‘We went to India not only to observe the changes that had occurred since my former visit, 23 years ago, at the conclusion of our Philippine war, but also to visit places of interest, see something of the military air and ground forms, visit some old friends and acquaintances and then have a good tiger and big game hunt…Tiger hunting is regarded in India as a royal sport, and he who is successful in bagging this master of the jungle is looked upon as a public benefactor, for the number of people killed each year by wild animals and reptiles in India is appalling. Statistics are difficult to obtain because the native in some places hesitate to report what has happened, and in other cases those killed disappear without leaving a trace. The number reaches into the thousands, however.’
Brigadier General William Mitchell, Assistant Chief, US Army Service
A lot has changed since Mitchell wrote this in 1924. Now hunting of wild animals is officially banned and those blue blooded Rajputs, who often partnered the British on their hunting expeditions, their present descendants have become saviors of wildlife.
It is difficult to date the practice of hunting as a sport in our country but as per the available historical records it proliferated in the early 16th century CE with Akbar’s passion for big games. He began the tradition of royal hunting, shikar that was followed by Mughal rulers until the dynasty fell in 1857 CE. A large number of murals and miniature paintings from 16th century CE depict Mughal, Rajput, Turks and Afghan nobility hunting from elephant or horse back. These outings were an exotic and heroic sport and tigers were considered the ultimate trophies.
British hunters along with their Rajput counterparts almost shot the tigers to extinction. The mass killing of tigers and leopards showcased their royalty, machismo, power and wealth. Often the hunters went out in large parties, carried by 10, 20, 30 or even 40 elephants. Their servants dragged and baited tigers into open public spaces for grand exhibition and the hunters often legitimized the killing by arguing that the big cats were terrible blood thirsty beasts with an unquenchable desire for human flesh.
This is one side of the story and the other side shows a remarkable bond between India’s people and the natural world. The same Mitchell further writes: ‘The jungle beasts of India are very ferocious, while the inhabitants are practically unarmed and are unwilling to kill most animals on account of their religion. A fact which forcibly impresses the western travelers in India is the proximity in which the indigenous people and the animals of the fields and forest live. Wild creatures of all sorts are found at the doors of the huts’.
After a century of Mitchell’s hunting expedition, I meet a young scion of Mewar’s Rajput clan Pushpendra Singh Ranawat at Bera village in the heart of Rajasthan’s renowned Jawai Leopard Country. Pushpendra runs a successful wildlife camp on his own ancestral farm called Varaval Leopard Camp (www.varawalleopardcamp.com). Together we went on an expedition deep into the leopard country and the exotic Jawai Dam where you see some of the best landscape in the whole of Peninsular India against the backdrop of spectacular Aravali Hills, one of the oldest in the world with a vast expanse of wetlands, agricultural farms and pasture lands. The drive was thrilling – dare devil off-roading on solitary granite hills.
Each hill of Jawai has a story and on some hills there are temples of Hindu and folk gods. Interestingly, the local villagers associate the temples with leopard as the face of the god and treat the kills of their domestic sheep/goat or stray dogs by leopards as an offering (prasada). This reminds us of India’s millennia old humble faith in Almighty resulting in the unique bond between the human and the natural world. In the last 50 years of Jawai’s history there is not a single case of leopard killing a human being in complete contrast to the erstwhile maharajas and British hunters claim of big cats as man eaters and therefore a reason to kill. Watch the film here to know more about Jawai.
Pushpendra’s story starts much before his birth. Rao Bahadur Thakur Shivnath Singh Ji, Pushpendra’s great grandfather and the Thakur Saheb of Bera was a passionate hunter.
By the time his grandfather Thakur Saab Lal Singh Ji was young enough, India was free and had banned hunting. A new journey had begun. As a child Pushpendra would listen scores of stories of shikar from his dada and nani and play around the very hills with his peers where his great grandfather once upon a time would set camps for hunting. These early childhood experiences set him on his path, not for an armchair corporate career but to lead and educate people like us about his land and the leopards of Jawai. For the last three and half years he has been consistently researching and watching leopard behavior and passing the constantly created new knowledge to his esteemed guests. His day starts with an early morning safari at 4.30 am, much before sunrise with guests to Jawai’s magical hills and wetland and ends with yet another safari in the evening.
Jawai consists of 28 granite hills and most of the leopards live in and around these hills in volcanic caves that are found in abundance. Rebari shepherds, farmers and Garasia tribes inhabit the landscape. The seasonal Jawai River flows from east to west before meeting the Luni River in the midst of Thar Desert.
The Jawai Dam was built by Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur in 1950s to provide water to the parched region of Marwar. It is the biggest wetland in the whole of Western Rajasthan. The dam may have brought prosperity to the region as you see extensive canals in the countryside supplying water to the fields. Once upon a time a harsh desert land now altered into a mosaic of green and yellow with wheat and mustard plantation as far as your eyes can see. However, the river which once carried seasonal runoff has dried up completely.
My dear friend Krishnapal Singh Champawat shares his views on the now dry Jawai River in the film below.
Jawai has one of the largest concentrations of leopards in the country but it is still not a sanctuary either under the protection of state government or Government of India. This is perhaps due to the high density of human population and their peaceful coexistence with leopards. It is true that Jawai has leopards because there are humans and therefore has an easy food supply. Pushpendra’s team is working towards obtaining the status of community owned reserve forest for Jawai where local community will manage their wildlife resources, not the government. If it comes through then it would become a classic example of Gandhiji’s Swaraj, an idea that had led India to its independence from the British Raj.
Author – Jitu Mishra