Wildlife enthusiasts love the Leopard. Though the Lion and the Tiger hold their places because of their majesty and élan, it is the Leopard that is big game hunting’s (with the camera) ultimate prize. Seen atop trees, rock dens, thick foliage, dense green bushes, the Leopard’s rosettes make amazing clicks for the camera. Problem is though, that they are terribly shy and run away at the slightest sound.
Hence perhaps you will find just 1 Leopard picture for every 20 Tiger picture among photographers. There is however perhaps, as per my personal experience, only one place in India where sighting a Leopard has a near sure probability. And, that place is the area called Jawai in Pali, Rajasthan.
Jawai, famous for its eponymous dam that is the largest in western Rajasthan, used to be a motley collection of tribal villages scattered among granite hills in an area of roughly ~20km diameter. The human-animal ecosystem flourished wonderfully for centuries because the local tribes believed that the Leopard is an incarnation of Lord Siva and kept their respects even if a few of their cattle went missing.
The Leopards on the other hand, were happy with the cattle and never attacked humans. And so, this became a rare ecosystem where the Leopard being on top of the food chain, its coyness gave way to comfort and tolerance of humans. Two incidents in its history brought Jawai to national stage – (1) a documentary by Nat Geo showing this rare co-existence – it filmed a temple priest walking up a hill to his temple, alongside Leopards strolling around him, and (2) A ban on granite mining led by local activists – therefore also creating many more artificial rock dens for the Leopard to home into. Now, Jawai claims that there are atleast 35-40 Leopards who have been sighted, and many more. This then, since 2015, would be the highest density of Leopards in India.
Our wildlife photographer friends (and we are blessed to be friends with many of India’s top notch lensmen) spiked our interest in Jawai by showing their rich harvest of Leopard clicks for many years now. So, Jawai was bubbling to happen and when an extended weekend arrived this year, we took the first flight out of Bangalore into Udaipur for our own tryst with the Leopard.
We reached the quiet and dusty village of Sena – our destination by the waters of Jawai Dam – by early evening. Without TV or Internet, there is absolutely nothing to do in Sena except to use your binoculars to scan the hills around and pray that you sight a Leopard sitting lazily atop a temple or a rock – and yes, that happens too. We had an early dinner by 7pm – fantastic and tasty local food with their rich spices and aroma – checked and sorted our photography gear and were snoring by 10pm. Tomorrow held a lot of promise.
We got into our Safari Jeep – a marvelously refitted Gypsy keeping the photographers’ needs in mind – at 6am, even before the sun rose. Soon, we were climbing up many of the granite hills around Sena (unimaginatively numbered 1 to 6) with as much as 60 inclines and declines in sheer torchlight so as not to disturb the wildlife around. And within 10 mins of this deathly ordeal (I got used to it by our 3rd day) we saw a female Leopard and her sub-adult male cub just about 30 feet from our jeep, walking casually out of one ravine into another! Disbelief, sheer disbelief at our horrid luck – for we have taken innumerable safaris in Kabini (supposedly another haven in India to shoot Leopards) but never saw one for more than 1 microsecond – we followed those two beauties for the next 15 mins with glee by jumping over one boulder to another, all the while tucked inside our Gypsy. We had to leave them as they disappeared beyond the watering hole and as the sun just came up. What a lovely start to the day!
We then drove down the next 12 km to the village of Perwa to the temple atop a set of granite hills. This is the famous temple which was featured in the Nat Geo documentary. The entire path to the temple up the hills is contrasted by huge boulders and desert shrubbery on the ground. We trained our guns for it would be an awesome delight to click the Leopard here.
And soon enough, we heard Leopards growling. Our guide told us that this being the area of oldest male Leopard in Jawai, it seemed 2 male adults were fighting. And soon, those two quarrelsome individuals sauntered across the hills, barking and shouting at each other, oblivious to the 2 jeeps below who clicked them like the English Paparazzi. After what seemed to us an eternity, those dudes cooled down and disappeared into what was told to us as their den. And all this, just at 8am in the day!
