Bisalpur Hill, close to our camp JAWAI resembles a steep mountain in the lower Himalayas and has been the home to many Hindu priests and wild animals over the centuries. The ancient Ashapura Mata Ji Temple which is situated half way up the hill, overlooks and is believed to guard the entire Bisalpur Village that lies beneath it. Many pilgrims from all over the country come and pay their regards to the mother goddess at this auspicious temple. On the other side of the hill you are met with stunning views over the agricultural fields & rural farmland below, interspersed with the faint sound of the water being pumped from the irrigation wells. The daily routine of a small rustic village can be witnessed close by.
Looking back to the beginning of this season, it was just after monsoon when our team of field rangers at camp JAWAI were on a survey of all the areas around camp. Post the rains, many of our tracks and areas we traverse with our guests become untraceable & inaccessible due to the heavy rainfall. However, that evening we made it to Bisalpur Hill. Over a freshly brewed cup of chai accompanied by the beautiful sound of the bells from the evening Aarti (prayers) at the Ashapura Mata Temple, we took time out to catch up with the head priest Malaram Bhopa Ji. He starting sharing with us the latest whisperings he had heard from the villagers about some young children who had been playing with a leopard cub that they found living in the abandoned Jain village at the base of Bisalpur hill. Somewhat intrigued and excited by this news, however, unsure of how much of the rumour was true, we all pondered over what the priest had told us, each secretly keen to investigate further!
On our way back to camp that night, darkness had set in and the weather above was hinting that it would rain. As the temperature dropped, I remember us all enjoying the coolness in the air, driving in silence as the bells of the temple were still echoing in the distance. All of a sudden, the brakes of the jeep were slammed on and we saw a pair of eyes glistening through a bush at the base of the hill. Could this be the baby leopard the priest had told us about? The excitement crept in as we had not seen a leopard for a while on Bisalpur Hill and certainly not a cub! The adrenalin that then filled our veins was thrilling as suddenly directly in front of us we saw a pair of eyes emerge from the bush- but this wasn’t a leopard, this was a shaggy, buff coloured, male striped hyena that just appeared right in front of us! Seeing a hyena in this part of India is a very rare sighting so you can imagine the excitement amongst us!
That night back at camp, we all talked much and celebrated our first hyena sighting for the new season. As a team we came up with various strategies to track & monitor the wildlife activity on Bisalpur Hill more closely. We also named the hyena we saw – ‘The Bagga Male’, coining this name from the local term for a hyena – Lakkad Bagga. The Bagga Male gave us some beautiful sightings over the following weeks and even introduced us to his family of a female and two pups.
As the season went on we watched the pups grow up and over time the hyena behaviour became more & more elusive and they were seen less and less throughout the season.
Photo by Vedant Thite
Until recently! Just two weeks ago after no clear sightings for a few months the activity at the Bagga den site once again came alive on the Bisalpur Hill! In the middle of a peaceful sunset where I had taken my guests to photograph birds by the lake, the radio crackled and a message from our scout jeep came in repeatedly “All units, seven animals at Bisalpur Hill, All units, seven animals at Bisalpur Hill!”.
Oh! Bagga – ‘Seven’ – unbelievable! After sharing the news with my guests- and sharing the story of the Bisalpur Hyenas all in my jeep agreed they wanted to move to Bisalpur Hill & see the excitement. What luck that we did! Not only did we see the Bagga Male with his two elder pups, but also a female with three new born pups! We all pinched ourselves! As the light began to fade- we headed back to camp and sat around the campfire amazed and in awe of what we had just experienced. It was definitely a first for us Rangers and what made the experience even more special, was that it was also a first for our guests!
The female hyena walking towards the den- Photo by Vedant Thite
Since that day, the Bagga family have grown a special place in our hearts. We see them regularly when out on a wilderness drive and as a team keep an eye on their behaviour and movements daily. Striped Hyena’s in India are known for their long calls that end in a cackle, giving rise to many superstitions of their quasi-magical prowess!
Mother & Baby Pups! Photo by Vedant Thite
We went back to visit the site again early the following morning to see what we could find. A local villager and his young son joined us on their bicycles and watched in silence, starting at the hyena’s in amazement for quite some time. The father of the son then turned to me and exclaimed that this was the first time he had ever seen these animals. In amazement he explained that he clearly understood that they were not dogs, not wolves and definitely not leopards, that this was a new species to him. What happened next was something that will stay with me forever, the man pulled out a packet of biscuits from his pocket and offered some to our guests in the jeep, then to myself and to the other drivers and rangers and lastly to his son. He then placed the remaining biscuits on the ground in front of the jeep and told us that it was an offering for these newly discovered animals in case they were hungry. He then smiled at us all, signalled to his son and then rode away into the distance. I stared at him until he disappeared in the dust.
It it moments like these that make me me proud that this is JAWAI! It is beyond science and process, it is a unique place where humans and animals live in a deepfriendship and will continue to prosper in this wonderful and harmonious community of culture, wildlife and spirituality. This is our JAWAI!
The Bagga Male- Photo by Varun Kutty
Words by Varun Kutty. Camp JAWAI, Jawai Bandh, Relais Chateaux, Rajasthan.