The man-eating leopard(s) of Rudraprayag

It’s 100 years since a leopard that would become “the best-hated and most-feared animal in all India”, in Jim Corbett’s words, made its first human kill. It went on to kill at least 124 more, at a time when man-eating leopards were rare. Now leopards are the worst man-eaters in Uttarakhand. The Indian Express goes on Corbett’s trail to find out why?

Written by Aniruddha Ghosal | Updated: July 23, 2018 2:01:00 pm
Lakhpat Rawat, has killed 50 man-eaters. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

Its eyes half-closed, the leopard appeared asleep. The bullet still lodged in its shoulder. As Jim Corbett looked at the animal that had proved his toughest hunt, he thought this leopard was no fiend. It had killed 125 people, maybe more, but his crime, he wrote in his book The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, was “not against the laws of nature, but against the laws of man”.

It was on June 9, 1918, almost exactly a hundred years ago from today, that the Rudraprayag leopard killed its first human victim. The trail of the dead it left behind over the next eight years cemented its death sentence, and its reputation — in Corbett’s words — as “the best-hated and most-feared animal in all India”. Man-eating leopards were rare then, unlike man-eating tigers. The 1911 Gazeteer of Dehradun, for instance, lists no deaths due to conflict with leopards.

That has changed. Leopards total 166 of the 182 big cats declared man-eaters in Uttarakhand in the past 13 years. Of the 11 declared a threat to life in the past six months, seven were leopards. A 2016 study calculated 60 leopard attacks annually on an average between 1998 and 2012 in the state.

After Deepak was killed, power arrived overnight at the family’s hut.

In December 2016, the Uttarakhand High Court ordered a ban on the killing of big cats declared man-eaters, seeking rehabilitation instead. It also directed the government to “not engage any private hunters”. But in 2017, the state government got a stay on this from the Supreme Court, citing “threat to human life”.

There is another change. This Panthera species is now marked ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List, found only in Africa and Asia, occupying just 25-37 per cent of the territory it once did. Of the 260 leopard deaths in India this year so far — in a population speculated to be 12,000-14,000 — 90 were at the hand of poachers.

The big cat is found in all the states of India, barring islands such as Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Uttarakhand is estimated to have among the largest numbers. By March this year, the land that Corbett roamed had seen 28 deaths, 10 of them poached, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
Corbett believed the Rudraprayag leopard turned to human predation after scavenging on corpses of those who died during the 1918 global flu pandemic that killed 17 million people across India. Now one of the problems is shrinking space, with 778 sq km of moderately dense forest, where leopards live, lost in just two years in the state.

The leopard doesn’t change its spots. When the forests are consumed, it adapts.

A man-eater leopard caught in camera trap at Chokhutia in Almora. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

“This leopard was the most publicized animal that has ever lived, for he was mentioned… in the press of the United Kingdom, America, Canada, South Africa, Kenya, Malaya, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and in most of the dailies and weeklies in India. In addition… tales of the man-eater were carried to every part of India by the sixty thousand pilgrims who annually visit Kedarnath and Badrinath”: Chapter 2, The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag

Benji, a small village on the Kedarnath pilgrim route, is where Corbett’s Rudraprayag leopard made its first kill. While little has changed in the way the village leads its life since, dependent on the goats it rears, there has been no case of conflict with a leopard in the past decade. Sanjay Benjwal, a resident who works in Rudraprayag, says there are no signs in the village of Corbett’s visit.

The hunter had been roped in for the job of tracking the leopard by friend William Ibbotson, then the deputy commissioner of Garhwal. By 1925, a desperate British government had tried everything to capture the leopard, including hiring an army of Gurkhas, and failed. Corbett at the time worked as a contractor, but the reputation he had gained killing three man-eaters nearly 16 years ago sustained.

The handpump has remained Bhainswara’s sole source of water since Corbett’s time, when one was killed fetching water from it; nearly 50,000 trees have been cut for construction of the all-weather Chardham road. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

In his 50s, Corbett came to the hunt armed with his favourite rifle, a .275 John Rigbys, given to him as a gift for killing the Champawat man-eater in 1907. But over the next one-and-a-half years, the leopard eluded Corbett.

Then, in April 1926, Corbett arrived in Bhainswara village, where the leopard had just killed a 12-year-old boy. The mother asked him, “What crime had my son committed?” Corbett writes, adding he had no answer. The boy who died had been attacked while trailing behind his mother and sister as they walked to get water from the village’s only handpump.

On April 14, 1926, Corbett’s bid to capture the leopard was thwarted thrice. A century later, Bhainswara remains a sleepy village, seeming further from the district headquarters of Rudraprayag than the distance of 29 km suggests. Located amidst terraced fields and hills, it has only a few trappings of modernity, including cellphones, TV antennae and, recently, toilets.

In the name of a road, there is a winding dirt track. In the name of water, there is the same sole handpump.
Brushing away questions on Corbett, village pradhan Deveshver Negi (25) is more keen to talk about their depleting water source. “There is about an inch of water left in the stream in the valley which is the tubewell’s source,” says Negi, indicating a finger and a half. “Less in the summer months.”

