"Be careful what you wish for…"
The tiger and the leopard are both felines, belonging to the same family genus. Though they are similar in certain characteristics, the most striking difference between the two, is in their outer fur. Tigers have black stripes on an yellowish brown coat with a white underside while the leopards have densely packed spots or rosettes. The tiger is the strongest, biggest member of the cat family and an excellent swimmer; leopards are smaller, lighter, excellent tree climbers, and the most agile members of the family. India is home to 80 percent of tigers in the world and has 53 protected areas allocated as tiger reserves. On the other hand, there are not more than 8-10 reserves delegated to leopards. Although the black stripes are much more popular among people, the rosettes are catching up fast.
Jhalana Leopard Safari Park, opened in December 2016, is India’s 1st Leopard Reserve, and is located in the foothills of the magnificent hilly terrain of the Aravalli’s, in the pink city of India (Jaipur, Rajasthan). Due to its close proximity to the Jaipur airport and the nation’s capital, it is becoming a favourite region to spot leopards and some exotic birds. My first trip to Jhalana was in March 2022 and I was as excited as I was anxious to get some splendid shots of this magnificent beast. I had just returned from a family trip to Ranthambore and in-spite of having taken seven safaris we had not spotted a single wild cat.
I was accompanied in this trip, by my two birder friends from my city (Gaurav Kumar & Jayant Sethi). As we waited for the gates to open, in my anxiety, I told our guide (the very famous Hemant Dabi) that it was just five sights we wished to see- both male and female leopards, a mother and her cubs, a leopard drinking water, a kill, and a leopard climbing a tree. Hemant had laughed at us and said, “sab pehli safari mein dekh lenge to aage kya dehkenge, phir nahi aana kya?” (If you see everything in your first trip, what will you see in your subsequent trips? Or do you not want to come back again!?). It is mentioned in our Indian scriptures that we should be careful what we wish for, as once a day the Goddess Saraswati sits on your tongue and makes whatever you say true. This was one of those times…
The gates opened and we entered into the beautiful terrain of the Aravalli’s, beholding surprises and treasures beyond ones imagination. Five minutes into the park we stopped at the first water hole and I spotted some movement. As I was pointing, our guide also started pointing excitedly, “Leopard, leopard,” he said. Now if you have never seen a leopard before, let me tell you that they merge very well with the ground and the bark of trees and it takes a few minutes for the eyes to spot it. As all three of us started to click, the guide realised that I was clicking a little ahead of where my friends were focusing and that’s when it struck us- there were not one but two leopards! The guide quicky recognised them as the male, Rana, and the female, Jalebi. My first wish was granted!
Jalebi was trying her best to lure Rana to her but he looked a little hurt and was giving absolutely no heed to her. We got some amazing shots of the love story that was truly not materialising. Later I realised I should have been more specific and wished to spot the leopards mating. Rana would keep shifting his position and Jalebi would follow at a close but safe distance. Soon Rana got up and came to the water hole and I got one of my best shots, until now, of Rana drinking water. My second wish was granted. Jalebi approached him again and by now the clearly irritated Rana moved away behind some trees. The driver was repositioning our jeep to get a better look but unfortunately for us Rana had climbed the tree in the blink of an eye … we had missed our shot. Rana settled on some branches in the tree, to catch some sleep, very well hidden from us. The driver moved again but instinctually, I stopped him. Jabeli followed Rana disappearing into the branches but not before granting me my third wish.
We were super excited and elated about the way the day had unfolded and yet, like greedy, relentless souls we wanted more. As the other jeeps had moved away in search of other leopards, our driver took a risk and went a little off the path to get another glimpse of the leopard pair. We stopped under a huge tree looking for them, when suddenly Jalebi appeared right in front of us on the tree ahead, giving us eyes that would burn a hole through the hardest metal! All of us froze and instantly whispered to our driver to retreat. The driver pointed upwards and mockingly asked if we hadn’t noticed what was above us… the huge and majestic Rana was lazily spread out and snoozing on the branches right above our heads. We quickly retreated and thanked God for not encountering any casualties.
Our next safari was in the afternoon and we prayed that it would at least be half as exciting as the first. We went straight to the spot we had started the first safari but the leopard pair had moved on and there was no action, so we decided to explore other areas of the park. We took a round and there was nothing apart from the scorching heat and the occasional peahens, monkey and deer. We were substantially disheartened and the guide took us for some bird watching while we waited for news of a leopard sighting.
However, it was time for another one of dreams to come true. Our driver took us to a tree where we looked around for 10 minutes before we spotted the beautifully camouflaged nightjar hibernating on the bark. A medium size nocturnal bird, with long wings, short legs and a short bill. Their soft plumage is cryptically coloured to resemble the bark or dry leaves, helping to conceal them during the day. I had been wanting to click this bird for almost 2-3 years and had been failing to spot it. Finally, I had done it! It took 20 minutes of convincing for me to move from that spot.
Dusk was setting in and it was time to leave the park when once again the guide’s phone rang. Rana and Jalebi had been spotted again with Rana still holding strong and Jalebi not giving up either. There was a huge line of 10-12 jeeps, since it was closing time and everyone wanted a good look at the majestic pair that were lying on the hillock in front. Unfortunately, we were far behind and after many requests and a little manipulating, we managed to reach close enough to get some decent shots of the couple. From never seeing a leopard to having seen it up-close and having three of my five wishes granted, I was more than grateful!
To be continued…