Bera, The Indian Village Where Man and Leopards Live Together

May 10, 2022 0 comments

Along the sun-soaked Aravallis of Rajasthan thrives the leopard country of India. In and around Bera, a small village in Pali district, majestic looking cats roam with untamed freedom while locals keep their heads bowed in reverence. A perfect harmony exists around these villages, wherein leopards attract tourism and livelihood for the people and the people let them animals prey on their possessions.

A leopard near a shrine in Bera. Photo: Shatrunjay Pratap

This strange story of coexistence began some 45 years ago, when six leopards hopped down from the Kumbhalgarh National Park in search of rocky mountains. Bera offered the perfect natural habitat, and with a labyrinth network of caves snaking through the rocks, soon became their permanent residence. Cubs were birthed within the shadows of the caves, and the maze of tunnels provided the cats enough space to change their location every three days. This lifestyle improved the chances of survival for baby leopards, so that where only one in three cubs survive on an average, almost all three would survive in Bera. Soon, the population was up by dozens and by 2020, locals had spotted between 50 and 70 leopards in the area.

The 20sq km area of Jawai bandh around Bera turned into the Jawai Leopard Conservation Zone in 2003. Safari guides offer a 99 per cent chance of spotting a leopard on a safari, and that is despite the leopards still living outside the conservation zone. Bera now contains one of the highest concentrations of leopards in the world. With an almost religious loyalty from the local Rabari community, these cats have gotten cosy in the village lands and roam freely by their ponds and roads. Leopards are spotted by the temple steps on top of hillocks and locals halt on their way to work while cats cross their path like ordinary pedestrians. Other species roam here too—foxes, hyenas, blue bulls, crocodiles in the reserve, and 200 species of birds on the trees. But none other than the big cat is considered to be the incarnation of Ambey Mata.

Photo: Koushik Ranjan Das/Wikimedia

Leopards tend to prey on cattle and livestock that is raised by the locals, but Bera’s community does not resist this ecosystem. In their opinion, if a leopard takes a sheep from them, God will grant them twice as much in compensation. Superstition aside, the government acknowledges the rampant preying and compensation loss of livestock under its Van Dhan Yojana—Rs 4,000 for a goat and around Rs 15,000 for a cow. Naturally, the locals of Bera believe in allowing leopards to exist in peace. Many refuse to accept the monetary compensation as well and simply wait for the cycle of life to take its course. The cat is considered holy, remains untouched, and its idol stands in almost every temple around the area.

India is home to almost 14,000 leopards. But in most parts of the country, the mighty cat is poached in the process of foraying for land or in retaliation to fear. It is only here in Bera that one finds the cats roaming untouched between houses and amidst humans.

While most leopards have crawled the ridges of Bera’s slopes, many wandered through the private properties of the village as well. But such a bold spectacle of nature’s play with man has obviously attracted attention of outsiders, if not locals. Tourists have begun buzzing around the villages since the past few years, their binoculars hanging by their necks for when the much-awaited spotting strikes. Many of the private properties have been leased out to hoteliers and resort owners, so that hotels and resorts in Jawai Bandh area can host the influx of tourism in the land. The publicity has caused an imbalance in the ecosystem in many ways.

Where once the leopard prodded in search of prey, now humans saunter in search of the leopard. Many safari guides place animal carcasses on the roads to lure out the cats for display. The locals get paid for the slaughter of their animals and the tourists gather content for their Instagram. But in this unregulated, win-win play between humans, the space for leopards to roam is shrinking. Male cats do not allow other male cats to enter their territory. This means that in a lack of space to accommodate a growing population, attacks on male cubs are on a consistent rise. The forest department continues to rescue leopards but for how long?

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