In this country of “tiger-centric” ecotourism, there is another member of big cat family which has won the heart of wildlife enthusiasts. Dry deciduous forest of Aravalli hill range in the state of Rajasthan is the prime destination of wildlife fraternity for the search of that “not so elusive” animal. The India leopard or Panthera pardus.
The conservation of this animal is being successful here based on an unique concept of “Cohabitation”. In 2017, Rajasthan became the first state in India to announce Project Leopard with a sum of Rs. 70 million (Rs. 7 crores) set aside to conserve leopards. It eventually kicked off in 2018 with the launch of a leopard reserve in Jhalana Forest Reserve.
As natural history commentator I have always considered myself lucky in terms of sighting leopards in wild. But at the same time I have a jinx with this animal as a wildlife photographer. I had seen leopards in tiger territory, for about four to five different occasions before my Jhalana visit. In Bandipur the leopard pair in courtship was in my side of the gypsy, but that time I was a beginner in photography and failed to set my camera according to light condition. In the evening of the same day in Bandipur again I repeated the mistake of wrong camera setting when we saw the leopard on tree at the last hour of our safari. Therefore, in both the cases I missed the opportunity of getting any decent shots. In Satpura, we saw three cubs but again light condition and position of our safari gypsy was not favourable enough to get any satisfactory shots. In Kabini leopard appeared in front of us suddenly like an orange flash of lightning and disappeared quickly. In Dandeli we got a glimpse of a mother and a cub in the darkness of early morning with the help of gypsy’s headlights. In Sariska the animal was stalking quietly a herd of sambar probably when we spotted him at the last hour of our safari. But again after hearing the first click of shutter it was rushed inside the forest, without giving much photo opportunity.
All of the above incidents were fabulous memory of leopard sighting and observing their characteristic behaviour, the only thing missing was a decent image of leopard.
In Jhalana that jinx too was broken, when on 1st April, in our evening safari we got alert by the alarm call of squirrel. Then we saw a female, locally known as Flora, slowly walked in. She was stalking her prey, apparently a squirrel on a tree. Yes, “urban leopard” of “urban forest of Jhalana” in the heart of the pink city of Jaipur, feeds upon squirrel, francolin, monitor lizard, pea fowl etc.
I reached Jhalana on 31st March, after a short visit to another “leopard sighting spot” of this magnificent ecosystems of grey forest of Aravalli. That was Kumbhalgarh Ranakpur Wildlife Sanctuary, located around 100 km away from the royal city of Udaipur. The sanctuary area starts at around 100 km away from the city of Udaipur. Typical tourists and wildlife enthusiast alike visit this place for two main reasons – pilgrimage to Ranakpur Jain temple and sighting of leopards.
morning at around 5:30, my local guide Viramdev Singh, took me to the fringe area of the forest, which was around 30 km away from the Ranakpur Safari Resort, where my overnight staying accommodation was arranged. The safari resort was few kilometres apart from Ranakpur Jain temple and entry gate of Kumbhalgarh wildlife sanctuary.
Area where we were heading in the morning is situated in village Perwa, in Pali district and part of Jawai leopard conservation area. According to Viramdev “leopard sighting is 99.9 % assured!” However, besides herds of nilgai, pea fowl and flocks of greater coucal we didn’t see much in that forest in couple of hours of that morning. Therefore, Viramdev’s “99.9% assurance” didn’t work. And people, who deal with wild life, know for sure that such assurance practically has no meaning. Wild life sighting depends upon climate, timing and several other ecological-behavioral factors.
Viramdev, a safari guide and a volunteer-tracker of forest department, told me another astonishing story of “strawberry leopard” at the end of our morning venture. Apparently a leopard with white coat and strawberry colored rosettes, sounded like an albino leopard to me, was found roaming in this forest area. Viramdev claimed that he knows the whereabouts of that leopard and was collecting more images, video footages and other information about its habitat etc., before he would finally publish that news officially. According to a wildlife census carried out in 2020, an estimated 136 leopards (Panthera pardus) are found in and around the Kumbhalgarh sanctuary and one of them could be a “strawberry leopard”.