Author: Isheta Salgaocar
My love affair with the wild is likely the longest one I’ve ever had –beginning at age 3 – and possibly will ever have. As a frequent traveller to the Sabi Sands I had always thought that the sort of leopard viewings one is able to partake in at camps there were unparalleled. The close proximity to multiple different leopards and long sightings seemed unique to that area. Although each region and park have their USP, I’ve never been one to compare one wildlife experience to another, particularly because of my unshaken belief that in the wild you have to surrender yourself to the will of the wild and what you see is not in your control.
On the journey to SUJÁN JAWAI, I surrendered to this idea more than I ever had before.
I landed at SUJÁN JAWAI up thanks to my immense trust in a dear friend A who had planned my safari trip. For one of the first times in my life, I didn’t dive into the camp’s website, didn’t stalk the geotag on Instagram, avoided all information about JAWAI apart from the fact that I was headed there for three nights and there was vague chance of seeing a mother leopard with three cubs. I knew it wasn’t a National Park but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and my mind was weaving its own stories about what the landscape might be — on the one hand I thought I’d see a very sparse, dry, flat, dessert like terrain and on the other hand I expected thick bush and tree cover, lots of acacia trees with sturdy branches which the leopards could climb and where their kills would be secure.
The drive up seemed like any through the arterial highways that touch rural Rajasthan — people dressed in bright colours, men in turbans, houses painted bright yellows and purples, train lines that wove into the highways and so on. My mind went into a further warp of what to expect as we drove by a black board that read JAWAI in all caps. As we turned off the highway and onto a dirt road the terrain seemed flat, dusty, dry and dessert like. Internally I felt secure that my assumptions were ringing true until we drove by Peacock Point where I suddenly saw kopjes that took me back to the Seronera Valley and Moru Kopjes in the Serengeti. A few minutes later I saw a goat herd with a flock of goats, and I turned to my friend and asked where the boundary wall was. She laughed and said that here is no such thing here.
JAWAI is the most contemporary of SUJÁN’s tented camps that I’ve experienced, clean lines of black and white with a red trim thrown in artfully, every so often. As I sat down with a cold glass of water infused with lemon and mint in the 40 degree Rajasthan sun, I was just confused. Here I was, sitting in the lap of luxury in proximity to leopards and goatherds alike and eating what might be the best Caesar salad in India (complete with camp garden grown Romaine and Kale!). The entire idea of this camp makes you suspend disbelief, I thought.
Having loaded all our camera gear into the jeeps for my first 5pm evening drive through this area, I wasn’t sure what to expect. We drove in the direction of where reports of a mother leopard and her three cubs were last seen. We drove through a rural village, and passed by a stark white temple dotted with red and yellow flags and a few temple-goers lining up for evening prayers. A beautiful culture amidst this wilderness. The bush thickened a bit and there were fields ahead of us where farmers were growing moong beans and children were playing among livestock. My confusion resurfaced and I asked my friend whether there as a boundary wall again, and was met with the same amused laughter.
Suddenly the landscape changed more, and we had granite hills and rocks that seemed to have beautifully tumbled into formations. I stared at them and assumed we’d circle around, look for leopard tracks along the dirt roads, wait for monkeys and birds to sound alarm calls announcing the presence of a leopard. Except, our ranger Chagan (a local young man employed from one of the neighbouring villages close to camp JAWAI who is now a highly skilled field guide) turned around and said to secure our cameras and hold on tight! My bewilderment at this wild adventure kept hitting new highs but I went along and was definitely not prepared for what was coming next – our jeep climbed the granite hills, scaling them at a measured pace mimicking the motion of being on a Disneyland rollercoaster! Chagan commandeered the jeep with ease as we searched the distant curves and clefts of the rocks in search of the mother leopard. We stopped near a large cactus plant (Euphorbia Caducifolia, Chagan corrected me) and he pointed slightly to the left and high into the rocks and said “There she is!” At that point, i’ll be honest all I could see were rocks glowing in the setting sun until I spotted the distinct white of the tail of a leopard. And then another. And then a third! It was in the distance but it was still a stunning sighting with the mother and two cubs. As the moon rose and the sun went down we returned to camp, but not before partaking in the rollercoaster descent down the hills again.
