The Blue Bull had been killed by hyenas. The Striped Hyena pack, led by the matriarch had lived in this forest for generations beyond number. Their ancestors lived off the kills of tigers, until the last of those great hunters fell to the guns of men. Men, forever on their quest to kill, burn and destroy and call it conquest. The hyenas didn’t know all this of course. What they did realize was that one day, the roar of the tiger was not heard any longer. That brought about a great change in lifestyle for them. They turned from scavengers to hunters. Actually, that is a bit of a false blame. Hyenas are formidable hunters in their own right but when the pickings are easy, they make no bones about taking advantage. In this case, the old Blue Bull cow, actually India’s largest antelope, called Blue Bull for no fault of its own, was sick and dying. She was sitting under an Acacia Juliflora (Prosopis juliflora) tree. Acacia Juliflora is an invasive weed from Mexico and the Caribbean that is found all over Africa, Asia and Australia today. Its major strength is that it has very deep roots, the deepest of any plant and so, is drought resistant and remains green in the summer. The major disadvantage is that it doesn’t allow anything to grow under it. Its fruit is a bean which is very nutritious and so its seeds are spread far and wide by herbivores which eat the Acacia beans with great relish. When you have large stands of this plant, you will find the ground free from undergrowth and grass. A serious disadvantage for all herbivores. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosopis_juliflora
The old cow was half asleep and unable to keep up with her herd, sat down to rest. She didn’t even see the Hyena matriarch come up behind her and when she felt the bite on the back of her neck, her spine was already severed, and she couldn’t move. The Hyenas ate their fill in the course of which they broke up the carcass into two just above the hindquarters. As the sun rose, the Hyenas moved off into the hills as they are almost completely nocturnal in habit. The carcass remained where it was, attracting others, smaller but no less hungry. The Jackals came first and dived head first into the abdominal cavity for the delicacy of the intestine. Not much was left but they ate what they could find. There are no vultures in this area or nothing would have been left for the leopard pair which came a little later.
Ancient instinct drove the leopard to first secure the kill from other predators and scavengers. The big male carried the front half of the carcass into the first fork, about 10 feet up, in an Acacia Juliflora tree and wedged the head into the fork to leave the neck and rib-cage hanging down. The fact that this carcass probably weighed more than his own body weight means little to a cat which is, pound for pound, the strongest in the cat kingdom. There is no other feline which is stronger than a leopard which is why leopards regularly kill prey which outweighs them enormously. The Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) is smaller than its African cousin (Panthera pardus pardus) but not lacking in either strength or courage and tackles prey much larger than itself. In Jhalana though a full grown Blue Bull is perhaps too big to be in any danger, leopards take subadults and calves when they can. Other prey they depend on are peafowl of which there is a large number. The Forest Department has attempted to introduce Cheetal (Axis Deer or Spotted deer) in Jhalana but with limited success. Another species which should be introduced is Wild Boar. Prey species are critical to the wellbeing of predators and most importantly, a means of avoiding wildlife-human conflict. When prey species are scarce in the sanctuary predators go into surrounding habitation in search of food and take domestic animals and sometimes humans, which has only one ending for the animal. Death. A very good example of excellent conservation is Yala National Park in Sri Lanka where thanks to a profusion of prey species, leopards stay in the park and human animal conflict is avoided. The Sri Lankan leopard is a different subspecies from its Indian and African cousins, (Panthera pardus kotiya) and has evolved to become a very large animal with habits of an apex predator which it is, in Sri Lanka which has no tigers.
The only contenders to the leopard’s cache in Jhalana are Roufus treepies. Wikipedia says: The Rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) is native to the Indian Subcontinent and adjoining parts of Southeast Asia. It is a member of the crow family, Corvidae. It is long tailed and has loud musical calls making it very conspicuous. It is found commonly in open scrub, agricultural areas, forests as well as urban gardens. Like other corvids it is very adaptable, omnivorous and opportunistic in feeding. I advise you to believe Wikipedia. As for opportunistic feeding, well, the first on the Blue Bull carcass in the tree, were the Treepies, picking off pieces of flesh from the ribs. They are so bold that they don’t even care about the leopard when he and his sister come to feed from the carcass that they secured for themselves. They still pick pieces off the opposite side. The Hyena matriarch and her pack can only look upwards and salivate because the carcass is beyond their reach.
The amazing thing is that all this is not happening in some lost wilderness but in the heart of one of India’s most beautiful and famous cities, known for art, craft, historical monuments and mouth watering cuisine, Jaipur. The great secret of Jaipur is Jhalana Leopard Conservatory. It is called Jhalana Leopard Safari; safari being a much-misused name for anything to do with wildlife as ‘trekking’ is used for walking one kilometer on a regular road, when you decide that you are going ‘camping’. I think calling it Conservatory is more appropriate and will keep our attention focused on what we need to do to ensure that this remains viable and protected for wildlife to live and people to enjoy. Jhalana is 17.5 or 21 or 24 square kilometers in area, depending on who you ask. Typical hills of the Aravalli Range with quartz rock, dry deciduous forest and ravines where the run-off from monsoon rains digs ever deeper as it scores the land and carries away the soil. On the lower slopes running into flatlands, grass should grow and would, if it were not for the Acacia Juliflora which abounds here and doesn’t allow anything to grow under it.
