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The Leopard Rocks

Synopsis

Leopards are solitary animals – so science and the textbooks tell us. And yet, there is a place where leopards live peacefully next to each other, without fights over territory or power: the Leopard Rocks in Northwest India.

The rocks lie within the Aravalli Range, one of the oldest fold mountains in the world with peaks reaching up to 5,000 metres. The foothills are dotted with isolated prehistoric rock formations, Hindu monasteries and villages. Here, in close proximity to peasants and their livestock, dozens of leopards have made their home among the rocks and caves. Some are occupied by single females who give birth and raise their young in the caves, while others are shared by several leopards.

Wild animals are scarce in this environment, and the leopards often kill the local farmers’ sheep and goats. Unlike leopards elsewhere, they don’t take their prey up into trees, but carry them back to their caves. In India, big cats hunting near human settlements are often poisoned or shot, but at the Leopard Rocks humans and animals cohabit peacefully in unusually close proximity.

In this rock spur the local Hindus have built a picturesque white temple. Immediately beneath its entrance is a cave inhabited by a female leopard. The Hindu population from the neighbouring villages frequently visits the temple, so there is a constant coming and going just a few steps away from the cave mouth. So far, the cats haven’t attacked any humans.

The local farmers are Rabari, a tribal caste of nomadic shepherds and cattle herders. Their lifestyle has taught them respect for the leopards. And while the leopards tolerate humans, they struggle with the local monkeys. Their greatest adversaries are Hanuman langurs, which have settled on the rocks in their hundreds, spending the night hidden away in the crevices. The leopards prey on the langurs, but in turn the monkeys frequently attack and kill the leopards’ young.

Big cats and monkeys are not alone on these rocky hills. Under the overhangs Himalayan honeybees have built their nests. At two centimetres in length, they are the largest honeybees in the world. They collect the nectar from Flame of the Forest trees growing at the foot of the rocks. The sweet juice is highly coveted: the purple sunbird, the plum-headed and the rose-ringed parakeet are also attracted to the pungent blossom.

The leopards often wander through the narrow and well-protected Silent Valley which leads from the rocks to a large reservoir now taken over by nature. On the lakeshores, Sarus cranes dance in the sunset. During the winter hundreds of thousands of migrant birds gather on the shores, and in the clear water mugger crocodiles are hunting for fish. On sandy beaches the crocs are basking in the sun. But they are always closely watched by the leopards, sitting on the rocks above them.