Believe it or not: There is a village in Rajasthan called Bera where leopards roam free. Along it flows the river Jawai, with the Jawai Dam built on it. And the resulting beautiful lake is home to some of the biggest crocodiles you will ever see. These are not a part of any National Park or sanctuary; most people don’t know about it, not even Rajasthanis. You will not see any madding tourist crowds here – go wildlife spotting freely, but remember you are on your own here. With leopards for company.
Walking into a leopard’s lair
There is no count of the leopards in Bera, but there are more than a few. My first sighting was of a mother with two cubs – not very close, but I could clearly see them along a ridge through my long lens. They could be seen walking, stopping, playing on trees, and showing their love to one another in a way only mothers and children can. As the sun set and they walked away into the dark of the forest, my guide highlighted two ‘diamonds’ glowing in the spotlights trained on them – these were the shining eyes of a male leopard perched on a peak. Awesome!
And then I walked into a leopard’s lair – literally. My guide was aware of a cave where a female leopard and and her two cubs were residing; we were passing close to this cave to park ourselves at a good vantage point for the photography. Suddenly, we were upon the mother – literally not more than 20 yards away. She was relaxing early morning on a rock outside her cave – we were both taken by surprise. Within 25 seconds, she had walked away – leopards are shy animals. I was lucky too – one should never come so close to such cats, especially when they are protecting their cubs.
I went on to have more sightings of adults and cubs alike – but none came close to this experience.
There are some travel operators who will offer to put up a leopard spectacle for you. They tie a goat to a tree, get you into a safe position for a good view and wait for a leopard to come for the bait. Many tourists get thrills with a close up view of the leopard killing its helpless prey. Do you want this for yourself? Make the right choice.
The Safari Continues
There is more game in the area than just leopards and crocodiles. If you are lucky, you will spot sloth bears – but they usually come out at night to feast on berries. I saw two bears climbing up a mountain in the early morning hours. It seemed more like they were rolling uphill!
Other sightings include those of Antelopes (alsoknown as Nilgai or Indian Blue Bull)– some alone, others in groups. Males are distinguished with their dark grey coats, while females are brown. Agile leopards feast on them; the lazy just help themselves to goats and cows belonging to the neighbouring villages.
The forests are also home to hyenas, hares, foxes and birds like Pelican, Greylag Goose, Robin Accentor, Demoiselle Crane, Barheaded Goose and Indian Partridge besides others. Hope you are lucky enough to see them all!
The lake by the Jawai Dam
The crocodiles too make for an unforgettable sight. Big, chunky fellows at over 15 feet in length, they were busy doing what they do best – nothing. But don’t be fooled with their sleepy demeanor – they are man-eaters. Ask the poor shepherds who take their herds to the edge of the water. Not too long before my visit, two shepherds are believed to have lost their lives. I saw crocodiles sun-bathing safely far out on the islands in the lake. Incidentally, the lake is full of fish, and locals disturb the crocs when they go fishing in their small row boats.
* Best time to go: Summers can be very harsh in Rajasthan – it is best to go between September and March.
* Getting there: You can go by road from the nearest railhead or airport in New Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur or Udaipur. It is best to have a car to yourself during your stay to get around.
* Accommodation: You have many options for all budgets – and more coming up as the destination gets popular.
* Name of the place: Leopards are spotted on many hills in the area, each referred to by the village close by. The destination is thus referred to by many names, Bera and Jawai being the most common.
* Safaris: Since the region is not protected, there are no safari bookings or fee to be paid. Your hotel will usually arrange suitable vehicles and guides for the same and charge you as appropriate.