Jhalana Doongri Industrial Area near Jaipur harbours an unlikely 20-square-kilometre oasis. It is home to well-catalogued leopards, spotted deer, blue bulls, hyenas and an array of migratory birds perched atop internationally imported fauna. The day begins before the birds wake up, and a short ride, a cup of mildly hot but richly creamy Rajasthani tea and a couple of morning chills later, I find myself waiting for the government pass at the gates of the Jhalana Safari Park. While it might not seem that big a deal, the tube light on the wall I have grown used to isn’t here anymore, and the forest with all its shadows comes vividly awake.
The area has increasingly received attention after the state government’s ambitious Project Leopard was introduced to protect the apex predators, which are listed at par with the tigers under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972. The 2018 waterhole census, which was carried out after a logistically driven midsummer drying of half of the 16 artificial waterholes, revealed that the leopard count has gone up by 31.5 per cent in one year. This 24-strong leap, however, fell by two owing to alleged territorial disputes brought on by similar factors, including construction in and around the park’s core. The leopards here have grown accustomed to both tourists and their shutters, but the upheaval of huge territories (averaging 70 square kilometres per individual in the wild) must still take some getting used to.
The first morning went in an initiation into the lay of the land, and while we chanced upon the lower rungs of the food chain, I met the unlikely and only creature in Jhalana who regularly exploits the leopard’s cache: the rufous treepie, a relative of the friendly urban crow, bold enough to pick at carcasses oblivious to the bigger mouth barely a metre away. This is in part due to prey being aplenty, and while blue bulls in their prime might be a tad too strong, the young and the failing make for easy pickings, supplemented by generous portions of peafowl. The forest department has had limited success in introducing the chital, but other decisions, again with varying degrees of success, have now started yielding unforeseen consequences.
Palm, babul, bamboo and acacia, more often than not procured internationally, continue to be methodically planted throughout the quartz hills and flatlands of the Aravallis that Jhalana is set in. Despite good intentions, it introduces potentially invasive species in an already cramped equation. Just out of sight, I heard a hyena scare the first leopard I’d seen up a tree. Pound for pound, leopards might be supreme among the cats, but hyenas have the mammal kingdom by the neck when it comes to sheer jaw strength.
Invasive plant species can spark drastic results too. Despite the very dependable recluse it offers the leopard, it also prevents the growth of any grass around it. The extensive root system goes far and wide, leaving little water for grass to thrive on, which in turn goes back up the ladder exponentially as the herbivores lose fodder. This conundrum, being self-imposed to an extent, has a majority of honourable biologists believing in the preservation of or the return to pristine textbook habitats. Although that might be essential in some cases, evolution, if anything, speeds up during calamity. The otherwise solitary felines have started living in close proximity now owing to abundant nutrition. The two sisters I met, Cleopatra and Juliet, one early morning are a testimony to that.
Jhalana is much more in times with its parent, Jaipur, the migratory population, often coming from far and wide. One such specimen was Punjab’s state bird, the northern goshawk. Further research and a consequent failed state government breeding programme later, this species is an example of another fruitless intervention. Having been one of the most prized hawks during the Mughal period, nowadays a sighting is rare, maybe once about two years. I repeatedly mistook the Eurasian sparrowhawk for the goshawk, but persistence paid off with a distant peek one afternoon.
That the northern goshawk continues to traverse its much older flight path compared to its mechanical cousins at the neighbouring Jaipur International Airport is somehow reassuring—a reminder of a historic pilgrimage, even if only at ecological museums like Jhalana.
Jhalana Safari Park is located about 5km from Jaipur’s city centre. Apart from leopards, expect to spot striped hyenas, desert foxes, golden jackals and more. Birders will delight in the 200+ species of birds, depending on the time of year. The park is open all year round, but the best time to visit is November to March for birds, and the summer months for leopards. The entry fee is `50 per head, plus a safari vehicle at `1,900 for 2.5 hours (max. 6 persons). Private operators also offer safari packages; costs vary. Contact: +91-9929400009