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janzin

Leopards in Luxury: The Leopards of Bera

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janzin

Rather than do one long trip report for our recent India trip, I decided to do a few individual reports for the distinct areas we visited--more manageable that way, and each area had a very different focus.

We were in India from February February 18-March 5 covering parks in Gujarat and Bera and Ranthambhore in Rajasthan. So, here's the Bera bit!

 

I first learned about the leopards of Bera from a post here on SafariTalk. As leopards are my favorite cat it immediately piqued my interest and I knew I had to add this place to our next safari. My one concern was that there had been talk of leopards being baited with live, tied-up goats, which I really didn't feel good about. However, while planning our trip, I contacted the owner of the Bera Safari Lodge (which had been recommended by our agent, Wild World India) to inquire about this practice. He assured me that this was no longer done and hadn't been done in many years, and that he actually had been active in stopping this practice and also in conserving the general area, which had been threatened by mining. He sent me many articles on the work he did to stop the mining (he's a bit of a character, but in a good way.)

 

Feeling reassured we booked two nights at Bera Safari Lodge. Originally our plans included three nights, but we had to cut a day here and there from the trip and that was one that we cut. In hindsight I wish we hadn't because I could have easily spent another night at this fabulous spot!

 

Leaving the main highway out of Gujarat, into the Bera area, we immediately noticed the stark but magnificent scenery...different than any other we'd seen in India or for that matter anywhere else. At least in dry season, its an area of dry scrub with huge outcroppings of rocks that are riddled with caves and crevices. 

 

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This is what makes is to attractive to the leopards. They rest and sleep in the caves by day and come out at dusk to hunt.  There is little natural prey in the area and so they subsist mainly on goats and dogs :( There seems to be a positive relationship with the local people who put up with this for the influx of tourists. I believe the government reimburses for the lost goats (probably not for the lost dogs!) According to our host at the lodge, there have been no recorded man/leopard conflicts in this area.

 

Before we get to the leopards, a bit about the Bera Safari Lodge, as it is a really interesting place. Run by the owner and his wife, who live there with their twin toddlers, it is really a labor of love. The owner was originally in the wine business and earned a winemaking certificate from UC Davis in California--one of the top winemaking programs in the world. But visiting Bera he fell in love and bought this empty piece of land. He built just five rooms plus his own home and it really is fabulous. It is run much like an African safari lodge (more so than other lodges I've been to in India.) He and his wife join the guests at the communal dinner table, and even our guide CB was able to join us for meals. Before dinner, and after the evening game drive, guests gather around the outside firepit for drinks and snacks.  Food was excellent and they will tailor to your every whim. At one dinner, the discussion turned to Indian breads and we mentioned that we really like Poori but rarely had it. Well next morning they had made Poori just for us!

 

The lodge is set right amidst the rock formations and it is possible to see leopards even from your window. We were told that occasionally they may walk right through the grounds at night.

 

This is a little waiting/viewing area that has a scope set up for viewing the surrounding rock hills.

 

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One of the lodge buildings. I unfortunately never remembered to photograph the interior, but you can view them on their website. The rooms were huge, very luxurious, with A/C, fridge, and coffee maker, and with not one, but TWO bathrooms!  Two full bathrooms each with toilet and shower. The owner told us that he built them this way originally because when the lodge first opened, he had a National Geographic crew staying here so there were multiple crew members in the rooms. But his wife also told us that another reason was that the biggest fight they ever had was over the bathroom :)  Whatever the reason, it was really handy and gave one no excuse to be late for morning safari! 

 

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By the way, PLEASE click on the photos to view, because ST is really making them fuzzy when embedded, I don't know why.

 

Edited by janzin

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janzin

A note about the safari timings here, and the way they are run. The morning safari is from 5:30 to about 9:30 or 10, and then the evening safari doesn't start until 5 and goes to about 8. The reason for this is that the leopard really do go into the caves mid-morning and do not come out again until late afternoon. Once you see them go in there is almost no point in waiting further. But since this is not a park or even a reserve, there is no restriction about times or staying out after dark, etc. There is also an option to extend the morning safari by going to Jawai dam, so you start heading there by 9:30 and are back before noon.

