Travel

Rajasthan: Jhalana Leopard Reserve

Take a drive through this leopard reserve near Jaipur with Rishabh Kochhar

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At Jhalana Leopard Reserve near Jaipur
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Nestled quietly in the lap of the Aravalli Hills lies the Jhalana Leopard Reserve. Just 10 kilometres away from the heart of Jaipur, it is the city’s best kept secret that finds its way on the itineraries of only the most avid wildlife enthusiasts, often shadowed by the more popular Ranthambore National Park just 3 hours away. And it is only through a chance encounter with a man from Jaipur that I end up in Jhalana, still hungover on my trip to Ranthambore where I spotted three tigers.

With an area of 23 square kilometers, Jhalana is said to be the world’s most densely populated leopard reserve, with almost 40 leopards calling the reserve their home. There are almost 2 leopards for every square kilometer. For this reason, tourists are almost always assured of sighting at least one leopard, although the average tourist generally spots more of them on a good day. But leopards aren’t the only fauna that grace these lands. At the entrance, visitors are welcomed by a party of langoors hopping about aimless, followed by an entire family of blue bulls feasting on some shrubs characteristic of Jhalana.

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Divided into three zones, each with a different topography, Jhalana is a delight for anyone interested in nature. But just as I begin soaking in my surroundings, there is news of a possible leopard spotting. What follows is an intense ride across the reserve, with my guide swerving across treacherous turns and making us bend over for trees that appear out of nowhere. And then, as if it had been waiting for us all this time, we spot a lone leopard cub, sitting nonchalantly, striking a grand pose. Leopards are said to be very shy by nature, but our little friend doesn’t seem to mind tourists trying to photograph it on their cameras and smartphones, while others attempt clicking selfies with the majestic beast in the backdrop. And just as aloof as it stood, the leopard turns around, having satisfied itself of the day’s 'darshan' and heads for the cooler respite offered by the thick vegetation on a nearby hill.

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The leopard’s deep gaze is bound to leave anyone stupefied. But spotting a leopard can be a very unceremonious affair. For one, they don’t carry the hype that is associated with tigers. They are also not very easy to spot, owing to their coats which blend well with their surroundings. Interestingly, their coats aren’t even as vibrant as some would have us believe. But for the recently unearthed wildlife enthusiast inside me, catching sight of a leopard in its natural habitat at such close quarters is the perfect remedy for my Ranthambore withdrawal. Getting a chance to photograph it is just the royal icing on the cake.

Till the early 1940s, Jhalana had a thriving population of tigers and was thus a major attraction for royals and British officers who loved indulging in shikaar. In fact, Jhalana’s forests once went all the way up to the Sariska Tiger Reserve. Maharani Gayatri Devi is said to have shot the last tigress of Jhalana in 1943, and leopards, which are tigers’ mortal enemies, then came to occupy these lands. Today, the old hunting lodge atop a hill offers a startling panoramic view of Jaipur- on one side of the reserve, thick vegetation greets the eye, while ugly, white-coloured monstrosities of urbanization smudge the background. It is hard to believe how close we are to nature, and yet so far.

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In 2017, Jhalana was thrown open to tourists for official safaris, but only a handful of people are allowed inside each day. Fortunately or unfortunately, very few people in Rajasthan, let alone India, know about Jhalana, although it makes for a perfect case study on how a forest with such a high density of leopards thrives in the middle of a large city.

Indeed, Jhalana is an oasis of natural fauna and flora in an increasing desert of urbanization. Although, this has taken a toll on the leopards that call Jhalana their home. With new, kaccha structures coming up along the eastern boundary of the reserve, leopards often end up in these villages, preying on the locals’ pet dogs and cattle. As my leopard safari ends, my driver-cum-guide asks a question that leaves me at a loss for words- “Who is right? The leopard that kills to feed itself in a land that once belonged to it? Or the man who attacks the leopard trying to prey on his livestock?”

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