopard conservation reserve, but the locals claimed that the animals are mostly found outside this area.

Mr. Bhatnagar further said there was a proposal from the then collector to declare community land as community reserve.

Impending challenges

The decision, however, was met with stiff resistance from locals, hoteliers and the mining mafia.

Ten licences were also granted for mining in the area a year ago, but the government later withdrew them realising that it was a leopard landscape. The matter is still in court.

The safari operators in the region, meanwhile, have several challenges to overcome.

A new entrant, “Jawai Leopard Camp”, started over two years ago, has purportedly kicked off a monopoly battle in the area.

“Its entry has been a boon as its owners invite the foreign media, putting the region on the tourist map. The operators, however, have taken several safari sites on lease, gaining exclusive rights for themselves,” said Mr. Baljeet Singh.

Another challenge is a new safari hotspot in Jaipur called Jhalana.

The safari operators said the region has no less potential as a tourist hotspot than Jaipur, with Udaipur and Mount Abu not very far away from it, but poor connectivity is hurting its prospects.

“The region could do better if the area is connected to Goa by rail. The travel agents in Goa promise us more business provided there is better connectivity,” said Shatrunjay Singh, another leopard safari operator in the region.

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