 

In the mornings, one can't be sure where to find the leopards, because they've been out hunting during the night and may or may not come back to the same cave they were in earlier. But once they are spotted in the morning, and enter a cave, there's a very good chance that they will come out of that same cave in the afternoon :)  So that makes the afternoon "drive" much more of a sure thing, assuming leopards were found that morning.

 

We arrived at the lodge in time for lunch (a bit of an adventure finding this place, as it is not signposted and not close enough to the main road to see--we stopped to ask directions but eventually had to phone and they sent someone out to meet us and guide us in!) So after an excellent lunch and a bit of a rest we headed out for our first "drive." I put that in quotes because it wasn't much of a drive as we went behind the lodge to one of the closer outcroppings which took all of 10 minutes, and then parked. Was there a leopard there?

 

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Oh yes there was!

 

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As you can see, there is also no issue with standing outside the vehicle. Which really makes a tripod very useful here and I'm glad I brought one for this trip.

 

But here I will add, that for the most part, the leopards are FAR, staying quite high in the rocks. Even with  a 500mm lens + a 1.4 teleconverter, photography was tough. Our host said he had an 800mm lens on order :) 

 

Our first Bera leopard!

 

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Locals use this road of course, although I wouldn't call this traffic...the occasional scooter would go by...and here's leopard dinner on the move...

 

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We stayed as the sun went down, waiting for the leopard to move. Leopard watching here is really a waiting game...they like to bask on the warm rocks in the late afternoon and then eventually they start moving down. Once they start moving, so do the vehicles...trying to see where they will emerge and hopefully catch a glimpse via spotlight.  On our very first night, we were really lucky as the leopard came right towards us and laid down in the brush.

 

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Eventually he moved and started heading out to hunt...at that point we left him so as to not disturb him. Little did we know this would be our only close encounter...but then again, we only had two nights, which is one reason why I wish we'd stayed longer.

 

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A very exciting first evening! What would morning bring?

 

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michael-ibk

Wow, what an excellent Leopard sighting! No need mentioning your photos are too, they always are. The Lodge sounds very cool.

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janzin

Since we only had the one full day at Bera, the plan for the next morning was to do the extension to the Jawai dam. This would be primarily for scenery and of course birds. The local guides from the lodges really aren't that expert in birds and are completely focused on the leopards, and it takes some doing to even get them to pay attention to birds...luckily of course we had our own birding guide accompanying us, CB Singh from Wild World India, so it wasn't a big issue but if you relied on their guides and were a birder you might be disappointed. CB was doing his best while we were there to try and extend their guides horizons ;)

 

Anyway, we were starting off with leopards and headed to the same rock face we had left the night before. Several vehicles were circling the cliffs and shortly after first light we were rewarded with what was most likely the same leopard, very close to where he was the night before.  Just as high up, unfortunately!

 

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Somehow we heard through the grapevine that there was another leopard spotted around the other side of the rocks. This side would actually be in better light, so we decided to move around there.

 

Watching and waiting...

 

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Soon we saw him! (or her...honestly at that distance I couldn't tell.)  He was moving in and out of the crevices. The rocks in this area gave a spectacular background...perhaps more interesting than the leopard.

 

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Its really an interesting and different experience. The leopard would disappear for some time inside one of the cracks and then it was a waiting game to see where he might emerge.  

 

Well he emerged right at the top of the hill.

 

 

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But wait...look closely...do you see a second leopard there? Find it!

 

Eventually one of them started to come down.

 

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But soon completely disappeared inside one of the caves.  At this point we figured he probably wasn't coming back out, so we hopped in the gypsy and went back around to see what the first leopard was doing.  He was a little further down, but not for long...he too shortly went inside a cave.

 

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So a three-leopard morning wasn't bad, and we headed off to Jawai dam to see what we could find.

 

 

 

 

Edited by janzin

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lmSA84

@janzin - I find this fascinating. I read briefly about this place in a UK newspaper article and almost forgot about it until I read your post. I love this kind entrepreneurial ecotourism because I think done right I think it can be a highly effective conservation tool. It’s another great example of why safaritalk is such a good resource. Thanks for sharing. 

