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Living with a leopard as a neighbour: cultural benefits to leopard conservation

Even in major cities (like Mumbai) you hear tales of leopards roaming the streets in search for a quick bite. India, with its vast population, has many animal-human contact, occasionally with an unpleasant outcome. There are areas though that boast a positive and peaceful relationship. Jawai stands as an epitome for mature understanding between man and animal.

 

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Chacha Kaan using the very steps the locals use when climbing to the temples. Photograph by Anjali Singh.

 

Perva Female and Temple
The leopards are seen as divine due to their proximity to these hill temples. Photograph by Adam Bannister
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Religion in this area is fundamental to their culture. Here, the Rabaris finish their evening prayer at Jeewda Mata ji mandir. Photograph by Anjali Singh.

The granite hills that dot the Jawai landscape are the oldest mountains in the whole of India. Over the 850 million years of their life, they have been weathered by elements both above and below ground causing an array of caves, crevices, boulders and indentations of varied size. These caves and crevices become the very roofs which host the Jawai leopards…the hills literally have eyes. But unlike the film, these leopards do not have a savage thirst for human blood. In fact the relationship between both sapiens and pardus is a harmonious blend of respect and reverence.

 

Now, why are there some places where leopard-human contact has a fatal consequence while in other areas, like Jawai, there hasn’t been a death more than 165 years?

 

No leopard is born a man-eater and thus it is because of their nurture: a single or series of events that have transformed them to be so. One major factor that provokes man-predator conflict is the by-product of human treatment to the animal. In simple terms, if humans have seen leopards to be a threat to their own lives and accordingly attacks or harms it, then it would seem unsurprising if the leopard would have an aggressive nature when confronting humans.

 

The villagers at Jawai live with these fierce and powerful predators. The area itself is steeped in history and tradition: many temples dedicated to their gods are built on its hills. Not only were these temples used for religious reasons but they had also acted as banks: valuable belongings were stored in the temples high up on the hills. As a result these villagers would often climb the stairs both practising pooja as well as to deposit or withdraw their wealth. But, as mentioned earlier, these hill not only house temples, they are also a ideal habitat for leopards. Often the locals would see on their trips up the hill, leopards basking nearby in the early morning sun. It is by their proximity to the temples that leopards are considered to be the guardians of this area in general and consequently this association has given them a semi-divine status.

 

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A harmonious coexistence as a dominant male comfortably sits above while the temple priest takes his daily descent. Photograph by Yusuf Ansari.

 

 

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A local Rabari priest, or Bhopa, with his characteristic pendants and head scarf. Photograph by Anjali Singh.
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A female leopard ‘guarding’ Devgiri mandir. Photograph by Adam Bannister

Big cats in India have been considered to be vehicle for the goddess Durga (an incarnation of the goddess Parvathi). Durga is the warrior goddess and tradition states that she combated all evil spirits and demons that jeopridised the dharma of all things good. As the rabaris owe their existence and responsibility to this goddess, many of these hill temples are dedicated to her. Often you will see idols of tigers, lions and leopards in the shrines with her devotees visiting twice a day to pay homage. Meandering through the crags of the hills, not only will you see small shrines and temples but depictions of leopards and big cats painted directly on the granite rock. These are all the indications that people perceive the leopards as divine as well as maintaining a fearful reverence.

 

The idea is to not to trouble the leopards and consequently the big cats do not see us humans to be a threat to their existence and thus refrain from attacking us, although they have no mercy on livestock of humans. Goats, sheep and even cows are part of the leopard diet, but the shepherd community is benevolent enough to brace these incidents. The Rabaris, the nomadic shepherds who wear the distinctive red turbana, believe that if a goat is killed, their whole flock will increase twofold in the coming year. In the UK, foxes were hunted because they posed a threat to the farmer’s poultry population and it is the rabari’s difference in belief (considering the attack on their livestock to be almost auspicious) that makes it a major contributing factor in the conservation of leopards.

 

As modernity seeps into the rural heartland of Rajasthan these traditions will face challenges. The younger generation of Rabaris are leaving their homes to work in cities losing their connect with nature. This puts the age-old traditions in jeopardy. Jawai is an ideal example how well humanity are able to live side by side with leopards and therefore we at JAWAI focus on retaining the traditions in their ancestral land, because survival of leopards very much depends on the local community.

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