When we spot her at 6.45 a.m., Flora is on her way home. She has to be out and about to find food for her two cubs, our guide Rohit Gangwal tells us, and hence she is seen frequently. My friend and I sit in silence in the jeep, as my eyes try to keep pace with her stealthy movement. The only sounds we can hear are the clicking of cameras and the chirping of birds. It isn’t so dark now, unlike when we had come in at 5.45 a.m., but it is still tough to keep track of Flora, as she walks amidst dhonk and babool trees. Leopards are famous for camouflage and Flora is used to hiding from people.
I am at Jhalana Forest Reserve in Jaipur—yes, right inside the city, not near, not next to, but in Jaipur. The place is somewhat of a local wildlife sensation. With an area of just 24 square kilometres, it is home to over 20 leopards. Leopards are not endangered like tigers, but are rarer to spot because they are stealthier and shy. Conventionally, leopards have huge territories (average of 70 square kilometres) and are solitary animals. To have one in the park would have been exciting, 20 is just incredible.
Jhalana also shelters an abundance of avian species including peacocks. Photo by: Pacific Press/Alamy/india picture/India picture
It was my friend Dhiraj Kapoor who first told me about the leopards in Jhalana. He has been closely involved with wildlife conservation efforts at Jhalana for about 10 years and has helped identify over 20 different leopards. I knew they were there, I have seen the photos. However, actually seeing the leopards in the park is still an awe-inspiring experience—it’s difficult to believe you’re in good old Jaipur.
It’s not really fair, I think. How much goodness can a city pack in? As if palaces, forts, hills, great shopping areas, delicious cuisine, and being the gateway city to one of the most popular touristy states in the country weren’t enough, Jaipur is also an exciting wildlife destination now.
It was only in March last year that Jhalana was declared a protected area and plans to have safaris were initiated. Until then, it was a free-for-all thoroughfare, and people would often bring in picnics including alcohol. My mind shudders at the thought of this rowdiness, as I take in the quiet of this intimate park that opened up for restricted and registered safaris in May 2017 after a year of debate and discussion. Now, only 10 jeeps each are allowed in two shifts in the morning and evening. It is small, but that doesn’t take away from Jhalana’s charm, as it is blessed with a diverse topography, with the rocky Aravalis bordering it on one side and a forest of evergreen and deciduous trees stretching through its boundary.
It takes a keen eye to notice the camouflaged monitor lizards. Photo by: Pacific Press/Alamy/india picture/India picture
Riding in the jeep with Rohit, who is a conservationist and runs World of Wilders, a small company that offers jeep safaris in the park, we pass through rocky areas and wide stretches of deciduous dhonk trees. As exciting as Jhalana is, it is also a reflection of how man has forced animal into unconventional, small habitats like the reserve surrounded by the bustle of a city like Jaipur. “We are all adjusting,” laughs Rohit, summing up the state of affairs. It is lovely to see his excitement at spotting a leopard, even though he comes to the park day after day for work. It is this passion of people that has saved Jhalana and its leopards.
Most locals are not surprised that we are here for Jhalana. An increasing number of wildlife enthusiasts have been hearing about the leopards and slowly the visitor numbers are going up.
Over four safaris, we have five leopard sightings, including that of two cubs playing in the water. They run away as soon as they spot us, bounding after their mother who was hiding in the forest. Jhalana is also home to chital, nilgai and many snake species. It is however the over 100-odd species of birds, including raptors like shikras and white-eyed buzzards, that are its other attraction. Peacocks can be seen everywhere and as I photograph one admiringly, my friend chimes in. “This is how the leopards survive I guess,” he says, “they love peacock meat.”
Right. Oh well, in that case, long live the peacocks, I say. And long live Jhalana’s leopards.
The resident nilgais are easy to spot. Photo by: Pacific Press/Alamy/india picture/India picture
Getting There Jhalana is a 15-minute drive from the centre of Jaipur.
Stay The ITC Rajputana at Palace Road is surprisingly affordable for a luxury hotel (www.itchotels.in).
Narain Niwas is housed in a 20th-century palace and is centrally located at Vasant Enclave (hotelnarainniwas.com).
Eat Try the Royal Repast set meal at ITC Rajputana for a taste of local flavours, which includes Rajasthani staples like laal maas and daal baati choorma. For more global flavours, head to Jaipur Modern, a small bistro attached to a fashion store (www.jaipurmodern.com).
Safari Jhalana Forest Reserve has safaris in two shifts and 10 jeeps are allowed in each. World of Wilders offers jeep safaris for up to 6 people per vehicle (www.worldofwilders.com; 90018 46629; morning safari 5.45-8.15 a.m., evening safari 4.45-7.15 p.m.; Rs3,200 per vehicle).
is a freelance writer and editor based in Delhi. She was executive editor of India Today's travel magazine till end-2013 when she decided to get out of the office routine for a few months to see what having a life feels like. She never went back.
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