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janzin
2 hours ago, lmSA84 said:

@janzin - I find this fascinating. I read briefly about this place in a UK newspaper article and almost forgot about it until I read your post. I love this kind entrepreneurial ecotourism because I think done right I think it can be a highly effective conservation tool. It’s another great example of why safaritalk is such a good resource. Thanks for sharing. 

 

indeed, I'm not sure I would have known about this place if it weren't for ST! And lots of other places too.

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janzin

We headed towards the area of the dam, which is about an hour's drive from the lodge area. But all of the terrain from the lodge to the dam are these similar rocky hills, so leopards could be anywhere. We did take a short detour off the main road at one point to take a look--no leopard, but we did see hyena tracks--which got us really excited as Striped Hyena was high on our "most wanted" list. We vowed to return to that section on our last morning. Meantime, we continued to the dam.

 

Along the way we spotted this bird. Now, here's what I mean about the local guides not knowing much about birds...at least, the one we had ;) He called this an Open-billed Stork but of course, it is a juvenile Painted Stork.

 

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The lake of the dam is very picturesque but there actually weren't a huge number of birds, which was surprising given that it seemed like the main water in the area.  We actually didn't see the dam itself, just the lake.

 

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I did attempt some shorebird photos and there were assorted larks but no photos worth posting. So after a bit we started back to the lodge, but not before stopping at a small village for some chai.

 

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We got back around 11 and had a huge breakfast...which I THOUGHT was brunch...but turned out was really breakfast...and lunch would be served at 2:30!  You get fed a lot here!

 

After lunch we had a bit of a rest and arranged to meet CB a bit earlier than the 5:00 drive for some birding around the lodge.  There were quite a few birds even though it was very dry. A bit of a water feature (a dripping hose) attracted this Grey-necked Bunting, which was a lifer for us.

 

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There was a Black-winged Kite which was hunting around the grounds, posing nicely.

 

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Another lifer was Rock Bush Quail, there were coveys of these running around in the grasses but for the most part, too fast for photos! I got lucky with one photo of a juvenile which isn't too blurry :)

 

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The ubiquitous Red-vented Bulbul, here perched nicely in the open.

 

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Also present were Great Gray Babblers, and this pair of Small Minivets.

 

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It was nice to be able to get out and walk around a bit for birding, which we didn't really get to do anywhere else on our trip.

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Alexander33

Really looking forward to this. You always give good, practical advice, together with inspiring photographs. 

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Zubbie15

I’ve been following and enjoying your photos on Facebook.  Really glad you’ve started here... and a really interesting start too! I’m 8n the process of emailing with Vikram for next year, your report(s) are really going to be fun to follow.

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janzin

For our 2nd...and sadly last...evening drive, we returned to the rocks where we'd seen the leopard in the morning. Sure enough, he was there, but just as distant.  (Reminder, please click on the photos to view them best!)

 

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Eventually he started descending...

 

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and for a brief moment we had a better look....

 

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But then we lost him in the brush. We tried again to locate a leopard in the spotlight, but alas, no luck on this night.  We did see several Indian Hares and Indian Nightjars.

 

We ended the evening with one other astounding sighting, which unfortunately I did not capture photographically.  As dusk was falling, a Rock Eagle Owl flew directly over our heads, soaring down from the hillside. It happened so fast, and we were too entranced to even think of picking up the camera...we just looked up with our mouths hanging open. It was a magical end!

 

But we still had one final morning drive before we took our leave of Bera and headed to Ranthambhore.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chakra

It's really nice that this relatively little known place is getting good exposure and the more nature conscious people like you talk about this, the better it is. But one thing I'd like to mention, which you have already refereed to, is the fact that these leopards seem to be pretty far away. From what I have heard about them I thought they were more tolerant and easier to photograph. 

Bera safari lodge seems really nice and I'm now in two minds as my friends have suggested a stay at Castle Bera, a heritage property. Did you consider that at ? 

 

Lastly as leopards are your favourite cats then may I suggest a trip, not to any national park, but to the densest urban population in the world , the city of Mumbai.  Greater Mumbai and the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park are teeming with leopards, at least forty. The attraction : feral dogs. It is estimated that the leopards prevented at least one hundred cases of Rabies last year by eating stray dogs. Fascinating. 