The next morning, I thought I’d nailed the concept of JAWAI and the landscape around it. I was ready to scale those hills once more and look for leopards among caves and crevices rather than trees. We headed back to the hill range where we had left the leopard family the previous evening and waited atop a rock for them to show themselves. Later, we descended into the valley and as we did, I was witness to gorgeous lakes, Kopjes and granite hills all at once that seemed like they belonged in the fictional Wakanda. It was at that moment that I felt being here wasn’t so much about suspending disbelief – it was about affirming belief in the beauty that is nature; and the beauty that is untouched and preserved Indian nature.
What followed was a gorgeous and once in a lifetime sighting for me of a mother leopard with three cubs playing on the rocks, ducking in and out of caves and interacting in beautiful light.
It was also where I had the rare photographic opportunity of having four leopards in one frame with rolling rocks behind them. Thrilled, I didn’t really expect too much more but on our way back to camp we were treated to another beautiful female leopard sighting as she sat on the edge of a rock. Nearby, local rabari tribesmen walked their buffalo herds home, their pink turbans caught in the desert sun.
This coexistence is shattering – how is it possible that something as wild as the big cat leopard can exist so closely and peacefully around the earliest signs of civilisation, i.e. farming? It made me ask myself, what do we imagine to be the wild? All that I was left with thinking was that the wild is closer than we think, and it doesn’t always have to be gated off and placed within boundaries. What boggles the mind even more than a thriving leopard population among these hills, large water bodies and human settlements is how it is possible to progress economically and not sacrifice the natural beauty that is indigenous to a land. The efforts that are undertaken by the entire SUJÁN family and team, and their excellent group of field guides and rangers showed me just how. Their work with the local communities and educating them is a case study in conservation, and also in coexistence. Rather than getting into a debate about “whose-land-is-it-anyway” it is essential to look towards the future to maintain those lands, to ignite a passion to want to preserve what exists and take it all forward.
One could be faced with the idea in this sort of environment that this isn’t the ‘real’ wild, there is something curated about this whole experience. Although that might seem to be the case because of how unique the experience is here, any such thoughts I held were dispelled very quickly.
Around 7:15am the next morning, we sat waiting in hope of seeing the family of four leopards again (it’s not often one can have that sighting and we were being greedy!) but instead we were met with quite the surprise: the mother appeared lying in the grass in the valley surrounding the hill where we had previously her with her cubs, yet just to the left, up on a rocks of a smaller hill was large male leopard. Chagan told us that there was dominant male leopard in the area and it was probably him just making an appearance. What a lovely surprise, we sat, rather overwhelmed, excited like children in a candy store.
To put it in perspective: from our stationary jeep, two of us, spoilt for choice, were able to photograph the two different leopards at similar distances and in clear view at the same time!
From the outset, everything seemed to be marvellous, this was thought to be the male that had fathered her cubs. However, after a few minutes closely observing this leopard through the binoculars, Chagan told us that the male’s facial markings and spots were not of the familiar dominant male and this was in fact a leopard known by the JAWAI Field Team as the ‘intruder male.’ Chagan seemed concerned. The more time we spent silently observing the two, we noticed how the female looked distraught the more this male leopard hung around her. We all grew particularly worried for her cubs. Relentless, the male ducked into a cave for a while but seemed adamant he wasn’t moving off from the area. Keeping her eye on him, the female climbed up onto the rocks with a clear view of anywhere he might move, calling out to her cubs constantly. In that moment we felt consumed with a sense of sorrow: what if this male leopard had attacked the cubs, and in the worst case killed them in a territorial battle? Our hearts yearned to know more, but there was no way to access that information. If this wasn’t the real wild, I cannot explain what would be! There were no rules here, just animals in their natural habitats finding their way and as a safari addict, it was thrilling!
At SUJÁN JAWAI, there was something incredibly special being shared; a unique travel experience in a wilderness of inexplicable beauty with conservation efforts and a remarkable coexistence between man and wild at the very root of all I experienced, and that is what I left with, along with the 9 different leopard sightings spread across my three nights and four days!
Isheta Salgaocar is a writer, an avid reader, art enthusiast, tea addict, keen traveler, wildlife photographer and culture lover. A contributing editor to Vogue India, Isheta has written for to The Hindu, GQ, The Indian Express, Condé Nast Traveler, MintLounge, The Wall Street Journal’s India RealTime blog and other publications.
She is based in Goa, India and maintains a Photo gallery on Instagram ishetasalgaocar.