Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bera - Leopards of the Hills

"When the leopard god smiles, ask for more"- Old jungle saying. Having tasted some of his grace in Yala, I decided to ask for an India sighting. And all the research (manfully conducted by my friend Vishal Chadha) indicated that Bera was the best place in India to see leopards. And so it became the first part of a 4 legged Rajasthan outing, which included Ranthambhore, Bharatpur and Tal Chhapar, with Vishal and my brother Sridhar for company.

So what is Bera? About a 100 kms north west of Udaipur, near the massive Jawai Bandh (dam) lie a series of forested hills separated by cultivation. And on these hills reside Bera's legendary leopards. Each hill has a leopard family- and they are generally visible during the day when they climb up to rest or in the evenings when they descend looking for a meal. And it's remarkable that these animals flourish here, given the lack of typical wild prey. But then, the leopard isn't the most adaptable of cats for nothing.

So we headed to Bera as guests of Castle Bera, a lovely, cosy 'palace' run by Mr. Baljeet Singh, younger scion of the erstwhile Bera princely state. Baljeet himself is the antithesis of the diffident royal family stereotype - he's extremely friendly, hospitable and a lot of fun. And he drove us himself to our first safari.

Devgiri's awesome rock formations
Devgiri is one of the hills and houses an old temple, hence the name (Dev-giri = God-Hill) and Baljeet said it was home to a family of 5 leopards - a male, female and 3 cubs. It also has some incredible rock formations! As we circumnavigated the hill looking for the leopards, he told us his stories of Bera's leopards and also showed us pictures and videos, all raising our expectations to unbearable levels. And finally we did see them - 2 cubs halfway up on the hill. And then the circus started - 2 other jeeps and a tractor load of other tourists descended on the spot, got out of their vehicles and generally raised the decibel levels ten times over. We gnashed our teeth in frustration as the cubs, apparently very keen to come down from the hill, stayed put. And when darkness fell, they wandered down. And we were there, with the searchlights, watching for leopards in the dark, a trademark prerogative of Bera. But the leopards were smarter and slipped out of sight after giving us a couple of glimpses. 2 leopards on our first safari! The gods were continuing to smile.

Male Leopard with cub
The next morning, we set out early (in pitch darkness) to another hill, Lilora. And as our guide turned on the spotlight, we saw 3 leopards (mother and 2 cubs) in the bush. They came onto the road and wandered back in. And we waited, as Ghaffar told us that they will start climbing up the hill as day breaks. And sure enough, as we watched, an adult leopard and a cub started going up first. But as we looked through our cameras and binocs, we realized that it was a male! Father and son together. While I've seen a male tiger with his offspring (itself rare) seeing a male leopard with his cub was sensational. Something that you don't read about that often. And soon, we saw the whole family, up on the hillside - parents and two cubs sunning themselves. They were too far for quality pics, but I contented myself with a record shot of 4 leopards in a frame.

Greylag Goose

Saras Crane

Early that afternoon, we headed out to one of the numerous lakes around Bera for some birding. We saw a pair of Saras Cranes, Greylag Geese, Plovers, Sandpipers and Comb Ducks. But the highlight was a beautiful crocodile, who suddenly emerged from the water, walked across a sand bar in beautiful light and disappeared into the water again.

Two male leopards, spoiling for a fight
Then we headed back to Liliora and at once, eagle eyed Ghaffar spotted the male on a rock from really far out. How he saw it is anyone's guess. There was another jeep right under the hill and they didn't manage to even see it! So we waited until this bloke got up, and stood majestically on the rock. And then he disappeared, to surface later near the top of the hill. And as we watched, from the other side emerged another male leopard. We were in for a fight! Or so we thought. The two walked purposefully side-by-side till they went across to the other side. We were more concerned about the mother and cubs. The presence of a strange male might spell danger for the cubs. But there was no sign of them till sundown.

Then, as the spotlights started to take effect, we saw four pairs of shiny eyes coming down the hillside. They came down, and we got some interesting pictures - my first 'night' pictures. I struggled with the settings on the camera at first, not sure how to read the light. Then I turned to Ghaffar, an experienced 'night photographer' and with his guidance, got my first good pictures. The mother leopard then crossed the road and sat in the bushes, posing for us. She crossed back to fetch her cubs and we got some pictures of them too. We let them be, not wanting to trouble them while they went looking for food. And that ended my first ever 'night shoot' of leopards. Man, were the gods smiling

The next morning, Baljeet directed us to another hill, where, in addition to leopards, we also had chances to see hyena. We waited for a couple of hours, but nothing turned up. As we headed back, we stopped by at Lilora and got another glimpse of the male, alone this time. He must have either won the battle or negotiated a settlement.

And with that, we ended our maiden visit to Bera. The leopard gods were kind again and our successful run continued. But like Baljeet said, only 3 of his guests had returned without spotting leopards. The other thing I want to bust is this myth of all the Bera leopards being baited, and sightings happening only when they're fed. Through our three days, we saw no evidence of leopards being fed - and there are so many across so many hills that it would be impossible to bait/feed all of them. There is a history of baiting here, with another resort owner doing that in the past but Baljeet insisted that it has been completely stopped. The skeptics remain, but you can only believe what you see and experience.

Bera Trip Guide

Getting there
Udaipur is the nearest big city and the nearest airport, approximately 145 kms away, 3 hours by road via an excellent four-lane highway. Being a major tourist centre, it is well connected by flights to Mumbai, Jaipur and Delhi. It also is a major rail head.

The closest rail heads to Bera are Mori Bera (5kms) and Jawai Bandh (25 kms) From Mumbai, the Aravali Express is a great option since it stops at Mori Bera. All the other trains stop only at Jawai Bandh.

Stay and Safaris
There are only two real places to stay in Bera and both belong to the royal family. Castle Bera ( is where we stayed, run by Mr. Baljeet Singh. It is a lovely, homely palace, with comfortable rooms, fully fitted loos and a lovely dining area and garden. The food is outstanding and Baljeet's hospitality even more awesome. Baljeet takes pains to keep the place low-profile, he doesn't want too many people coming in to disturb the wildlife!

The other place is his elder brother Devi Singh's place Leopard's Lair ( which is the more well known of the two. And given Baljeet's preference for the low profile, it's not difficult to see why.

Since Bera is not really a notified sanctuary, there are no designated safaris. The hotel has open jeeps and they take you to various hills, morning and evening. The difference here is the possibility to sight the animals in the dark, either before sunrise or after sunset. The high powered search lights looked like they could disturb the animals, but the leopards didn't seem to concerned when we saw them.

Other Tips
To shoot leopards in daylight, you might need some long range equipment. A 500mm F4 should do nicely. Else, it is a bit of a struggle with even a 100-400. But then, we didn't see them close up, which many people have done.

Search light photography is another thing altogether, where your chances of seeing the animal closer are much higher. 

Seek out Ghaffar. He's not only a super driver and spotter, but also an excellent photographer. And he's got the experience and expertise in searchlight photography.