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janzin

@Chakra we only briefly looked at Castle Bera, once I saw the website for Bera Safari Lodge I was smitten so didn't seriously consider anywhere else.  You might be interested to know that all the Castle Bera vehicles were over at "our" rocky hill for the leopards. They had to travel much further then we did :) Now, I suppose there are times when they sight leopards closer to their location. But it seems that there are regular sightings right close to Bera Safari Lodge.

 

I guess it also depends if one is more interested in staying at a Heritage hotel which might have history but a little impersonal or a place like this where you really are immersed in nature and where it is more like a safari lodge--with all the modern conveniences.

 

As for far away....I suppose there are instances where they come closer but in general I don't think one can get very close except in the evening when they come down. When it did come down it was very calm and tolerant.  As I was only there for two nights (four drives) I can't really say if this is the norm or not. I guess I have to go back :)

Edited by janzin

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janzin

So as I mentioned, on our last morning we decided to forgo the morning leopard "sit" and head further afield to where we had seen the hyena tracks. Of course there was always a chance we'd see leopard in that area as well.  We started out even earlier than usual (5:15!) as this area was almost an hour away.  For the first 1/2 hour or so we sped along the tarred road (a bit scary in the gypsy) until turning off onto a dirt road that wound between the rocky hills. There are a maze of roads in this area and I would not want to be trying to find my way around without a guide.

 

The first critter we saw, while it was still quite dark, was a life mammal for us...a Hedgehog!  I don't think our local guide understood why we were so excited. Luckily our WWI guide, CB, spotted it and made the local guide stop.

 

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Still in the dark, we were driven up to the top of one of the flatter rocky outcroppings. And I mean driven right over the rocks, at quite a steep angle, this wasn't a road but we were driving right on the rock face.  I assume that the guide does this all the time as he knew where NOT to go so as not to pitch us over the edge. It was actually quite wonderful as we sat on the top of these rocks and watched the sun come up.

 

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A magical sunrise. You can actually see the water from the Jawai dam in that photo above.  As we sat, we listened to the birds waking up and the guides scanned for leopards in the surrounding rocks. We didn't find any leopards there but we did spot a pair of Indian Eagle Owls roosting in some bare trees, quite distant and way too dark still for photos. But it was a thrill to see them.

 

Gradually the light came up and we started back down from the rocks.

 

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We drove around the maze of roads in the area for quite awhile looking for the hyena but with no luck. Once it was fully light, we pretty much accepted that hyena was not going to be found. Well, we tried!

 

We stopped at this spot and were looking at some birds, I don't even remember what, when all of a sudden the local guide says "leopard!".  Where???

 

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Well, do you see that hill in the distance directly behind the house? Somehow the eagle eyes of the guide saw a leopard on that hill. And he did not have binoculars!

 

So before we knew it we were high-tailing it in that direction. But it wasn't clear how to get there, there was no road that led their directly. We went through and around a small village and at one point even asked directions. Finally we found ourselves right at the hill in question..and luckily there was a dirt road encircling it. Just as we arrived, we saw the leopard climbing down from the top...no time to even lift up the camera. In a flash he seemed to disappear.

 

The hill as we approach...

 

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We decided to get out of the gypsy and climb up another (small) rocky hill that was directly opposite the larger one. This was our vantage point, and we could see the caves at eye level.

 

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So, we are looking across and waiting to see if the leopard will emerge.  We had a pretty good idea where he went in.   We waited and waited. While we were waiting, I saw a small bird in a tree nearby and as I was taking a shot (which I missed) CB got very excited and said it was a White-bellied Minivet...quite a good bird to get.  It flew down into the valley and I had to decide...go after the bird or wait for the leopard? I decided to wait for the leopard. CB went after the bird (and got a very nice photo--he was really chuffed.)

 

Meantime, up on the rocks....another leopard started to come down from over the hill! So there had been two!  It happened really fast and he was going in and out of the rocks, fairly blocked but I managed one barely recognizable photo before he too went into the cave..

 

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The whole experience was just thrilling.

 

And with that, we headed back to the lodge (well, not before looking for awhile down in the fields for that White-bellied Minivet, but it never reappeared. I wasn't sorry though that I chose the leopard over the bird!)

