Danger is a relative concept. “Which animal is dangerous depends on who we ask, when, and where,” writes ecologist Vidya Athreya in an article in the Times of India. “A construction worker in urban India may consider even roadside domestic dogs dangerous. A farmer in rural India could perceive snakes in his fields as deadly, and I find vehicles far more dangerous than either dogs or snakes.” Danger, she writes, is shaped by numerous factors, including landscape, lifestyle, wealth, age, occupation, religion and so on.
In Bera, Rajasthan, locals have lived with leopards for decades, maybe even centuries. Bera is a small town in central Rajasthan’s district of Pali, an area in the rocky Aravalli Hills fed by the Jawai River, and characterised by scrub forests. Bera’s human community of around 10,000 (2011 census) inhabits the flat land, and a thriving population of leopards reside the region’s rocky caves. Media reports frequently refer to it as “Leopard Country”.
Like Bera, there are actually, numerous examples of humans and leopards living in close proximity to each other, from rural communities in Himachal Pradesh to mega-urban settings like Mumbai, where the cats have been photographed prowling building compounds by night. These glimpses, however, are few and far between and often the result of skilled camera-trapping and immensely patient wildlife photographers.
Bera is an anomaly: it is one of the only places (on the planet, perhaps) where leopards don’t appear to be shy. “It is only in Jawai, and Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park that leopards are allowing people to watch them,” says Athreya, who has been studying human-leopard interactions for over eight years. That is not to say that the leopards here are tame, or even friendly. But they are frequently sighted perched on rocky outcrops or lounging by the village temple, which is remarkable for a species that is largely in stealth mode as far as humans are concerned. The question is why?