Blackness turned first to gloom and then to pale blue. Soon papaya orange painted the dusty skies of the east as morning crept gently up upon the world, climbing the back of the hill on which we sat. A dry but green land of fields, parched riverbeds and impossibly sculpted granite hills lay spread out around us, slowly opening its colours to the sky as the sun broke the horizon. Pink rocks, orange soils and precipitously green crop plantations prepared themselves for another day of the intense Indian heat, memories of the recent monsoons gradually evaporating under what would almost certainly be another relentlessly clear Rajasthani sky.
We sipped purposefully from one of the various water bottles which lay scattered around our 4×4 as the hillside in front of us brightened minute by minute. High on the slopes, perched on rocky summits, grey langur monkeys climbed and cavorted, their numbers gradually increasing as they emerged from shelter in their eagerness to welcome the new day. Occasionally their cries echoed off the smooth granite hillside and tumbled across the treetops to our ears, mixing with the cacophony of other vocalisations which greet the break of day here at Jawai. Peacocks, babblers, bee eaters, grey franklins, quails… And of course the insects. Sounds of life seemed to ooze from the landscape as the world around us passed through that comfortable window of morning; when the light is there to see with but the heat hasn’t yet arrived. Everyone wants a piece of the action around dawn, and so did we. We sat quietly fixated, binoculars trained on the collection of large boulders 300m in front of us.
All the world was waking up but we were silent. In the distance the gentle thud, thud, thud of water pumps starting up could be heard, punctuating the natural dialogues which filled the air as farmers began the daily ritual of moving water from wells and into the parched soils that would hopefully provide them with food and finance; the rhythmic heartbeats of the old petrol pump engines reminding us of the people who live here and the many, many human lives which play out in this beautiful but wild place, under the baking sun and amongst the birds, trees, nilga and… leopards.
That is what we were here to see this morning. The boulders before us were a denning site where an adult female had been seen with a litter of cubs. Still in their first few months of life the cubs were timid, and there was some uncertainty about how many of them were concealed amongst the rocks. Most said two, but one or two sightings suggested that perhaps there were three. Had there been three? Were there now only two? Its not uncommon for adult males to encroach upon females with young families and kill some or all of their newborn cubs, hoping to make the female more receptive to mating. So, we were far from sure about what to expect at this site. Would we see any leopards at all?
Gradually the rising sun painted the rocks an ever more photogenic shade and we sat fast in our ‘Gypsy’ 4×4, two pairs of reflective glass lenses peering across the valley. Again and again I swept the rocks with my binoculars, scanning from one crevice to the next. My eyes drew spirals and loops across the scene. To the leopards, whom if they existed would doubtless be watching us, I must have looked like a tennis spectator with an inner ear disorder. I probed every grassy knoll, leafy hollow and rocky cleft with my imagination as my gaze spiralled across the hillside… Were those spots, or just speckled rocks? Was that a ringed tail or just a dead branch? Was there anything here at all, or were we wasting our time?
For what seemed like a patient eternity nothing happened. Life went on and the chorus of the morning matured around us until suddenly that chorus changed. From high on the rocky summits sharp barks resonated, jarring against the seeming harmony which exuded from the land. It was the monkeys. With their startlingly sharp eyes they had spotted something moving below. Something dangerous. Those barks we had heard were their alarm calls.
Our binoculars swung upwards in tandem and we focussed in on the grey langurs. Almost to a monkey-shaped man they were staring down at the rocks where the den site was supposed to be. Something must be stirring. Were the cats creeping from their cradles? This was the time when, if she was here, the mother leopard would normally return from her nocturnal hunt. She would have left her cubs under the cover of darkness the previous evening, secure amongst the rocks to await her return. She would then have ventured off into the bush in search of food. In this area leopards frequently predate on goats, cattle and even dogs. In fact, from the bones we had seen in some abandoned leopard caves nearby, dogs appear to make up a sizeable portion of the average big cat’s diet around Jawai! How had this nights hunt gone we wondered? What had the monkeys seen?