Leopard on the Temple steps
As sun comes up, the Leopards disappear into their 1BHKs and don’t come out. We were told they would come back again around sunset. So the next 8 hours, till about 4pm in the afternoon, we drive back slowly to our camp, eat a hearty breakfast, take a leisurely shower, read our books, eat another heavy and hearty meal at lunch, even took a nice nap in our comfortable beds, got up, took our “high tea” and then snapped back again into our Safari Jeep. It should be more compared to a chopper for this vehicle can go almost anywhere and land almost anywhere – be it fields, rocks, swamps, high hills, logs, streams and anti-gravity. I almost felt like God sitting in these vehicles.
We again went back to the village of Perwa to look at our quarrelsome dudes of the temple. As we reached, they were nowhere to be seen, but we found a female Leopard sitting high up into a horizontal crevice, yawning and stretching as if she got up from her siesta. She posed for the next half an hour and then said something in her own language that again brought out our quarrelsome dudes to come out and again start chasing each other, but this time more playfully. And then, against the setting Sun and soft light we had a great half hour watching these 3 most beautiful animals playing with each other, unmindful of the generosity they were bestowing upon us mortals who were watching them from the ground below.
I officially declared this to be my luckiest wildlife day. We reached back to our village camp in darkness and feasted on our well laid out dinner. Our guide even took us to their deserted village temple up the hill in just a torchlight for the chance of seeing if there came any Leopard at night to rest. Think of the adrenaline and the anxiety in walking up on foot to expect a Leopard staring at us behind the Idol of Lord Hanuman! But okay, Leopard wasn’t there. What we saw was beautiful and laser sharp night sky with the faint milky band and the Orion constellation right over our head.
Next day was the same again. Got up at 6am, again before dark but this time headed out into the nearby Sena Hills. Again a Leopard by the torchlight, another one as we descended almost 90 degrees vertical down from the “Black Hill”. As light came up, drove around the Jawai dam waters for birding and saw crocodiles in the reservoir. Luck was so pronounced that when we came back to the camp, I even saw a Kingfisher 20 feet away sitting nonchalantly on electricity wires.
In the evening, we headed out towards the villages of Kothar, Bera & Varaval – more villages with granite hills and a granite quarry – and saw Leopards Sia and many more. As the light was fading and we were descending a steep hill to go back home, we got the news of female Leopard Neelam and her cub being sighted in a granite quarry 10 mins away from us. We rushed to join 8 more Safari vehicles jostling for space in the quarry, but we got a fantastic spot from where the Leopard and her cub were less than 10 meters away. Another 15 mins of bliss as those two played around and posed among the rocks before I sensed their mood shift and they left abruptly.
playing hide and seek amongst the graniteNext afternoon was our flight back, but not before another morning safari when we again went back to another village and spotted 2 Leopards from afar, and then some more with clear and fresh claws. In these five outings, we spotted 13 unique Leopards thereby giving credence to the fact that there would be more than 40 Leopards in this area. Clicked to the full, we returned through village shortcuts of green fields, rock hewn temples, fluttering peacocks, running monkeys and humdrum village life going past us. We were still starry eyed as we sat into our seats and watched the plane take off over this magical land. Will we return? Of course, many more times for this is surely the place to go to see Leopards.
When & How to go to Jawai:
Jawai is good to go anytime of the year. It being next to a huge water body, temperatures are bearable in summers and in winters, with the monsoon being very sparse. Also, as the Leopards don’t feel threatened here, they are spotted round are the year.
Udaipur International Airport (3hours from Jawai), Jodhpur International Airport (3hours from Jawai) and Ahmedabad Airport (6hours) are the closest airports with excellent road connectivity to Jawai.
The nearest most well-connected railhead is at Udaipur (connected well to Jaipur, Ajmer, Ahmedabad & Kota).
Roads are also in excellent conditions (barring the last 10km home stretch into Jawai) from Udaipur, Ahmedabad, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Ajmer & Kota.
Where to stay in Jawai:
Jawai is an area of ~20km diameter with many villages being the key centers of sightings as Leopards move around marking their territory. Most and most comfortable accommodations are in the village of Bera, but since it doesn’t have hills/territories of its own for sighting, staying there means driving out every time and wasting precious time.
Instead, we propose that you stay in the village of Sena. It is right besides the Dam with the maximum number of hills (and hence chances to spot). Also, other significant locations like Perwa are much closer to Sena. All other spots – be it Bera, Kothar, Devgiri, Jeevda, Varaval – are maximum 15 mins drive away. Contact Us for the most comfortable stay and most reliable drivers and guides in Sena.