Inside 'Leopard Country' Where Humans and Big Cats Exist in Harmony
All photos by Arman Khan

I Visited ‘Leopard Country’ Where Humans and Big Cats Live in Harmony

The Rabari tribe’s unique relationship with leopards is a lucrative tourist draw, but they are missing out as safari businesses take over their idyllic homeland.

In the desert state of Rajasthan in north India, the hills of the Jawai area hold many miracles. For starters, Jawai is home to the biggest dam in western Rajasthan; the breeding ground for countless migratory birds; its granite hills flecked with caves shaped by lava millions of years ago.

These caves are also home to leopards, with the unusually high population of the big cat giving the place the moniker “Leopard Country.” There are between 66 to 100 leopards in the area according to the locals here, and the odds of spotting the elusive cat on any day are as high as 90 percent.  


But while you go out looking for them in stomach-churning safari jeeps, you cannot miss the red-turbaned men, their shirts gracefully tied in elegant knots with strings, towels with floral prints slung over their shoulders and wearing shoes that point to the sky. 

This is the Rabari tribe, famous for their harmonious relationship with the leopards.  


Between just four square miles, the rocky outcrops of Jawai are brimming with more than 60 odd leopards.

In the local Marwari language, Rabari translates to “outsider.” In the context of the tribe, it usually refers to the fact that the semi-nomadic community migrated from Iran by way of Afghanistan thousands of years ago. Settled along the plains and peaks of Rajasthan and Gujarat states, the primary deity of the Rabaris is Lord Shiva, one of the three primary deities of Hinduism. The fact that Shiva is often visualised in pictures and idols clad in leopard skin is no coincidence.

According to the most recent reportStatus of leopards, co-predators and megaherbivores in India” released last year by the environment ministry, the leopard population in the country jumped by 63 percent in the previous four years, with almost 13,000 leopards presently in the country. Despite the odds of crossing paths with a leopard being high out here, attacks on humans are few and far between. The animals are revered, and for some Rabaris, the leopard even assumes a spiritual, almost familial status. 


I joined 66-year-old Bhikaram Dewasi, a Rabari herdsman, when he took out his 150 goats on their daily morning pasture, as the leopard hills loomed large around us. “We rarely spot leopards during the day,” he said. “They will never attack the goats and cows if they see a Rabari herdsman accompanying them.”


Every morning, Bhikaram Dewasi, a Rabari, freely takes his goats out to graze in leopard country. Usually, leopards don’t attack animals if a Rabari is shepherding the herd.

Bhikaram doesn’t even remember the last time a leopard fatally attacked a Rabari. The latest incident, as reported in National Geographic, was 20 years ago, when a leopard snatched a one-year-old child in a village in this region. 

We stopped by a low pond for the goats to hydrate themselves in the scorching March heat. The water body was on the verge of completely drying up, surrounded by a thicket of thorny bushes and dried weeds, a precursor to the harsh summer months that spell fatal heat waves that would decimate much of the remaining foliage.  


Rabari women often go alone in the forests to collect firewood for cooking. Despite being in one of the most arid states in India, Jawai is fertile land for a variety of crops. Pictured here is a Rabari woman preparing a bread made out of corn flour.

“I have seen many leopards in my life, but it’s important for people to understand that we don’t make a big deal out of their presence, unless they end up attacking our livestock,” Bhikaram said. 


In Jawai, many folktales abound. One such is the legend of one Karan Singh who is said to have slayed the demons of Jawai, only to be martyred in the fight.

Anticipating such attacks on livestock, the government has a policy of compensation. But there are no official statistics on the number of livestock killings by leopards, and the compensation is meagre. On average, Rs 4,951 ($74) is handed out for livestock kills, Rs 6,892 ($103) for human injury, and Rs  215,718 ($3,224) for human deaths caused by big cats. 


For Rabaris who lose their cattle to preying leopards, the process of compensation is anything but easy. The aggrieved Rabari herdsman must first locate the carcass of his cattle, even if it leads them to the leopards’ lairs. In the rare event that they manage to track it down, they must take a picture of the dead cattle and send it to the forest department to process their compensation. 

“Many of the Rabari farmers, including my father, don’t even own a mobile phone, let alone a smartphone to do all of this,” said Hartnaram, Bhikaram’s son who now works in the service department of the nearby resort Bijapur Lodge, located at a safe distance from the core leopard hills. 


Bhikaram Dewasi’s son, Hartnaram, says that the Rabaris have carefully cultivated a relationship of harmony with the leopards by practising restraint when they celebrate festivals, not resorting to bursting firecrackers or loudspeakers.

Vishnu Vardhan, one of the resort’s owners, said that besides the arduous quest that is seeking compensation for lost cattle, leopards attacking livestock is in itself not largely a problem for the community. “If a leopard mauls their cattle, they consider it an offering to Lord Shiva,” he said. 

