Man is greedy. He’ll earn what is rightfully his, and steal what is not. He’ll invade, he’ll conquer, no matter what the cost. More often than not, it’s over a piece of land. While animals have their territory and we have ours, greediness always finds a way to take over, and we end up stealing more land that isn’t ours. Animals try to reclaim what was always theirs, and we fight and kill to protect this new territory. That’s why, the story of Jawai is one that needs to be amplified and retold countless times, along with the tale of the man who helped save it.
Jawai sits right between Jodhpur and Udaipur. It is known as the land of shepherds and leopards. It is one of the few regions in the country, nay, in the world, where human beings and big cats have peacefully coexisted for over 100 years. This coexistence is quite a big deal. Especially, in a country like India, where our cities keep sinking under the burden of over-population and the peripheries of villages grow by engulfing forest land. That is why, Jawai proves to be such a brilliant example of man and beast’s peaceful coexistence. But this peace was once under a major threat. About a decade ago, the state mining department of Rajasthan sanctioned stone quarries in the region. This would completely destroy the natural habitat of several species of animals, including the rare and elusive Indian leopard, who calls these hills home. But a man named Shatrunjay Pratap Singh was determined to not let that happen.
Singh was exposed to the wild from a very early stage in his life. The principal of his boarding school in Mt. Abu used to take him and his class for jungle walks, which helped him develop a passion for the wild. He always remained a wildlife enthusiast and started photographing his encounters. While this remained a hobby, Singh wanted to have a career in wine, and got a certification in wine making from UC Davis (University of California). He came back to India after securing a job at Sula Vineyards. While Singh was getting settled in his new job, things were not looking good back home in Rajasthan. “I was on my annual leave and went back home to my farm, which is about 20 km from Bera. During my time, I used to travel there to photograph leopards. But one day while on the safari, I heard loud explosions. Upon further inquiry from local farmers, I was informed that the government has allowed few mines in the area and no one was doing anything about it. I knew if nothing would be done, this leopard habitat would be destroyed. That’s when I quit my job at Sula, and decided to fight against the mining.”
After spending countless hours in meetings with government officials and garnering the support of the locals, Singh’s relentless efforts towards preserving this land paid off. The sanction was officially withdrawn and Jawai today remains the peaceful land of shepherds and leopards. Once the land was free from the threat, Singh decided to transform the land he helped save, into a property that conserves, appreciates and respects wildlife. He started the Bera Safari Lodge, a boutique lodge that runs as a homestay with five cottages that sit right in the heart of leopard country, where guests can experience the local culture and the wildlife surrounding them in all of its pristine glory. Singh and the locals fought hard for this land, and the Bera Safari Lodge signifies a lot more than just a property for people to spend the night. “Our main aim is community & conservation,” says Singh. “When we started, there were not many hotels in the area. While fighting mining, I earned a lot of support from the local community here, who became a part of the lodge. Previously, locals used to travel outside for work, but most of them are now part of our staff who also devote their time by being involved in a few of our own conservation projects.”
Singh’s wine days are behind him, and he now devotes all his time towards wildlife. He’s co-authored the book Leopards & Shepherds of JAWAI and was the cameraman on National Geographic’s special programme Wild Cats of India. After spending almost all his life with wild animals, he’s learnt and understood nature’s rules and has witnessed the cruel outcome of human beings who don’t respect or abide by those rules. “There is a deep rooted synchrony between everything we find in nature. Animals and plants, all know their place and responsibilities, while understanding that they are a part of the natural order. We, as humans, foolishly think that we are separate from all of this and therein lies the problem. If we can be humble and accept that we are a part of nature, and not separate from it, we can learn to do things in synchrony with nature, all in a way that is sustainable to all life.” Shatrunjay’s beliefs are appreciable and are not too much to ask for, but as it goes, man was, and still remains greedy. But fortunately, sometimes, when animals themselves can’t keep us in our place, other men like Shatrunjay Pratap Singh step up, and do it for them.