Where leopards live

Bera is known for its leopard sightings. I wondered why. The reason turned out to be simple. There are large numbers of leopards (Panthera pardus, tendua in Hindi) around this small village in the Marwar region of Rajasthan. It doesn’t matter how secretive and stealthy these animals are. They are still visible just because of their numbers. But I was curious about why there are so many of them here. After all, the land is not highly forested. This may be only the edge of the Thar desert, but it is largely scrubland, and well populated by humans.

Our jeep reversed up a steep slope of a granite monolith for a view of the landscape. From a height of about 40 meters, I took the panorama that you see above. At this time, soon after the monsoon, water still pools in hollows in the rocky terrain. In a couple of months they will begin to dry. Storage and irrigation have distributed water through this dry land in the last thirty years, enabling farming. The herders of earlier years also remain. The land was surprisingly green. The largest trees were stunted acacia (babool in Hindi), but thickets of succulents, thor and aak thor, could be seen. Aak (milkweed) was also common. About fifty years ago Prosopsis juliflora, an exotic mesquite, was seeded through large tracts of land. They proliferate. The caves in the ancient rock, and these dryland forests provide enough cover for leopards.

You can see another reason for the surprisingly easy visibility of these animals in the photo above. Much of the flat land between the rocky domes of granite have been plowed into farmland. As a result, the cave dwellings of the leopards are isolated places, and a dedicated watcher can park herself near one and wait for a sighting. A leopard is nocturnal, and most sightings are in the early morning or late night. The increasing popularity of Bera as a weekend tourist destination has resulted in some of the hotels employing “trackers”. During the day these men on motorbikes keep a constant vigil for leopards. They are connected to jeeps by mobile phones and walkie-talkies, and a sighting immediately attracts a few jeeps..

Another thing that puzzled me first was the availability of food. From the loud alarm calls of monkeys and peacocks when they saw a leopard moving, it was clear that leopards hunt them. But a peacock is a small bite for a leopard, and a monkey is not much larger. There are wild boars here (although we didn’t see any) and other small animals, but the terrain does not hold a leopard’s preferred food: deer. The answer is again simple. These leopards feed on livestock.

Elsewhere I’ve heard of cattle being attacked by leopards, even seen such a kill in Kumaon. Here the complaints were of leopards taking goats and sheep. Smaller animals are easier to kill. A leopard is incredibly strong; I’ve seen one take a full grown sambar up a tree after killing it. Making a killing of a cow or buffalo would not be too hard for a leopard, but then it would have to cache the remains after a feed. A goat or sheep would be a complete meal, and easier to catch. A leopard would have to kill one such every two or three days. I suspect it is less often, otherwise the conflict with humans would be uncontrollable.

One morning we’d heard alarm calls tracking a leopard as it walked across a patch of scrub land. It was walking away from rocks on the far side. We waited, because it would probably cross the road. The alarm calls stopped. Clearly the animal had hunkered down to survey the road for danger before crossing. Then, as we waited, a bunch of sheep came along the road. Then a couple from a village on a motor bike, talking loudly on a phone. Then a bunch of goats and another herder came along. A train passed the tracks whistling loudly (here they are required to whistle in order to alert wildlife about its coming). The sun was climbing higher. It was getting hotter. The leopard would not cross the road for a while, and it was time for our breakfast. We left. We asked trackers later about the leopard. It had not been spotted, nor had it made a kill.

Another time, this man came along with a bunch of goats. One had just birthed while grazing. He was carrying the kid in a sling around his neck. It was not completely free of blood. But the blood did not attract a leopard. Perhaps food is so plentiful here that the predators abhor the risk involved in confronting humans.

Evening. Once it was too dark for the camera to capture any wildlife, we drove up a rock. This granite is ancient, perhaps 750 million years old. It was laid down as the ancient super-continent of Rodinia broke up. As the colour faded from the sky we watched the stars appear. It was new moon, the beginning of Navaratri. Venus appeared close to the moon. Overhead Jupiter and Saturn appeared. I looked out at the land as lights appeared across the vast plain. This region of full of villages and hamlets. In the caves and crannies of this ancient granite, older than the first animals, one of the most recently evolved predators have found a home. I took a panorama of this strange land at the edge of the desert as the last light faded from the sky.

The bucolic life

Up close, you realize that living in the countryside is hard work. Farming, especially of rice, is famously back-breaking labour. Almost three millennia ago, people were already writing long poems about a past golden age when nomadic people herded cattle. Bucolic poetry, pastoral art, a hankering after a simple life in movies and TV shows saturate culture even now.

Little concern has he with quarrels and courts who has not a year’s victuals laid up betimes, even that which the earth bears, Demeter’s grain.

