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Where Wildlife Roams Free: Experience Jawai’s Leopards Up Close Like No Other!

Thrilling leopard safaris and offroad expeditions take wildlife watching in Jawai’s Bera Village to new heights.

It’s 5.30 am on a chilly October morning. The sun hasn’t risen yet and our open safari jeep is ready outside the chalet of WelcomHeritage Cheetahgarh Resort to take us through the winding roads or ‘no-roads’ of the Jawai hills. Exiting the resort, it’s pitch-black dark. The area is still draped in the veil of night. However, the only question that lurked through our mind was that would we be graced by the presence of Jawai’s elusive leopards?

The jeep whizzed through the dense grasslands on either side of the road, cutting through the inky blackness. The guide had one hand on the wheel, the other brandishing a swinging flashlight and headed straight to the forest. Once, a hare ran right in front of the jeep, and another time, an owl flew low. We have now veered off the main path into the lair of the leopard. A little bit of off-roading and we perched on a solitary hillock.

Jawai safari

Surrounded by a few more jeeps, we faced a huge hill ahead. The wind whipped through our hair, carrying with it the crisp, chilling air of the dawn. Every rustle of grass sent a jolt of adrenaline. As the first light of dawn broke over the horizon, we waited. Patience is important to witness the majesty of these elusive predators.

There is thrill in Jawai’s wilderness

A two to three hours drive from Udaipur, the Rajasthani landscape changes as dusty roads lead to Bera Village. In Jawai’s Bera village, you can still find wheat and mustard crops that are laboriously picked by hand. The rocky hills rise majestically on one side, home to the stealthy leopards. On the other side, the village comes alive with the Rabari tribe, their painted homes, and the melodious clang of bells adorning the necks of cattle. It’s a place of an anomaly: a human-leopard cohabitation, with lesser to zero conflict.

The thrill of leopard safari in Bera knows no bounds. So much that we took four safaris to make the most of this leopard-rich region.

Jawai's landscape

Additionally, it’s the thrill of off-roading on these rocky hills – our experienced guide is impeccable with the machine. One time, we were driving over dried-out river beds, skidding across sandy sections; another time we were driving amidst spiky dudhi and thorny kikar – local Rajasthani vegetation. Then, he took the jeep roaring up some steep inclines and then took us to the top of one hillock to catch a breathtaking sunset. Shades of crimson, amber, and indigo mingle while the rugged silhouette of the hills serves as a dramatic backdrop.

Suddenly, our guide warned us to hold tight as we might be wheezing through the roads and hillocks at full speed. We held tight, knowing we had a chance to encounter the leopard at every turn. Occasionally, he would contact someone on the phone, or scan a rock to share updates on the wild cats’ whereabouts. After quite an off-roading experience, we rode upon one hillock while time seemed to slow to a crawl. Unfortunately, in the fading light, it wasn’t our day to see the cat.

The next morning, I felt the Universe pulling all its powers to help me catch a glimpse of Jawai’s famous leopards. As we waited atop that solitary hillock, suddenly, our guide directed our attention to a movement in the distance. Through the lens of the binoculars, I caught sight of a sleek leopard gracefully making its way across a bush to a higher rock where its little ones await.

Jawai leopards

“That’s Jiya and her cubs,” tells our guide. Jiya begins to play with her cubs, they wrestle and tumble, sharing a couple of tender moments. The people in the area know each of the leopards in Jawai by name. What a privilege to witness such a spectacle! The camera clicking kept up its frenetic pace from each vehicle while the family posed.

That evening, we steered to a different part of Bera’s rocky forests. Perched once again atop a solitary hillock, after what felt like an eternity, we saw a far-sighted glimpse of leopard Neelam. There, amidst the rocky outcrops and scrubby bushes, Neelam blended seamlessly with the surrounding landscape. With grace, she extended her reach, assessed her domain, cast a quick look at the anticipating spectators, and then relaxed on a nearby rock. But as quickly as she had appeared, she melted back into the shadows.

Jawai leopards

The next morning safari followed the same. We traversed rocky terrain, sometimes flew over grasslands and roads as our guide made quick calls, and even studied pug marks. As we waited, the only sound in the quiet for the next few minutes was the wind rustling through the desert shrubs. The nice winter light began to heat up a bit. At one time, there was the rustle of leaves near a bush with calls–sometimes a grunt or a meow. Yet it lay hidden within the rugged wilderness.