Following the monkeys’ gaze we looked back down at the boulders and began visually stripping the scene all the more intently. Every rock seemed to be cat shaped and every branch seemed to conceal a mirage of spots until suddenly, behind a cactus, I saw a feline outline which I KNEW hadn’t been there a second or two before. I stared at it for a moment, just to be sure, but as I watched I saw a striped tail flick upwards from behind the thorny greenery and I knew that our patience had paid off.
“There! Got one! Behind the euphorbia!” I whispered.
Well, I think it was a whisper anyway. I was pretty excited so for all I know it could have been a scream. However it sounded though, the message got across and I didn’t scare anything away, so all was well.
It was a cub. A small juvenile leopard, probably growing impatient for its mother to return with breakfast. No more than a few months old it looked surprisingly kitten-like, with wide eyes and disproportionately large ears compared to its overall body size which was already thick with spots, albeit small, kitten-sized spots. It was impossibly cute anyway, if an apex predator can be called cute…
As we watched, the cub moved tentatively into the open. One pad after another it crept silently out from behind the cover of the euphorbia and forwards into the copper coloured light of sunrise. It couldn’t have been a more perfectly beautiful sight. That is until one moment later when a second cub dashed out from the recesses of the rock and pulled in beside its sibling! They both looked outwards into the valley, their tails tangling and flicking from side to side as they stared into the sunrise, likely wondering if mum had gotten lost on her way back from the shops. The perfect mottled orange of their characteristically spotted coats seemed to come alive in the early light, their patterned flanks moving almost hypnotically as we stared excitedly. It was beautiful.
After a minute or so the cubs relaxed and lay down onto the rapidly warming rock surface, stretching out as day overcame night and the sun fully shed the cloak of the horizon. It looked, for all intents and purposes, as if the sun had risen especially for these cubs. They owned everything they could see. Even we, sat as we were in our little truck, were enthralled; like pilgrims in one of the captivating temples which lay squirreled into the mountains all around the area. We had travelled across continents to see this, and from the inquisitively confident looks on these two cubs’ faces it seemed almost as if they knew it.
For long minutes we watched as the cats made the most of the fresh sun’s glow. From time to time they would tease each other, swatting and gambolling like little boys in the playground before settling again and spreading themselves out on the cool rock. Like two little Rajasthani princes they seemed, for all the world, to be in charge of everything around them. What could touch this pair?
But then, as if planned as a reminder that in all the world nothing is constant and that the only certainty in life is change, there was a sudden flash of movement to the right. Something darted out from the shelter of the rocks and sprang upon the cubs! We gasped, but there was no cause for alarm. It was the third cub. There were three!
We sat and stared and enjoyed the scene as these three siblings tumbled around, experimenting with their environment. One day, with luck, these young cubs would be adult leopards; stealth hunters and masters of their surroundings. All of this playfulness, cute as it was, hid a more important agenda: practice. Practice for one day becoming one of the animal kingdom’s most purposeful and premeditated predators, for life isn’t all sunrises and innocence. This being the case the cubs didn’t stay outdoors for long, and as the light of day hardened around us they grew cautious and retreated back to the safety of the shadows. In all likelihood they would now remain hidden until evening when again the light would fade.
It had been a magical morning and we smiled as we packed our binoculars away, ready to leave and make the most of the other pleasures the still young day had to share. But then, just as we were about to turn the key in the Gypsy’s ignition, a roar split the air. It was a deep, guttural roar, the likes of which you seldom hear from a leopard. Perhaps the cubs hadn’t been fleeing from the day. Perhaps mother had returned, unseen, with a kill. Perhaps one of the cubs had carried the adrenaline of playtime a little too far and incurred a reprimand? We could never know, but that roar made for an atmospheric end to our experience. Every memory has a soundtrack, however abstract that soundtrack might be. This memory would always end with a roar. Fierce, frightening, and honest; life, death and wildness, all encapsulated in one sound.
Words by Colin Souness
Photography by Nicky Souness