This region of the Aravallis in western Rajasthan was well known among those who knew the secret story of leopards in the land we know as Bera. It was a whispered story of a thriving population which the local community of herders protected. The land belonged to livestock and the leopards who lead their surreptitious lives in the stunning scrubland dotted with massive boulders, perfect to bring up their cubs in the crevices and dark shallow caves. The community of Raikas or Rabaris, their protectors were the original keepers of this primal landscape, till tourism boomed unchecked and Bera became Jawai – with over 50 lodges and hotels within 25 sq. km, a piece of real estate to be coveted by anyone who could pay the price or had the power. Bera today is overridden by travellers who visit for various reasons, leopards and their protection is not a priority. I read an opinion piece long ago in one of the conservation magazines predicting exactly this and that the hero of the Jawai story is not tourism but the Raikas.
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh was among the first few hoteliers in 2014-15 who built a conservation lodge and worked closely with the community to protect the landscape as well as promote excursions on foot and jeeps to explore the incredible habitat that was home to about sixty leopards. Speaking from Bera Safari Lodge upgraded and spruced up with essential maintenance work after the pandemic, he shares his work and the future of Bera as a prospect for community engaged tourism.
By Shoba Rudra
Tourism then and now
It is a popular saying in these parts that ‘if you have seen the leopard once, the leopard has seen you a hundred times’, this is how shy this beautiful cat is. This huge increase in tourism since the pandemic is surely going to impact this small sanctuary protected by the community. When we began, we were just a couple of lodges spread out in the wilderness and we had to literally explain our location on a map. Our whole focus was on the Leopards and Shepherds. For a region that was not even a protected area, we envisioned a community reserve, which would have been a first in Rajasthan. This proposal is still lying in the government offices awaiting consideration. For conservation, a degree of careful commercialisation is important, but when you are in close proximity to a schedule 1 protected species (Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972) as in Bera where the forest department has minimum control, tourism should be carefully weighed against carrying capacity and quality. The good news is that the current District Forest Officer strictly enforces travellers stay on designated paths and do not go too close to the leopards.
Watch an interview of Shatrunjay with Nat Geo
Bera Safari Lodge this winter
We used this summer to spruce up the ten acres that our Lodge is set in. Location has always been our advantage as we are in Kothar with the Liloda hill forming an awesome backdrop. Originally an agricultural land, our farm is now lush with jamun, Khejri, neem, mahua and fruiting trees like lime, guava, amla, etc. With the addition of a pool, our lodge with renovated rooms and new cottages comprise of two standard rooms, three junior suites and four suites. All our safaris are private with three naturalists – one of them is a big cat expert, one is a botanist, and the third a birder. The dining room has been renovated and an outdoor dining venue has been added with a view of the Liloda hills. Meals are a mix of Indian cuisines, grills, and limited continental. Being a Wine Maker, our selection includes the best of Indian wines from the house of Sula. In Bera / Jawai we are the only family run lodge, where all the safaris and nature walks are planned by me.
To view New and Updated Images of the New Cottages and Landscape
Community and Conservation
The landscape and its protection in Bera and Jawai area has always been a concern for me and I have been crusading against mining permits for this region even before we set up the Lodge. To run a lodge that helps employ young men from the local village, train them and include them in our operations has been one of the objectives of Bera Safari Lodge. Our team of twenty-one that handle service and operations are from the local Rabari villages and continue to serve in their tradition gear, which is predominantly white with red trimmings.
Located in a dry semi-arid region, water has to be used carefully, we use water in glass bottles, recycle waste water, vermicompost our garbage, use recycled hygiene paper and dispensers for the bathrooms. Our activities besides leopard safaris include cycling in the country side, birding, and nature walks. We have four trek bikes for those interested in exploring the area on cycles. Walking with Shepherds is a very private experience accompanied by one of our naturalists, that explores the country side with one of the Rabari shepherds who explain their lives in Bera and their everyday chores. Local lunch and dining with the Rabaris is an insight into their lives, as they leave their village home and migrate to the edge of the forest into temporary dwellings.
Films about Leopard Conservation that Shatrunjay has worked on.