Mention of Rajasthan conjures up images of beautiful palaces and famous forts. Now, visitors can add one more to their list of must-visit places, which is not associated with heritage structures. The Rajasthan government has set up first leopard reserve at Jhalana in the heart of Jaipur.
Spread over 24 sq km, Jhalana Leopard Reserve is an initiative of the Rajasthan government to improve leopards' prey base and reduce conflicts with humans. The project borrows its basic features from the "Project Tiger" launched by the Centre in 1973.
"Due to non-availability of adequate food and water inside forest and protected areas, several animals have started straying into human habitations and agriculture fields, causing man-animal conflict. The project will mitigate man-leopard conflict, conserve leopard population by countering the threats, create goodwill between local communities and leopards," Forest Minister Gajendra Singh Khimser told DH.
The Aravali range spread over 75 sq km has a history of leopard spotting and is divided into Jhalana, Amagarh and Nahargarh that are home to leopards. The forest department is also organising tours for school and college students to sensitise youth.
"It's a unique initiative and we have constructed a huge wall around the reserve. After declaring it as a reserve, the protection level has improved at various levels. The biggest advantage is that it will help in reducing the encroachments," Chief Wildlife Warden G V Reddy said. So far, the government has spent around Rs 15 crore on the development work.
However, incidents of leopard straying into urban habitat in 2017 have created panic among people of Jaipur. On December 29, a leopard strayed into a residential locality and ran into a house in Jagatpura. The forest department tranquilised the animal and shifted it back. Earlier, a leopard was spotted on JLN Marg and many had clicked pictures. Both Jagatpura and JLN marg are close to Jhalana.
Converting forest land into a reserve has brought smiles on the faces of wildlife enthusiasts and regulars to Jhalana. One of the famous social media group of Jhalana Lovers is happy that the place is getting due attention. Members visit Jhalana almost every day and have sighted at least 25 leopards over the years and named them. "We have been visiting Jhalana for the last 10 years, even before we formed a social media group. Later, we started posting photographs of birds, wild animals and leopards. This is a good initiative and will help to make Jhalana free from man-animal conflict," wildlife enthusiast Dhiraj Kapoor said.
Dhiraj, who works for Leopard Monitoring, said: "This park has a lot of potential with highest density of leopard sighting in the world. Leopards could be sighted from a distance as close as 20 feet."
Enthusiasts have given names such as Aarti, Flora, Rainbow, Prince and Mrs Khan for big cats. They claim that they take several factors into consideration before naming a leopard. "Aarti got her name as we spotted her near the temple during the evening aarti (prayer). She would use the sound of temple bells to camouflage and hunt," Dhiraj said.
Interestingly, bird spotting at the park has also increased over the years. Along the 10-km stretch of the reserve, the highest probability of sighting leopards is on the recently opened track number three as it passes through close to narrow valleys and plain grasslands, which are breeding grounds.
Illegal entry into the forest is also being monitored by officials. Project Leopard is expected to improve the potential of wildlife tourism and generate revenue for the local communities. The USP (unique selling proposition) of the reserve is its location. The safari ride is offered in morning and evening and costs Rs 2,316 for a vehicle that can accommodate six people.
The forest minister claimed that the safari has been gaining in popularity. Tourists will now be able to enjoy full or half day safari in Jhalana with a break at the audi or haudi (hunting lodges).
Interestingly for the first time, 19th century "Shikar Audi" has been opened to public. The audi located on a hillock was used by royals to spot wild animals. It is said that the then Maharani Gayathri Devi of Jaipur hunted a tigress in 1948, which was probably last hunt by her. She killed the wild beast in the presence of Kesari Singh who was the state shikar officer that time. Later he found two cubs and named them as Happy and Hally and gifted them to Jaipur Zoo.
Jhalana was a popular tiger hunting area that hosted eminent guests who enjoyed the sport of hunting with the Shikar Audi as the base. Now it will be changed to Panther Audi as earlier name symbolised poaching. The iconic audi was in a neglected state and it has been done up with installation of umbrellas, benches and reclining chairs and toilets have also been built.
The government claims that Project Leopard is its pet project. Wildlife experts want, among other things, improvement in prey base and water availability and steps to control poaching.
"It would have been ideal to turn Jhalana into community reserve but the government has transferred Jhalana from the plantation department to the forest department. Building walls was wastage of money. It is wrong to think that leopards can't jump. What about the leopards from other side of the wall? Also there is cylindrical portion in the forest where the temple is built and the portion has been left out deliberately," feels wildlife conservationist Harshvardhan.
Leopard is an endangered species under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. According to wildlife census of 2015, Rajasthan had 434 leopards and at least 20 were killed between 2014 and 2016 in accidents or by humans when the predator strayed into human habitations or agricultural fields. Six people lost their lives in leopard attacks between September 2016 and February 2017.
According to the proposal, Project Leopard will be taken up in eight sanctuaries â€“ Jaisamand Sanctuary in Udaipur, Bassi Sanctuary in
Chittorgarh, Shergarh Sanctuary in Baran, Kumbhalgarh Sanctuary-Raoli Todgarh Sanctuary (stretched from Ajmer to Udaipur), Mount Abu Sanctuary-Sundamata Conservation Reserve (Sirohi and Jalore), Jhalana Aamagarh Conservation Reserve in Jaipur, Jawai Conservation Reserve in Pali and Khetri Bansyal Conservation Reserve in Jhunjhunu.