Hartnaram’s earliest memory of spotting a leopard was when he was just 10. He remembered how his father had casually shooed it away, without even bothering to pick up a twig to throw at it. 

“This [harmonious relationship with the leopards] is not by default,” explained Hartnaram, emphasising his community’s efforts to ensure peace. “So, we don’t burst firecrackers during Diwali and refrain from playing loud music even during wedding processions so that it does not disturb the wild cats.” 


Moving away from his father’s pastoral preoccupations, Hartnaram now works for the Bijapur lodge, a resort.

But it’s not all just a pretty picture of human-animal symbiosis. 

Radhika Govindrajan, an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Washington and who has studied human-leopard relationships in the hilly state of nearby Uttarakhand, told VICE that such relationships often tend to be romanticised.  

“There are various reasons why such communities might find common ground with leopards,” she said. “Sometimes, they have shared experiences of oppression in the sense that both leopards and the tribes are exploited by outsiders. But some also talk in great anger about how the state values the lives of these animals more than theirs.”

leopard country

Rabari men can usually be seen wearing a carefully crafted attire — replete with fine knots, loose kurtas, and an unmissable red turban.

Govindrajan pointed out that the “march of capitalism” has crept into Leopard Country, too, adding to the woes of the community already navigating impractical conservation and protection policies such as the cattle compensation plan. 

It means trouble for the big cats, too. Despite their increasing numbers, the Indian leopard continues to face many threats, the biggest one being roadkill. According to a study, the Indian leopard faces an 83 percent increased risk of extinction in north India as new roads make them vulnerable to passing traffic. The study further identified leopards as being the most vulnerable to extinction in the next 50 years if current roadkill trends persist.


I witnessed this “march of capitalism” during one of my safaris along the five primary leopard hills. I spotted a luxurious resort bang in the middle of one of the hills, its curated gardens and temperature-controlled swimming pools sticking out like a sore thumb from the wilderness around. 

The allure of this resort is simple, if rather a stretch: You wake up in the middle of the night for a glass of water and spot a leopard emerging from its cave, all from the safety of your toughened glass-panelled window. 

leopard country

Night safaris are popular in the Jawai hills as that’s when the leopards come out of their caves to hunt.

Such resorts get legal cover despite not being classified as national parks or even wildlife sanctuaries. That’s because they fall under Rajasthan’s Project Leopard programme as a conservation reserve, which means resorts can be built by simply buying parcels of land from locals, trees can be cut for commercial use, while the Rabari community receives no minimum wage guarantee or priority access to forest resources. 

Govindrajan, the anthropologist, noted how the romanticised, simplistic view of happy, harmonious coexistence is proving detrimental to both the Rabaris and the leopards. “People connect to animals in a shared landscape, acting as co-participants. Their histories are intertwined and always shifting.” 

Spending time with Bhikaram and his son, I discovered that there is indeed a practical dimension to the Rabaris’ peculiar coexistence with the leopards: farming. 


Beyond the pull of the tourism industry, the Rabaris tolerate and appreciate the leopards’ presence because they keep the farms’ foes away – gazelles and antelopes could stomp on maize fields at night, and sloth bears might trample on a year’s yield of cotton, mustard, and groundnut. 

But with leopard sightings becoming increasingly common, Jawai’s craggy hills continue to sprout luxury safari lodges, with no guarantee that they would benefit the Rabaris. That’s despite these lodges’ dependence on the knowledge of local communities, including the Rabaris, when spotting tigers and leopards to show off to their customers. They charge tourists dearly, but don’t often give their local collaborators their fair cut. 

leopard country

Replete with folklore, exorcisms, and rustic culinary fares, the hills of Jawai hold many open secrets.

In a blog he co-wrote for Down To Earth, Jindal Global University political scientist and law professor Armin Rosencranz called Jawai a “failing success story” and said that powerful people in its tourism industry  are shortchanging the locals with their idea of “community engagement” – distributing clothes and stationery to local schools. 

“This is a whitewash and is merely an activity on their itineraries which make them look responsible. Honest engagement would be to train youngsters to become wildlife experts in future who are capable of running their own businesses,” Rosencranz added. 

The excessive glorification of the Rabaris’ “harmonious” relationship with the leopards glosses over their plight and aspirations, Govindrajan said. They are not really what the tourists come to see, with their high-end cameras ever on the hunt for wild cats. 

“Are these safari lodges helping the community in a substantial way? What are the educational and financial initiatives for the Rabaris? Will the state government work on fixing the loopholes in their cattle compensation policy? We need to ask these questions,” said Govindrajan. “The assumption that leopards solely have a timeless and eternal relationship with the Rabaris erases and overlooks their daily hardships.”

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