I was recently in a small village called Bera in the Pali District of Rajasthan. The place is about 150 kms south of Udaipur and the topography is such that it is dotted with hills of the Aravalli range. Like in many other places in Rajasthan, the hills are populated with a fair no. of Leopards. Since this land does not belong to the forest, rather it being a revenue land, the law offers no legal protection to the resident leopards. The hills are devoid of any significant prey except for Peafowl and Monkeys and occasionally the Leopards come down the hills to pickup the stray dog, goat or a small calf form the nearby villages. The villagers being primarily nomadic goatherds, do take this loss seriously. Since the Leopard is not a part of any protected forest, the losses suffered by the goatherds are not reimbursed by the government. In the light of this situation retaliatory poisoning do take place and leopards do go missing.
A resident of this village is Thakur Devi Singh Ranawat who is very fond of the resident leopards and along with his son roams the adjoining hills observing the leopards, keeping a photographic record, keeping a tab on movements of the herders (rajasthan has a very evident caste system in place, The thakur is like a local raja and feared and respected by the residents.). His visibility in these areas where there is no presence of any wildlife officials serves as a deterrent to these very poor people from taking action against the suffered losses. He does also compensate the occasional loss in his personal capacity. Looking at his work of the last 15 years, the rajasthan govt. has made him the Hony. Game Warden of Pali district.
He also runs a home stay by the name of LEOPARDS LAIR, consisting of 10 rooms made on his farmhouse where he himself lives. His wife cooks for the guests, the house servants do the cleaning and serving and Thakur saab and his son drive the visitors to see the Leopards in the morning and evening safari.
The morning safari starts at 4:30 Am when its not yet daybreak and we set out with high power flashlights to spot the twin green eyes of the leopards. After all the search for food in the night, the leopards usually bask in the sun at sunrise before retreating to the safety of the caves in the hills. Its at this time that most magnificent sights of Mother an cubs have been recorded. The relative absence of too much vegetation means that this activity happens in the open on the rocks. We were witness to one such Female named Zara by thakur saab and her two cubs who would be about 2 months old.
Now I come to the part where i wanted your opinion. In the evening safari, A goat is tied out in the near vicinity of where sighting has been in the morning and we wait out about 50 yards away in jeeps waiting for a leopard to emerge and take the goat down. The goat is very well secured to discourage the leopard from dragging away the kill and the leopard feeds right in front of our eyes. I had mixed feelings about this. While on one hand it resulted in terrific Photo opportunities, on the other is the ethicalness of these photographs and the human intervention in providing food to a wild animal was in a way interfering with the ways of nature.
Thakur saab had the following points :
a) There are no prey in the hills, hence the Leopard is in any case dependent of food from a human source, it could be the baited Goat or the Goat of the poor Goatherd. By providing a Regular supply of Goats, the leopard is kept out of harms way and they do not risk lives by walking into villages and falling prey to poisoned carcasses.
b) As a result of this assured source of food, the Leopardess Zara has made the hill a permanent residence and successfully raised one litter to adulthood and is currently raising another, the Cubs are 2 months old.
c) No incident of leopards going missing has been reported for the last 4 years. He has been regularly tracking 14 leopards.
d) No incidents of poisoning in the last 4 years, during this time about 25 goats have been compensated.
e) Leopardess Zara, who is about 5 years old and raising her second litter has been fed 87 goats over a period of last 3 years.
f) BBC film crew spent 2 weeks filming leopards in Bera. Only at that time a live goat was not tied (that classifies as bait ), but a goat carcass procured from the Butcher used to be laid out to facilitate filming.
Of course, the Leopards are the only reason for people to go to Bera.
My question to you :
a) Of course baiting is inethical and Photographs taken under such circumstances should be classified under " Controlled situations". But taking a larger perspective of things, the precarious position of Leopards in our country, would you endorse this as a mechanism ?? Would you support the actions of Thakur saab in toto or would you suggest some mechanism by which the practice could become more ethical.
After all its completely identical to the Lion Shows in GIR where a live buffalo was tied by a forest department officials for much of the 90s. It is also similar, if not identical to the Tiger shows in bandhavgarh, wherin a tiger is hemmed in by elephants to facilitate, viewing and photography.
Please share your opinions on the above.