“Big cat safaris in India are all about the tiger. It is only in recent years that the leopard has started getting the attention it deserves,” says Vinod Kumar Goel, a wildlife photographer who has been photographing the leopard in the state since 2013. “Still, it is a shy and elusive animal. Sightings during the daytime are almost impossible. But there are a few places such as Bera in the Pali district of Rajasthan where there is almost a 98-99% chance of a sighting during a safari.”

Claims of “guaranteed sightings” have added to its appeal in certain areas of the state. Leopard safaris are an attraction at the Jhalana Forest Reserve in Jaipur, Jawai region in the Pali district, and Sariska Tiger Reserve in the Alwar district, where the leopard now shares the spotlight with the tiger. “Leopards inhabit the same reserves as tigers, so tourists who can’t spot the tiger are being lured with the add-on of a leopard safari. It also benefits forest reserves that weren’t that popular within protected areas such as the BalaQuilla in Sariska zone. They are seeing tourist traffic because of their leopard population,” says Atula Gupta, founder and editor of the website India’s Endangered.

The spotted big cat can be found in a wide range of protected and unprotected areas of Rajasthan, the desert regions being the only exception. The nocturnal feline feeds on smaller species of herbivores such as the chital, hog deer and wild boar. “But they can also survive on small prey such as domestic dogs, goats and pigs in the absence of large wild prey, partly because of their ability to inhabit a variety of forested and degraded habitat,” says Gupta. Leopards produce a litter of two to three cubs. The cubs stay with the mother for up to two years, learning to hunt by following and watching their mother.

A leopard with her cub in Bera, Rajasthan. Credit: Vinod Kumar Goel/Mongabay

Despite its much-admired ability to adapt to a wide range of habitats, the leopard still remains at risk. It is listed under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which provides absolute protection, and listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. The 2017 Wildlife Animal Census puts their number in Rajasthan at 507.

In 2019, as many as 45 leopards died in Rajasthan. Half of those deaths were said to be unnatural, due to electrocution, man-animal conflict or road accidents.

Experts believe that loss of habitat, pressure exerted on protected areas by grazing livestock, extraction of fodder, timber and non-timber forest products, poaching, and uncontrolled construction and unregulated tourism activities in unprotected areas are creating a situation where the leopard is being forced to leave its habitat.

Ajay Jha, a forest official in Rajasthan, says, “There are regulations in place for core and buffer zones of forest reserves. Wildlife within these areas is protected and tourism is regulated. But animals do not understand boundaries. And people living on the periphery are quick to make a buck by promising sightings. In Rajasthan, where private leopard tourism models are already in place in Jhalana and Bera, this is a cause for concern.”

Dwindling numbers

What adds to the problem is that it is tough to keep tabs on the spotted cat’s population. India’s first official leopard census was conducted in 2015 alongside the tiger census. It showed the country’s leopard population was around 7,910 in protected tiger reserves where the census was carried out.

However, Yadvendradev V Jhala, the lead scientist of the census, said that the number could easily be around 12,000 to 14,000, if the leopards living in unprotected areas were counted too.

A similar survey was conducted in 2018, but its data is yet to be released. “The state of Rajasthan too has unprotected areas that do not fall under the category of national park or sanctuary but have a high density of leopards. This makes the task of controlling tourism and boosting conservation more difficult,” says wildlife photographer Goel.

The state is trying though. In 2017, Rajasthan became the first state in India to announce Project Leopard with a sum of Rs 7 crore set aside to conserve leopards. It eventually kicked off in 2018 with the launch of a leopard reserve in Jhalana Forest Reserve.

The project aims to mitigate man-leopard conflicts, conserve leopard population by countering threats the predator routinely faces and creating goodwill between local communities and the leopard. Other recommendations include giving training and jobs to locals around and within unprotected areas so that they continue to be protectors of the land. The hope is that this will ensure that the habitat and the animal are not harmed by those who see tourism as a succeeding business model without realising the implications of abusing the natural existing balance between locals and wildlife.

Positive impact

Goel is already seeing its impact in Jhalana, which earlier allowed unrestricted entry for people. After being elevated as a sanctuary, the entry is restricted and ticketed. There’s a new e-surveillance system in place to monitor the leopard’s movements and deter poachers. There’s also talk of to connecting Jhalana to the wildlife region around Galtaji through an underground corridor.

“Till 2017-’18, unauthorised constructions and illegal occupation were slowly eating into the already limited forest area, adding stress to wildlife. Today, because of the implementation of Project Leopard, it is regulated and managed like any other national park in the state. They are tracking them and recording the cat’s movements. Things have definitely improved,” he said.

A female leopard on Jaipur’s JLN Marg. Credit: Atula Gupta

Similar projects are also under consideration at the Jaisamand Sanctuary in Udaipur, Bassi Sanctuary in Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh Sanctuary-RaoliTodgarh Sanctuary from Ajmer to Udaipur, Shergarh Sanctuary in Baran, Mount Abu Sanctuary-Sundamata Conservation Reserve, Jawai Conservation Reserve in Pali, and KhetriBansyal Conservation Reserve in Jhunjhunu.

Conservationists hope that the project will also aid in the protection of bears, lesser cats, other smaller mammals and prey species that do not get their fair share of the spotlight.

Achieving all this is not an impossible task. Rajasthan itself has a successful example of a place where wildlife peacefully co-exists with humans. Local communities in the Jawai region have long protected the leopard, believed to be the guardian of all the holy sites and temples found on the rocky out-crops of the Aravallis. There have been no reports of human-animal conflict emanating from the region. Tourism is low-key. It has also been sustainable so far and welcomed by locals.

Gupta signed off by saying, “Rajasthan’s Project Leopard is a welcome move that other states should follow. Hopefully, it will make people aware of how to peacefully co-exist with leopards as well as deal with situations where the animal strays into human habitats.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.