Jhalana forests

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Jhalana forests

Rohit Parihar , Changing spots “India Today” 11/12/2017

A leopard straying through forests “India Today”

When leopards began to stray into the heart of Jaipur three years ago, locals wondered why they trekked to the Pink City from the faraway hills of Nahargarh and Galtaji. But the big cats hadn't travelled so far.

Flying under the radar, a handful of forest and wildlife officials had over the past decade managed to cobble together bits of reserve forest into a 75 sq. km habitat practically in the centre of Jaipur. It's now home to as many as 30 leopards - as well as 150 other species. This May, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje launched the state's first leopard safari at Jhalana forests, modelled on the jeep tours used for tiger tourism in Ranthambore.

Near Rajasthan University in eastern Jaipur, Jhalana offers topographical diversity with hills, valleys, plateaus, sand dunes, nallahs and gullies. Part of it was developed into a park in 1981, and forest officials were slapped with police cases in 2000 when they attempted to remove a big garbage dump and regulate entry to a 300-year-old temple inside the forest. But when Raje learned about the leopards straying into the city, she ordered a project to be set up to improve the prey base inside the forest in 2014.

As a result, the leopard population increased from just eight cats in 2012-13 to 21 in 2016-17. The numbers of jackals, hyenas, foxes, badgers and blue bull have also seen dramatic increases, says Indian Forest Service officer Arijit Banerjee. Access is limited to licensed jeeps, which charge Rs 375 per head for Indians. A drive uphill leads to an 1835 hunting lodge built by the erstwhile Jaipur royals. It offers a magnificent view of the city skyline where it merges with the forest.

Banerjee says the government has earned Rs 42 lakh so far from Jhalana. Leopard sightings have also increased in other forest areas around Jaipur, prompting Raje to consider launching more leopard safaris here and elsewhere in the state. In a state known for palaces, forts, tigers and deserts, leopards have made a welcome entry into the tourism calendar.

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