By 5.30 pm, all the people in the villages of Bajawala and Phulsaini near Dehradun lock themselves inside homes. The only ones out are a team of around a dozen, of which two-three are perched on a machan, wielding three weapons and a stock of Sualin pills.
The tablets are to ward off cough, as any noise can scare away what they are after: a leopard that has sent a scare down these villages since it dragged away a 10-year-old boy from near his slum next to a river bank in Bajawala village last Friday. His partially eaten body was recovered from near Phulsaini village.
Since then, villagers only move in groups even during day time as they go to Dehradun for work, while nobody ventures out after dusk. Villagers have stopped going to the forest area to collect fodder or attend nature’s call, while children play inside homes.
After the boy was found dead, the Uttarkhand Forest Department engaged four licensed hunters to track the leopard and shoot it. They are headed by Dr Sanjay Singh of Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, famed for having killed 10 maneater big cats.
They have set up a machan (platform) on a tree close to the site where the leopard took away the boy, not very far from the two inhabited villages. They take turns sitting there keeping a watch with two double-barreled guns and one rifle. The remaining, along with six-seven forest officials, move around hunting for the leopard on the ground.
As the wait for the big cat drags on, villagers are getting impatient. On Monday evening, they gathered near the site to protest against the delay in catching or killing the leopard. As he tried to tie a goat, brought as bait for the leopard, below the machan, forest official Ramesh Rawat fretted, “Ye gali ka kutta nahin hai (This is not a street dog). Please show patience and we will show you the results at the earliest.”
However, the villagers were not convinced. “The leopard carried away one goat yesterday. The forest department has brought in a second goat. It means the leopard has enough food to survive and won’t come near here soon,” Dhiraj Vishta said.
It took some more cajoling by officials before the villagers returned home.
“This is not an easy task,” said Sanjay, preparing to go up the machan for the nightly five-hour shift, from 5 pm to 10 pm. “Our operation is meant for five hours every evening. This is just the second day. We are sure that the big cat is present in the area and it will certainly come to this site to catch the goat… We noticed its pug marks in the morning. We just need villagers’ cooperation to end this operation successfully.”
One more fruitless night later, the villagers on Tuesday morning headed for the official of the Divisional Forest Officer (Dehradun) to complain about the delay in catching the leopard, shouting slogans against the Forest Department. Sushant Patnaik admitted they had been getting complaints about the leopard attacking domestic animals. “But this time, it lifted a boy from his house.”
Villager Anil Joshi said they had had enough of official promises. “They first ignored our complaints about the leopard targeting our domestic animals. Now the animal killed a boy. We want the Forest Department to either shoot the leopard or catch it alive.”
Taking a vantage point near the machan, Gajendra Panyuli, a forest field staff officer, said leopards were cunning animals and ventured out only after sunset.
Swallowing a Sualin pill, he added, “We hope to wrap up operations in the next 15 days.”