Hesiod (Works and Days, circa 700 BCE)

There are still some nomadic herders in India, but they are considered to be a little outside of civilized life. Generally, farmers look down on them and their lifestyle. It is a reflection of the way that city dwellers, in turn, look down on “simple” farmers, with an added layer of hostility about their “thieving ways”. In the Sahyadri region there are large tracts of land where the top soil is too thin for cultivation. We saw herds of cows grazing on such fields. I began to wonder whether these are used by nomads.

Later, we were caught in the middle of a traffic jam of a mixed flock of goats and cows. I looked out at the livestock, and revised my opinion. This was a very mixed bunch. They were unlikely to belong to nomads. They usually herd particular breeds of cattle. They are unlikely to have the money to buy new breeds. It was more likely that farmers here supplemented their incomes by raising cattle as well.

The herders were all women. The Family got a few good portraits of the women at work. This tied in with something else we’d noticed earlier. The fields that we passed were being ploughed by men. It was possible that the work is split by gender: women to tend cattle, men on the field. This gets interrupted during the time that the paddy has to be transplanted. Then the whole family, children included, get drafted into the work.

And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men.

Hesiod (Works and Days, circa 700 BCE)

A little further on, an earth mover was standing in a rice field. The farmers here are quite willing to sell their lands to city folks intent on building hotels and resorts for people like us. They’ll take the money and move to cities. In a couple of years the plateau will be filled with city people on a short holiday. About ten thousand years ago agriculture began, and villages formed. It took at least five thousand years for the majority of humanity to convert to a life of settled farming. A couple of thousand years later, a little before the time of Hesiod, the first cities formed. At the end of the twentieth century, for the first time in history, a majority of humanity began living in cities. We are lucky, we live in a moment of unprecedented changes. In our times the cities will begin to retreat from coasts into these highlands.

An empty village

Horses grazing around Ura, Bhutan

We reached Ura around noon. The air was just beginning to warm up as we drove into the village. The surrounding fields were green. We saw cattle and horses grazing nearby. Some of the fields were tilled. Although we didn’t pay much attention to it, we did not see anyone out on the fields. The houses were clean and well painted, but as we passed by, we did not see anyone. We could hear music playing somewhere, either a radio or the tape recorders which were common here at that time. But there was no sign of a person.

Calf spotted in a field in Ura, Bhutan

Someone voiced the most practical course of action, “Let’s go to the Dzong.” At breakfast in Bumthang we’d been told about the paintings in the Dzong, and we did want to see them anyway. The monastery occupied the highest point in the village. We drove there and parked outside. The large courtyard was empty. The doors were locked. We wandered around looking for someone to talk to and eventually a young villager appeared. Communication was difficult, because we did not speak Dzongkha, nor did he speak Hindi or English. Even our concerted efforts at charades did not convey the message that we wanted to enter the Dzong.

Dzong in Ura, Bhutan

Defeated, we walked back. Dinesh drove back to the highway, and we followed on foot. The houses were very neat, but the road was covered in dung. Villages in remote Bhutan do not have much drainage. Waste water from houses flows through gutters alongside roads and peters out in some fields. Ura was no exception.

Beetle on a fence in Ura, Bhutan

Walking through the village we saw women in a couple of houses. They were friendly and waved out at us, but we couldn’t find anyone who knew the languages we could speak. Maybe all the Indian movies which are shown here are dubbed in Dzongkha. There were cows in the fields. Bhutanese villagers seem to tend cows as well as yak.

The fences between properties were made of wood and bamboo. They were weathered to a lovely grey colour, as you can see in the photo here. It made it very easy to spot the colourful insects which were everywhere. Of course, there have to be many insects to feed the enormous numbers of birds that we had seen on the way.

Parathas being rolled in an eatery in Ura, Bhutan

It was time for us to think of food. We walked back to the highway. It was getting warmer, but at the pace we walked, a sweater was still comfortable. When we reached the highway we saw that Dinesh had located a little eatery. The women who ran it were very welcoming, and spoke a little Hindi. We got a lovely meal with fresh made parathas, and two wonderful dishes made of fresh vegetables from the fields. The meals we had in Bhutan were not particularly different from what we are used to, but everything was made with absolutely fresh ingredients which left a remarkable impression on me.

I remember the dining hall as full of local artwork, some hand-made, others printed. The calendar was Bhutanese, and there were a couple of large posters, at least one of which was the kalachakra. Masks were hung along the rafters. These are used in the temple festival. One of the ladies told us that during the festival a dance starts at the Dzong and comes past their shop and returns. The central part of the dance is a black yak, and there are others in various masks. I’d seen most of the masks on display, but the tiger mask (in the featured photo) was new to me.

I guess winter is the time to go back to Bhutan to see the temple festivals. All except Ura’s, which is in May. We seemed to have just missed it.