I have seen many tigers at Ranthambore but I never saw a single leopard. I questioned my wildlife guide who confirmed that there were actually more leopards than tigers in Ranthambore. So why, I asked the guide, did I never get to see any?
He offered various explanations, all of them valid to different degrees. Leopards were nocturnal, but we were visiting the sanctuary during the day. Leopards were notoriously shy. They lived in the hills while tigers could often be found on flatter ground.
Finally, I asked my guide straight out: would I ever see a leopard?
He hummed and hawed but in the end his answer was categorical: no, I wouldn’t.
When I went to Southern Africa on a safari, I had a conversation with my guide there about how hard it was to see any leopards.
The guide offered the same explanations. Leopards, were shy, nocturnal etc.
Two sets of guides can’t be wrong so, I reconciled myself to never seeing a leopard properly. We go on and on about the numbers of tigers in India but we never seem to realise that there are many, many, more leopards: between 12,000 to 13,000.
Of late, when leopards are in the news, it is hardly ever in a good way. As more and more human settlements have encroached on their national habitats, leopards have been pushed to enter villages or areas inhabited by humans in search for food.
This set me thinking again. How strange is it that we keep hearing and reading about leopards in human settlements but find it so difficult to see them in the wild?
Then I got talking to Jaisal Singh. After the success of Sher Bagh, his renowned Ranthambore camp, Jaisal’s Sujan group of hotels has won a reputation around the world for combining a love of conservation with super-luxury. But I knew him in a different context. His grandfather, Romesh Thapar, one of India’s greatest intellectuals, had been very kind to me when I was a young journalist. Thapar introduced me to his daughter Malvika (Mala) and her husband Tejbir (Jugnu). They took over Seminar, the journal of ideas, from Thapar and I have often written for it. Jaisal is their son and I have known him since he was a schoolboy.
When I asked Jaisal why it was so difficult to see leopards, he told me that this was not necessarily the case. Yes, everything that I had been told was true, but nevertheless, leopards were not difficult to spot at the camp he ran at Jawai in Rajasthan.
Intrigued by his claim, I set off for Jawai which is halfway between Jodhpur and Udaipur (you can fly to either city and then drive for around two and a half hours). My wife and I were picked up from Udaipur by one of the camp’s rangers Surajpal Singh along with his partner Chaggan. They told us, as we drove to Jawai, that they would handle all our safaris throughout our stay. But when I asked the key question—would we see any leopards?—Surajpal was circumspect. There was a good chance, he said. Around 50 to 60 per cent, he added, but he did not want to raise our hopes.
He needn’t have worried. Just as we entered the camp, he got a call on his wireless to say that a leopard had been spotted. Chaggan drove us there and so, a few minutes after we had arrived at Jawai, before we had even checked in, we saw a magnificent male leopard sitting on the rocks. Most leopard sightings require binoculars to see the animal well. But here he was, right in front of us, so close that any mobile phone camera could have got him.
Surajpal Singh said we were lucky. Or perhaps he was the lucky one. Because both Chaggan and he brought us luck throughout our stay. We went out early the next morning (at 6.30am) and saw a female leopard playing with her cub. (Admittedly, this was high up on a hill and best viewed through binoculars unlike the previous day’s sighting). So, we had seen leopards twice. Not so elusive, perhaps.
That evening, as it began to get dark, Surajpal told us that our chances were even better now because leopards tended to move as the sun began to set. Sure enough, we saw a male leopard on a hill. As we watched through our binoculars, he began to walk down the rocks, his eyes flashing in the fading evening light. Hardly had we gone off to look for more leopards than he re-appeared at ground level, rushing past our jeep right in front of us.
I was content. Leopards may be elusive. But we had done okay. Two safaris had given us two sightings. And there had been the unexpected sighting before we had even checked in.
We refused to get up early and do the morning safari the next day because, to be honest, we were beginning to enjoy the non-leopard, full-luxury part of the trip a little too much.
I stay in hotels all the time so, I don’t say this lightly but Jawai is the best small luxury hotel in India. There are 86 staff members for 12 tents. The camp (you are not supposed to call it a resort) created by Jaisal and his wife Anjali is stunning. Counter-intuitively, it does not lean on all the old-jungle-lodge clichés. It has a sleek, art-deco look to the tents with every luxury imaginable (wines from Bordeaux’s top chateaus, heated swimming pools etc.). I am not generally a fan of tented accommodation but these tents were spectacular.
Service standards are extremely high and the Indian food is very good. Plus Jaisal and Anjali have designed experiences to delight their guests. After our early morning safari, we were surprised to be driven to a clearing in the bush where we found that they had set up a champagne breakfast just for us with a team of chefs prepared to cook whatever we wanted out there in the wild. On Valentine’s Day, Surajpal and Chaggan said they wanted to show us the local reservoir which I thought was a bit unnecessary but, as I had done well by trusting their judgment so far, I said nothing.
It turned out that they were only telling us half the story. We went uphill to a rock with spectacular views of the water, of the hills and of a golden sunset. The hotel had sent a team ahead to lay out chairs, tables and a full picnic consisting not of poncy little cakes and tea sandwiches but of things like samosas, home-made potato wafers, chivada, dhoklas etc.
Jaisal was at Jawai for part of our stay and one evening he offered to cook for us. We imagined he would serve something in the dining area but no, we were loaded into a glammed-up bullock cart and led in procession by men with flaming torches to Eden (a camp that is part of Jawai with three tents of its own that a family or a group can take over) where chefs cooked a whole goat on a spit and Jaisal made keema according to the Maharaja of Sailana’s recipe on an open fire in front of us, pairing it with Pol Roger Rose.
On Valentine’s Day night, they lit up the courtyard around our tent with hundreds of lanterns and candles and served a leg of mutton that had been cooked in an unusually elaborate style: the mutton had been stuffed with a chicken that had been stuffed with a quail which had been stuffed with an egg.
On the last day, we tore ourselves away from these luxury experiences and went back in the bush. A few minutes into our drive, we saw a male leopard on a rock staring silently at us. Chaggan then took us to another hill and we saw two cubs. We will come back, he said, the mother is certain to join them.
And indeed when we returned as night was falling, there was the mother feeding on a kill a few feet from us. Three cubs joined her as she feasted on the meat before she retreated slightly and suckled them.
So, is the leopard elusive? Of course, it is. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see it.
You just have to go to the right places.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, February 27, 2022
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