garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad
In Rajasthan’s Pali district, slabs of granite loom up from the earth, sculpted by complex chemical interactions, wind and weather. Scattered around are the few shrubs and trees that can survive these semi-arid conditions: Euphorbia caducifolia, so prickly that no animal will eat it; stands of axlewood trees (Anogeissus pendula), kept short and scrubby by grazing; Acacia catechu, lopped by local herdsmen for goat fodder until the trees appear professionally pollarded; solitary specimens of the alien-seeming giant milkweed (Calotropis procera); the year-round yellow flowers of the matura tea tree (Senna auriculata), used as a local form of henna.
Yet in places there is enough good soil and groundwater for the local farmers to cultivate rich green fields of mustard, wheat, cumin and chick peas. The crops are all managed by hand. There is another draw to this ancient landscape. Here, leopards co-exist with villagers, who believe the cats protect valuable artifacts in the hilltop temples. (What thief would venture into the mountains at night, while the leopards are hunting?) In return, the herdsmen accept that the occasional goat or sheep is taken by the leopards. Indeed livestock is probably the cats’ biggest source of food.
Leopard safaris are now encouraging tourists (including us) into this remote part of southwestern Rajasthan. In many ways the new safari camp is welcome, bringing in international experts to put a renewed focus on the conservation of the local flora and fauna. The camp also pumps money and employment into a rural economy where, despite the romantic-sounding life of the farmers, the work is hard and the financial rewards poor. Many village children want to leave the area and find office jobs in the city.
But there are worries that more camps may follow, resulting in too many tourists and too much disruption. The villagers also fear that greater awareness of their leopard population may mean that, under wildlife protection legislation, the government will take their land and livelihoods and turn the area into a national park. The disappearance of crops and livestock, and the introduction of the fences, permits and regulations that accompany national park designation, would greatly impact on the area’s character.
The future is not clear. It is difficult to know even what would be for the best. But it was a joy to visit and see this ancient landscape at a turning point in its long history.