Camaraderie of humans & leopards?

As far as the eyes can see, Jawai’s Bera village is full of rocky plateaus. Here, you’ll find the largest concentration of leopards in India. But what makes this conspicuous presence of these big cats? Unlike in many other regions where human-wildlife conflicts are rife, here, the two species have learned to coexist in harmony.

Jawai landscape

Jawai’s rocky outcrops, with their labyrinthine caves and crevices, form an ideal habitat for leopards. They provide them with shelter and vantage points for hunting. Yet, amidst this seemingly inhospitable landscape, it’s the home to the Rabari community. For generations, the Rabaris have roamed these lands, a group of semi-nomadic shepherds that moved from Iran to India around a millennium ago.

With their distinct appearance and traditional attire, they are a sight to behold. The Rabari men, mostly wear white angrakhas and dhotis with a red turban, wrapped meticulously around their heads. They sport long, thick, twirled moustaches. “There has not been a single incident of poaching in at least five decades,” our guide tells us.

Jawai's Rabari tribe

Importantly, leopards in this area do not view humans as a possible threat. Rabaris consider leopards to be the holy keepers of the hill shrines spread around the area. Wild cats are frequently spotted napping on the steps of temples. It seems that the inhabitants never fight back when the leopards kill their animals. “The days belong to humans, and the nights to the leopards,” is an old Rabari proverb.

There are no safari gates to mark the beginning or end of the adventure. Instead, it’s an open ground.

In recent years, the story of Jawai’s leopard-Rabari coexistence has garnered international attention. Conservationists see a model for peaceful cohabitation between humans and wildlife in this unique relationship—a shining example of what is possible when mutual respect and understanding prevail.

Into Cheetahgarh Resort & Spa

When it comes to luxe resorts, the number is still low-key here. But the community welcomes tourism. Most of the guides and drivers are from the village, employed as trackers, who alert hotels to leopard sightings.

WelcomHeritage Cheetahgarh Resort

One of the very few resorts here that combines the allure of a wild forest, a rich local culture, fascinating wildlife, and cosy luxury is WelcomHeritage Cheetahgarh. The resort, which is surrounded by 20 acres of beautiful vegetation, has 20 opulent rooms, chalets, and tents that provide seclusion and exclusivity. Additionally, they even have a serene lake, a rare feature for a property in the area.

As you approach WelcomHeritage Cheetahgarh, the first thing that captures your attention is its imposing facade framed by the majestic Aravalli range. The accommodations are nothing short of luxurious. Our spacious room was adorned with intricate furnishings plus a private sit-out overlooking the sprawling and serene lake. The place is a fascinating blend of regal charm and modern comfort.

WelcomHeritage Cheetahgarh Resort

The Cheetahgarh Resort promises a feast fit for royalty. Starting with Rotela Café, there are different cuisines available. Whether you are in the mood for laal maas, ker sangri or Italian pasta and pizza, the place has something to satisfy every culinary craving. The chefs deliver nothing less than culinary excellence with every bite. They even have a quaint, rustic dining setup done on a hillock, Jawai Under The Sky. Located on a granite rock with a panoramic view of the lake, the setup serves delicious wood-fired pizzas and kebabs.

WelcomHeritage Cheetahgarh Resort Jawai Under the Sky
Jawai Under The Sky experience at WelcomHeritage Cheetahgarh Resort

However, there’s more to Jawai. We were recommended a trip to the famous Jawai Dam and saved it for the last. The dam was built in 1957 by Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur and served the entire Pali district in western Rajasthan.  But can a dam look like this? After ascending a sandy hillock and descending a steep one, the jeep came to a halt on a broad plain of gigantic proportions. The place is a marvel defying conventional expectations of a dam.

Jawai leopard

On one morning, as we drove through the rugged Jawai terrain back to Udaipur, the Rabaris were traversing the dusty roads with their cattle in tow. Realising that this spectacle is about to come to an end, I wonder, is Jawai’s fragile alliance with leopards likely to last much longer? Currently, there is a very small tourist footprint. However, more small resorts, cars and jeeps are arriving, bringing people to see these amazing animals. I find myself pondering about the delicate balance that defines this unique landscape.

Only time will tell whether Jawai’s delicate equilibrium can withstand the pressures of the modern world…