Wildlife conservationist, naturalist and sommelier Shatrunjay Pratap Singh has co-authored the book Leopards & Shepherds of Jawai. He has filmed special programmes like Wild Cats of India and Living with Predators, and documentaries like Big Cat Kingdom, and Masters of Disguise. But that’s not all! Singh has completed a certification course in winemaking and viticulture from UC Davis, California; and also runs Bera Safari Lodge, a luxury boutique homestay in Jawai.
Excerpts from the interview with Shatrunjay Pratap Singh:
T+L India: Please tell us about your journey as a photographer.
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh: It all started with passion. I found my calling in the wilderness of Jawai, where we had a farm, during my corporate career in wine-making at Sula Wines. Then, stone quarry mining was in full swing and [it] endangered the life of leopards in their natural habitat. Channels like BBC and National Geographic were creating a documentary on leopards, and I took the opportunity to get involved in this exciting project. There was no looking back after that!
I found myself in the throes of a legal battle against mining. It was a tough time, but once the mining operations stopped, a new challenge arose. I immersed myself in the story of leopards and shepherds, particularly in the Rabari community. I knew this was it. There was no Plan B.
T+L India: Your take on wildlife conservation…
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh: Wildlife conservation and commercialism is a double-edged sword. It’s an ongoing quest for balance between nature and humans. We must preserve the wilderness and the communities that guard the area. Livestock, unfortunately, sometimes fall prey to leopards, so conflicts can arise if locals do not get fair compensation. Thankfully, we hoteliers have joined hands to contribute to this compensation effort. Everyone is happy, be it leopards or shepherds!
T+L India: How has Jawai changed over the years?
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh: I always believed in the untapped potential of Jawai. Fortunately, with time and concentrated efforts, it has become a coveted international destination for wildlife enthusiasts. Thanks to improved road connectivity and the rise of tourism, locals have more sources of earning their livelihood. That said, new challenges are arising with an influx of hoteliers without a background in wildlife. Some have set up hotels close to the caves and have started fencing lands that were once open and free for grazing. This has altered the traditional grazing patterns of the region. We need to strike a harmonious balance between progress and preservation.
T+L India: Tell us more about your love affair with leopards.
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh: I have invested many years studying the world’s most elusive cat, the leopard. You can find them in many places, but Jawai is unique in that they co-exist in harmony with humans. There’s something remarkable about the tolerance between these incredible creatures and the local community. It’s a relationship that has been endured for centuries. What I love about leopards is that they are so unpredictable. Even after spending 16-17 months filming them, I have just scratched the surface. Studying leopards is all science. Every day, we learn something new while we meticulously maintain records, collect data and unravel the patterns behind their behaviour.
T+L India: What are your thoughts on responsible wildlife experiences?
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh: Guests must be mindful of the age group of children accompanying them on safari. Some families bring infants who are not even old enough for the zoo. Besides that, it’s crucial not to litter in the forest. It not only harms the environment but also poses a risk to wildlife. Taking selfies with wild animals should be discouraged. Creating space around animals and respecting their boundaries is vital. Nocturnal animals may become more active after dark, especially since Jawai is not a protected national park or sanctuary.
T+L India: How can tourism can make a positive difference in a delicate ecosystem?
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh: Responsible hoteliers must work together to develop a better market. Those who have a genuine connection with wildlife tend to harm the area’s imagery and also the ethics of wildlife conservation. The hills here have ancient temples, with leopards casually sitting on temple steps. It’s essential to maintain the sanctity of these places. Intrusive events like music festivals, weddings, conferences, and corporate gatherings should be a strict no-no. Making a positive difference in this area requires a deep commitment.
T+L India: Sustainability is…
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh: Sustainability is a core principle that guides our actions — from eliminating single-use plastic to using homegrown produce and recycled tissue products, and assuring responsible waste disposal. Wabi-sabi composting helps us convert organic waste into valuable compost, diverting it from landfills. We are taking steps to implement a solar energy plant. Our relationship with the local community is integral to our sustainability efforts. Our logo itself is a symbol of our commitment to fostering the delicate balance between wildlife and humanity.
T+L India: How is life in Jawai, away from the city?
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh: I am grateful for the pure air and fresh produce in the heart of the world’s oldest mountain range. There is an occasional craving for a burger or pizza! The absence of WiFi is both a blessing and a challenge. For health and medical needs, we’ve learned to take care of ourselves in the wilderness. Education for children is challenging, as they have to travel two hours to Mount Abu for schooling. Yet, Jawai is a treasure which I wouldn’t trade for anything.
T+L India: On unconventional life choices…
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh: My wife and I made an unconventional life choice when we chose Jawai as our home turf. Our goal has always been for our children to grow up in this environment, deeply connected with the Earth, forest and positive energy. We’ve chosen a life where the quality of life takes precedence over material possessions. We don’t need a gym because our routine revolves around an active and healthy life. Our safaris start at 4:30 AM, immersed in the beauty of nature. And that is my definition of luxury.
T+L India: Where do you go to chase wanderlust?
Shatrunjay Pratap Singh: I always prefer quieter locations like serene deserts, lush rainforests, and vast grasslands. Some places we’ve enjoyed include Barmer, Kerala, Leh Ladakh, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Kaziranga, and Ranthambore. For me, connecting with nature is the mantra for living large, living deeper.
All photographs by Shatrunjay Pratap Singh