 

We got back to the lodge with plenty of time for a final shower and another fantastic breakfast (with Poori :) And the other couple who had been staying at the lodge told us they had NO leopards that morning locally...so we definitely made the right choice heading further afield. 

 

Well, that's the end of the Bera section. From here, we spent one night on the road about halfway, and then the next day continued to Ranthambhore.

 

I highly, highly recommend this experience if you like leopards or even if you just like fantastic scenery. I wish we'd had more time and I wish we'd spent some time just doing some landscape photography, I had actually brought equipment to do night photography here but just our luck, the nights were a bit cloudy and there was too much moon for that; but it would be a perfect place for star shots if the skies were clear.

 

 

 

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Kitsafari

@janzin very informative and useful info. bera looks lovely too. 

Just before I saw your FB photos on Bera, I had just signed up for a short birding trip to Udaipur in Dec, and the organisers threw in a 2-day extension to Bera to see the leopards, for which I had to sign up too. Now that you've mentioned that a short trip might not yield a sighting - it's making me rather worried. But I'll just go with the flow and hope for a bit of your luck! 

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janzin

@Kitsafari I'm pretty sure you'd have a sighting in two days, we had multiple sightings. Just that more time might allow for closer sightings. But you never know on safari! Anyway you'll love it I'm sure. Where are you staying?

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janzin

Our guide CB Singh kindly just pointed out that I made an error in the Quail ID, it is not a Rock Bush Quail (which we did also see at Bera) but this one is a Barred Button Quail (also a lifer!) I got confused with the photos as we saw both on the same afternoon.  Unfortunately it is too late to edit the post above!

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Kitsafari

@janzin i'm checking with the organiser but he seems to be away. will let you know once he reverts but i hope it's the same lodge. 

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Antee

I do like the trip report but I also like the nicely frames you always got on your photos :) 
How you do them easily, any good program for it? 

Or is it one by one thru Photoshop or Lightroom? 

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elefromoz

@janzin, really enjoyed this, the Leopard look incredible on those huge rocks, and fantastic scenery, India is just full of surprises.

On 4/18/2018 at 7:40 AM, janzin said:

For the first 1/2 hour or so we sped along the tarred road (a bit scary in the gypsy)

That made me smile as I remember doing that too, and high-tailing in and around small villages, in Gujarat, such a different experience than in the Tiger Parks. 

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janzin
3 hours ago, Antee said:

I do like the trip report but I also like the nicely frames you always got on your photos :) 
How you do them easily, any good program for it? 

Or is it one by one thru Photoshop or Lightroom? 

 

@Antee the editing program I use is called Picture Window Pro, its free now but Windows only. I have written a sort of "macro" for the program (they call it a "workflow") that builds the frames and all I have to do is fill in the caption for each image. Probably similar to an "action" in Photoshop.  http://www.dl-c.com/

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penolva

Great to read your first review of your trip. As you know we are following in your footsteps next year. We are staying at the heritage lodge as our guide is a family friend. Just hoping we get lucky as we also only have two nights. The scenery is very striking so DH will be happy. Next stop Ranthambore ? Did you see a tiger? Can’t wait to hear. Pen

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janzin
2 hours ago, penolva said:

Did you see a tiger?

 

Oh, just a few ;)  Hope to get to it soon, almost done with the photos. I'll get to it before your trip anyway :lol:

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Tom Kellie

~ @janzin

 

Reading through this trip report about one part of your India safari was enjoyable.

 

The images were, as ever, top-quality. Your approach to nature photography is highly appealing to me.

 

Thank you for including all relevant information about Bera, beyond the leopards themselves.

 

I'm with you in having a special feeling for leopards, therefore this trip report was of great interest.

 

Where I teach once per week, at a remote satellite campus, leopards live in the heavily forested mountains, undisturbed by development.

 

Tom K.

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janzin

Thank you @Tom Kellie  Nice to see you back here again :)  Leopards are my favorite of the big cats, I think.

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Soukous
On 1/10/2019 at 10:01 PM, janzin said:

 Leopards are my favorite of the big cats, I think.

 

mine too 

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