However, Jhalana has a very valuable resource; local people who are deeply interested in preserving the sanctuary and protecting its inhabitants. I had the privilege of having one of them, who I like to call their ‘chief’, be my companion and guide when I visited Jhalana earlier this week. He is Mr. Dhirendr Godha, publisher of a Hindi daily newspaper and a great wildlife enthusiast and photographer. It was my good fortune that he agreed to take me on two drives in the morning and evening with spectacular results. I say that people like him are the most valuable resource because ultimately forests and wildlife depend on the support of the local population for their survival and protection. The general failure of wildlife conservation thanks to poaching and habitat destruction in India and the success in Africa show very clearly the importance of the support of local people for the wellbeing of animals and forests. In Jhalana this exists in the efforts of people like Mr. Godha who have dedicated their lives to this piece of paradise in the middle of a city.
My visit was arranged by my host, Mr. Rajesh Sharma, the publisher of Rashtradoot, who requested his friend, Mr. Sunayan Sharma, the former Director of Sariska and the man responsible for the successful reintroduction of the tiger into Sariska National Park, to facilitate my visit. To my great delight, Mr. Sunayan Sharma accompanied me himself and introduced his friend Mr. Godha, who arranged everything and came with us. The trip was an education for me in the flora and fauna of the region and the peculiar challenges to wildlife conservation in this region. Much of what I have written here is the result of the conversation I had with Mr. Sunayan Sharma who is a treasure of knowledge about the Aravalli Hills and its habitat. Having successfully reintroduced tigers into Sariska National Park from which they had been eliminated by poachers and widespread habitat degradation, his extremely practical knowledge about what works and what doesn’t is a resource without parallel.
I am not merely praising these gentlemen here. I am saying all this in support of my earlier article on the challenges of wildlife conservation in India where I suggested involving young people from schools and colleges. This would need two things; easy access to forests and people with knowledge who are willing to share their knowledge. In Jaipur (Jhalana) both are present. A beautiful forest within half an hour’s drive from the city. And people like Mr. Sunayan Sharma and Mr. Dhirendr Godha. I would strongly recommend that the Government recognizes such people and invites them to form a National Forest Core (like the NCC) which can educate young people about conservation. It is important to give young people a taste of the forest and its inhabitants, plants, animals and birds, so that they learn to love them. Give them memories that will last them their lifetimes. When that happens, they will stand up to defend what they love. Our forests today are the victims of apathy arising out of ignorance. A program like the National Forest Core can address and correct that.
To return to Jhalana, we saw a young female leopard eating from the kill on the tree, clinging to the trunk like a lizard. Leopards here are used to traffic and tourists and if you don’t make too much noise they continue to do whatever they are doing, undisturbed. A great boon for photographers. After a little while she leapt to the ground and leisurely strolled away and entered a thick bush nearby. We knew that she would stay there until we had well and truly departed and so we left her in peace and proceeded homewards. The light was failing as dusk approached.
As we took a turn in the road, we saw her brother, a young male, sitting just inside the tree line. He was totally relaxed and continued to sit there and even groom himself as we watched. As we had to leave the park and it was very close to the time the gates would be closed, we headed back. But just as we came to a watering point, a cement saucer made by the Forest Department and filled by tanker, we saw the mother of the two cubs, drinking. She appeared to be heavily pregnant, a very good sign. The water was green with algae which in itself is not such a problem but was also probably contaminated with urine which could lead to sickness for those drinking it.
This brings me to the close of this article with three recommendations about what I believe needs to be done in Jhalana urgently.
Remove the Acacia Juliflora immediately. This requires uprooting as it is a resilient plant and if cut, will simply grow back. Until this is done nothing will grow under it. This scarcity of fodder is lethal for herbivores and therefore for predators. The Forest Department has planted other species under the Acacia but these will never flourish or even grow as long as the Acacia is alive. The Acacia must go.
Plant grass after uprooting the Acacia. What can be done is to fence small areas, say about a quarter of an acre, and remove the Acacias in that area, plant other species and infill with grass. The fencing can be removed once the trees have come up well and are impervious to damage by herbivores. I saw that the trees planted by the Forest Department under the Acacia are individually fenced. But in the summer, it is a safe bet to say that the Neelgai and Sambar will get to them in their search for fodder, not matter how they are fenced. This won’t happen if a large area is fenced, perhaps with solar powered electric fencing and the trees will have a chance of surviving.
Waterholes must be earthen floored. There are some excellent ones made recently with earthen floors lined with lime. Cement ‘waterholes’, which are really cement pans must be broken up. Herbivores, especially Sambar, walk into the water to drink and they urinate as they drink. Cattle do this also, especially buffaloes. In an earthen floored waterhole, this gets absorbed and the water remains relatively uncontaminated. In a cement waterhole, everything remains and it becomes highly toxic.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I believe Jhalana is a gift to Jaipur and an excellent environment to introduce young people to the wild. Combined with knowledgeable people like those I have mentioned and many others who live in the city, Jaipur can launch the National Forest Core. I don’t know of any other city which has wilderness with so many different species of herbivores, carnivores and birds in easily accessible terrain. It is easily possible to have weekend camps and familiarization programs where young people are introduced to nature and wildlife and taught how to enjoy both safely and without creating any interference.
I firmly believe that the key to wildlife and forest conservation is the wholehearted support of local people. That can’t happen when they don’t know the forest, don’t know how to conduct themselves respectfully and safely in it and so live in fear of forests and wildlife instead of loving and enjoying them. It is only when the young generation learns to appreciate nature that they will do what needs to be done to protect and preserve it.