It’s getting dark, with the sun about to set. The jungle’s coming to life. In a dried-up gully, bordered by dense forests in the Kalagarh Tiger Reserve in northern Uttar Pradesh, two forest rangers — with a single 315 bore rifle between them — have found the pugmarks of an adult tigress. But they can’t be sure if these are the tracks of the same animal that has killed six people in the last six weeks in Uttar Pradesh.
Although the four-year-old, 200-kg tigress has travelled over 150 kms through areas densely populated by humans, nobody has seen her. So they call her the ‘Mysterious Queen’. On Friday night, the state forest department allowed a registered hunter, Kunwar Sanjay Singh of Moradabad, to kill the maneater. However, if the tigress strays into the neighbouring forests of Uttarakhand, she will be safe.
The tigress made her first confirmed kill on December 29. Vijay, 21, was to get married the next day. According to the Moradabad forest department, Vijay had woken up early and gone to the sugarcane fields near his home in Mitthanpur Maujia, a village in Moradabad district. Trackers who were later called from the Corbett Tiger Reserve deduced that Vijay was crouching and watching a film on his phone when he was ambushed. “He was almost completely eaten, since the tigress wasn’t disturbed for a while. When the villagers realised what had happened, they made a lot of noise to scare the animal away, and she hid in the fields,” says Naved Jamal, one of the trackers.
Armed with lathis and sickles, the villagers surrounded the fields. But by the time they combed the fields, an hour later, the tigress had disappeared. This disappearing act, the Uttar Pradesh forest department soon realised, was to be an integral part of the chase that has now lasted over a month-and-a-half.
Trackers found that after killing Vijay, the tigress passed through the agrarian belt at Jatpura in Moradabad, crossed a brightly lit, six-lane highway heading towards Delhi, swam across the Gagan river, and used the boundary wall of Teerthanker Mahaveer University in Moradabad to make its way to Changeri in Moradabad, where she attacked and killed Rajiv Bishnoi, 33, on January 5. He was working with his son in the sugarcane fields, and the latter could not even catch a glimpse of the tigress.
Her next kill was in Chendri-Akbarpur on January 7, where she killed Shobha, 18, who was also working in the sugarcane fields. The tracking team, comprising specialists from Dudhwa National Park, Corbett Tiger Reserve and Nainital, was only a few metres away and the first to reach the spot. “She had killed the girl with a single swipe to the skull. But there was no attempt to feed or even drag her. And like always, she had disappeared,” says Jamal.
By now, a pattern had begun to emerge. “She was moving through dense sugarcane fields, at a time when farmers are busy with the harvest, thus increasing the chances of conflict with humans. Her movement indicates that she wasn’t unfamiliar with the noise of human habitats. She moved through villages, towns and crossed no less than three national highways, four state highways and three railway crossings,” says B C Brahma, Divisional Forest Officer, Moradabad.
Stating that all the victims were reportedly bending down when they were attacked, experts say the tiger could have mistaken them for wild animals. “Humans aren’t natural prey for tigers,” says Dr Mayukh Chatterjee of the Wildlife Trust of India. The tigress’s fourth kill in Moradabad district was in Daripur on January 8. Dulari Devi, 40, was attacked near a sugarcane field. Trackers found the tigress was putting less pressure on her right, hind leg, suggesting an old injury which possibly hampered her hunting ability and led her to kill humans.
The last two kills took place in Bijnor district. While farmer Shiv Kumar, 25, was killed in Maniawala on January 10, Devendra Singh Saini, 35, was killed in Badapur village near Nagina on January 26. “The pugmarks at the last kill were slightly different from the others and the possibility of a second animal cannot be ruled out. Moreover, in the case of Saini, the animal began feeding from the stomach, which is consistent with leopard attacks. Tigers begin feeding from the hind quarters,” says a forest department officer.
While three more deaths have been reported in the area over the past month, including one last Thursday, officials are yet to confirm if these were by the same tigress. The Bijnor forest department is doing all it can to stop the attacks. Two female elephants — Pushpakali and Gangakali — with their mahout Lallan Khan, 55, have been brought in from Dudhwa National Park. A metal cage with meat placed next to a human effigy has been set up to trap the tigress if she attempts to feed at the spot where Saini was killed. A watchtower has also been set up to track her movements. Paths around the cage have been lined with sand to record pugmarks accurately. The department’s jeep has been fitted with a speaker and throughout the day it travels across the area, asking people to not take unnecessary risks.
All this is an expensive affair. Feeding the elephants alone costs Rs 1,000 per day. The Badapur forest department range office protects an area that covers the densely forested Himalayan foothills and adjacent agrarian belts. Eight officers are in charge of 16 beats, each beat averaging 15,000 hectares. They have two rifles, one jeep, a battered GPS machine and a watchtower without binoculars.
The task of capturing the tigress is further complicated by the presence of other tigers in the area. “Apart from the maneater, there is another adult tigress and three male tigers which have come into the area. Without a photograph of the maneater, it’s impossible to identify her. There’s a high possibility that the wrong tiger may get shot by hunters,” says Ummaid Hussain, forest ranger, Badapur range, Bijnor. On February 5, the Badapur forest range office received news of another tiger attack. Rekha, 25, was mauled by an animal while she was asleep in her courtyard. When the forest rangers reached the site, they found tracks with three unsheathed claws belonging to a smaller unidentified animal. “The injuries weren’t consistent with that of a tiger or a leopard. Neither were the tracks,” says Raghav, DFO Najibabad range, Bijnor. But with six people dead, Rekha, whose nose was ripped apart by the animal, is convinced that she was attacked by the tigress.
False sightings, incredible tales and countless theories are part of the conversation here. One local newspaper reported the unlikely story of a tiger attacking and eating 20 pigeons in a few minutes. The Mysterious Queen’s last recorded pugmark saw her entering Amangarh Forest Range, after which the dense forest prevented any further tracking. The Moradabad forest department officials returned, as did the trackers. The trap remains hopefully open and blaring speakers urge people not to go into the forest. But it’s only a matter of time before desperation for livelihood forces people to re-enter the tiger’s realm.