Peacefully Coexist with Wild Leopards on This Bucket List Indian Safari

The Jawai region between Mumbai and New Delhi will have you rethinking the boundaries of nature.

wild leopard in the forest
Photo by Karthika Gupta
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Sitting in the back of a jeep, watching two leopards chasing each other down a hill, landing not thirty yards away to continue fighting, had me questioning my life decisions. I’m not really an overly adventurous person (as loved-ones can attest), yet I somehow managed to once again find myself thinking, “Holy hell, my life is officially over.”

Only after that moment of pure terror receded did I realize how wonderful this decision to safari in the wilderness of India actually was. Right there, snarling in the dirt was one of nature's most fascinating creatures, and I had the privilege of watching the crescendoing cascade of the animal kingdom play out.

About halfway between Mumbai and New Delhi, the region of Jawai has a major claim to fame: it has one of the largest concentrations of wild leopards in the world. This small municipality in the state of Rajasthan traces its roots back to the days of India’s Maharaja rulers. Situated between Jodhpur and Udaipur, Jawai was once all wild, forested land that was prime hunting grounds for the kings.

But what makes Jawai unique is that the leopards cohabit with the villagers and other domesticated animals with minimal man-animal conflict.

Jawai india landscape
Photo by Karthika Gupta

“The leopards have been here for centuries finding refuge in these hills. It’s us, humans, who have encroached on their land,” says Pushpendra Singh Ranawat. His family settled here generations ago as custodians of the forests upon invitation from the then-Maharaja of Udaipur. “When the hunting ban was enforced in 1972 by the Indian government, His Highness Bhagwat Singh Mewar of Udaipur suggested the introduction of safaris as a source of income for the locals.”

Jawai would seem to be a utopia where animals and humans coexist harmoniously, unlike other big cats elsewhere in India. Elusive and shy, the leopards tend to stay away from humans. These endangered animals have adapted to the seemingly barren terrain of the surrounding Aravalli hills by making their home in the caves and crevices of the mountains. With an abundance of readily available prey thanks to a rich ecosystem and natural hideaways, they don’t seem to bother with the shepherds and farmers who also call this area home. Added to that is the spiritual belief that the occasional loss of cattle is an offering to the local deity, Lord Shiva, in exchange for protection and prosperity.

wild leopard cub in the mountains
Photo by Karthika Gupta

“Understanding the role of the leopard in the overall micro and macroeconomic system of Jawai is a great way to preserve and conserve not only their habitat but also other animals here,” adds Ranawat. From systemically geo-tracking sightings, documenting territory lines, and studying behavioral patterns of the different leopard groups in the area, Ranawat has brought conservation and cohabitation in-house by working with community members to help support his efforts.

Most of the staff and safari guides in Ranawat’s Varawal Leopard Camp are locals. By employing locals in hospitality and conservation, he incentivizes the residents to care for leopards. The area’s shepherds and farmers understand that a healthy population of leopards is beneficial to tourism and the ancillary services that come with it. “If the leopards remain, tourists will follow, and that means a steady source of income without depending on just agriculture to sustain us,” he explains.

safari jeep in india
Photo by Karthika Gupta

Leopard safari is a yearlong activity in Jawai. With over 40 leopards within a 25-mile radius, your odds of seeing one in the wild are extremely high. I spent three days at Varawal and saw about six different leopards and a handful of cubs—playing, socializing, and just living life to the fullest.

Lest you think there’s nothing more to this area than big kitties, Jawai is a place teeming with wildlife. If you’re lucky, you might even see sloth bears, spotted hyenas, and the rusty-spotted cat, the world’s smallest cat in these parts.

Related: The Best Places on Earth to (Ethically) Visit Rad Wild Animals

jawai safari landscape
Photo by Karthika Gupta

Jawai Dam is the largest reservoir in western Rajasthan and was built by Maharaja Umaid Singh in 1946 to provide sufficient water supply for irrigation to surrounding villages. Since then, this area has become a wildlife sanctuary. “I have cataloged over 240 species of migratory birds here throughout the year. This alone makes it an ornithologist's dream destination,” says Ranawat. On our visit, we saw a large bask of marsh crocodiles. He estimates there are about 1,000 individuals living in and around the dam (and boy, was I glad to be far away, observing them from the shore).

The best way to maximize your chances of sightings is to stay for a minimum of two to three nights. Lodging in Jawai is as diverse as its animals. From the luxurious Sujan Jawai beginning at $2,500, Amritara Jawai Sagar at $700, and Varawal Leopard Camp at $500, there are options for a variety of budgets. Wherever you stay, you simply must experience a sunset high tea. Most camps in the area offer this bookable experience, and it shouldn't be missed. After a full day of safari, there is something quite alluring about ending the day on a hilltop at sunset, getting a bird’s eye view of Jawai with a cup of hot masala chai and regional Rajasthani cuisine. And if you're lucky, you'll see the orange glow of the sun reflecting off the sand-colored hills, making the whole area burst with color.

indian goat herder
Photo by Karthika Gupta

Visitors should also venture into Bera, a quaint village about 5 miles from Jawai, which the local Rabari tribes frequent. The Rabari are a shepherding community that is said to have migrated to Rajasthan from Iran through Afghanistan over a thousand years ago. They’re often herding cows and sheep all over these parts, wearing white dhotis, red turbans, and silver amulets, their long sticks resting on their shoulders. While in Bera, don’t forget to check out the architecture of Castle Bera, a 17th-century castle that was once the home of the son of the Maharaja of Udaipur. It is now a boutique homestay complete with period furnishing, historic photographs, and beautifully manicured gardens.

Jawai is still off the main tourist track in India and offers a rarer side of adventure. “It is not uncommon to see a leopard walking the roads at night or even unknowingly catching one in the headlight of your car,” says Ranawat. “When tourists come and see these majestic animals at close range, they appreciate the efforts local villagers are taking to ensure that these animals thrive. Nature and humanity can find ways to coexist. It's only a matter of finding that balance to continue the wondrous harmony of the world.”

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Karthika Gupta is a contributor for Thrillist.