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 (babul 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 famous five

Although I’d managed to figure out the shortest walks between the various temples in this neighbourhood of Guangzhou, I hadn’t factored in the time that it would take us to see each of them. So, by the time we arrived at the impressive gate of the Temple of the Five Immortals (Wu Xian Guan), we were pretty far behind our schedule. Still we paused to admire the two stone qilin flanking the entrance. The qilin are described in the West as unicorn, but these had no horns. They are shown with the head of a dragon, but with an animal body with four hoofed legs. These had a body which looked scaled, but probably represent flames. Qilin are shown in flames. Their use as doorkeepers in this Taoist temple probably has the symbolic meaning that only good people can pass between them.

It seems that the five immortals arrived in this place during the 9th century CE riding goats of five different colours, and gave a present of rice to the people of this place. This said to be the origin of the name of the city; according to this etymology, Guangzhou means the city of goats. We never got to see the five goats statue in nearby Yuexiu park, so it was good that I’d taken photos of the stone goats in this temple. These are apparently the petrified remains of the goats that the immortals rode. According to plaques inside, the temple was founded in 1377 CE, in the spot where a shrine stood earlier. The main wooden structure is said to have survived since the founding of the temple. Given the many disasters which the city passed through, I wonder how accurate this claim is. However the woodwork is certainly admirable.

An important thing to see here is the stone with a couple of depressions. These are called the footprints of the immortals. The bit of water which has collected in the depression and the large number of turtles basking on the stone make it an obviously lucky and powerful spot. We joined the few other people who were busy taking photos of this site. North of the stone is a small garden, which looked inviting. We walked along it and saw the famous bell tower called the First Tower of Lingnan (below).

The tower holds the bell cast during the founding of the temple, and therefore dating back to the foundational years of the Mings, and the early years of the Hongwu emperor. Since China was still in an unsettled state at this time, I wonder whether the idea was to use this bell partly as a military warning system. The founding of the temple carried the symbolism of a China reunified under an emperor who claimed that he was the Son of Heaven. The bell is massive, and the tower apparently serves as a resonating chamber for it. As we left I wished we’d had the time to explore this place more slowly.

Door with Goats

Walking through Jodhpur, I saw this striking doorway with two goats tied up outside it. The door brought to my mind the story that V. S. Naipaul reports about his father, Seepersad. The father was the first journalist of Indian origin who worked for the Trinidad Guardian. As a confirmed rationalist, in one of his articles he questioned his compatriots’ belief in animal sacrifice. This incensed members of his community who forced him to sacrifice a goat. According to Vidia Naipaul, his father did not recover from this humiliation.

What form did my father’s madness take?
He looked in the mirror one day and he couldn’t see himself.
–Conversation between V. S. Naipaul and his mother
(in Finding the Center)

I’m sure that a clever writer like Naipaul meant something more with this reported conversation than just what one reads. I’m pretty certain that Naipaul the son presents this conversation as a metaphor for Seepersad’s inability to comprehend those in his island who believed in animal sacrifice. I wondered as I took this photo what I did not see here. How strange to find a resonance with Naipaul’s Trinidad in this distant town!