Sarita mourning her son Karan, saying all they found of him was “a few bones” (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

The last leopard kill in Bhainswara was in 2009, of a man out herding his goats. Now it’s lack of water that is sending people away, says Negi. The population is down to 450 from 600 in the past two years alone. “There is no water. Our crops are failing. Wild animals are taking up our land,” adds Negi’s brother-in-law Arvind Singh.
Underlining that they could live with the leopard, Singh adds that four months ago, he spotted a leopard with two cubs. “I changed my route… The animal kept away.”

“Five hundred square miles, much of which was clothed with dense scrub jungle, and all of which was rugged and mountainous, was an enormous area in which to find and shoot one particular leopard out of possibly fifty that inhabited it”: Chapter 4

Between 1918 and 1926, the Rudraprayag man-eater killed six people in Chopta village, accessible only via a narrow mountain path.

Today villagers here wish there were more leopards. Chopta only has one resident leopard left, an adult male. The village watches its descent into old age with trepidation, as this leaves the field open for a menace they struggle more against: wild boars.

The 2017 Forest Survey report shows that 778 sq km of forest that acted as a buffer between the jungle and cultivated land in the state has been run over by projects. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

“Monkeys and deer we are used to. But wild boars come in herds and destroy crops. The forests have been ruined, so there’s no food there (bringing the boars, unchecked by the leopards, to homes),” says village pradhan Ramesh Tripathi (52), who keeps Himalayan sheep dogs for safety. The leopards, on the other hand, leave them alone if undisturbed, adds Tripathi.

The 2017 Forest Survey report shows that 778 sq km of forest that acted as a buffer between the jungle and cultivated land in the state has been run over by projects. Since December 2016, state forest officials estimate, nearly 50,000 trees have been cut for the Rs 12,000-crore Chardham all-weather-road alone, announced by the Modi government. The work is about 80 per cent complete, says Rudraprayag District Magistrate Mangesh Ghildiyal. “There are pilgrims right now, so work has slowed. It will pick up.”

In adjacent Dharkot village, where the Rudraprayag leopard had killed one person, pradhan Narender Negi (54) says, “The balance has been destroyed. The forest is gone, so there is no food for animals, who have come to the fields. Leopards have followed.”

Vidya Athreya of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) says there is not enough data to understand the pattern. “No one knows exactly why there are so many attacks in Uttarakhand. It’s not only that leopards and humans are sharing space. These areas are under the Forest Department’s territorial wing. They need to be better trained in dealing with wildlife emergencies.”

Meanwhile, to contain at least one problem, the Uttarakhand government in May asked the Centre to continue allowing the hunting of wild boars till 2020, citing loss of crops. It cited the rise in wild boar population from 32,613 in 2005 to over 50,000 now.

In his biography of Corbett called Carpet Sahib (that’s how the hunter was addressed by the locals), Martin Booth said the writer-hunter was concerned about the changes in the forest, due to deforestation, introduction of alien fast-growing trees. In one of the first issues of the landmark magazine Indian Wildlife, that he inaugurated in 1936, Corbett wrote, “Stop! You fools! Stop!”

Clearly, none did. “And it doesn’t seem like they are going to,” says Tripathi.

“When night came, an ominous silence brooded over the whole area… The entire population was behind fast-closed doors… And all were silent for fear of attracting the dreaded man-eater”: Chapter 3

National highway 58, leading to Rudraprayag from Delhi, crosses through the Rajaji National Park. A plan to build tunnels and overpasses across and under it to facilitate the movement of wildlife has been pending since 2011. Meanwhile, on a 5-km stretch, 21 people have been killed by leopards since 2014, four in the past three months.
The Forest Department suspects that a single man-eating leopard is operating in the area — although residents disagree.

The last victim, killed on July 9, was 56-year-old Surat Singh Negi. On July 11, officials claimed the leopard who attacked him had been killed, by authorised Dehradun-based hunter Prashant Singh.

Anamika bears a scar on her face from an attack

Anamika Singh of Khandgaon bears a scar starting from her forehead and ending behind her ear. The chirpy five-year-old appears to have put the incident behind her, and brags about it now. “I fought a baagh. Main bhaiya ko bhi bolti hoon (I tell my elder brother this too),” she says, skipping the fact that it was the timely appearance of mother Urmila Devi from the fields that saved her.

Nirjhala Singh, 3, was killed on June 16. Neighbours say the leopard took her away in early evening. The family has since moved, abandoning their house. “It’s not just the attack from an animal. It’s the realisation that you, your children, are just food,” says Ramesh Rathuri, a neighbour.

At Harinagri village in Bagheshwara, Karan, 2, was killed on March 23, and Deepak Ram, 10, on June 12. Following the latter incident, villagers burnt down 10 hectares of forest. Both boys belonged to poor Dalit families, with monthly income of less than

Rs 2,000, living on the outskirts of the village.

Karan was days short of his third birthday, says mother Sarita Devi, 24, and they planned to celebrate with rice and chicken.

The state government gave Rs 3 lakh, the compensation it awards for such deaths. There is demand now to raise this to Rs 5 lakh. Father Deepak Ram, 28, says, “With the compensation, we will build a home away from the forest. We will be safer there.”

Deepak, 10, lived with father Diwan Ram, 45, mother Hira Devi, 34, and brother Pramod, 14. Every night the four would crawl into their one-room home, with a tin roof weighed down by stones, along with their livestock, two cows, two puppies and three goats. “I lost use of my leg years ago, since then our only source of income has been these animals,” says Diwan Ram.

On the night of June 12, Deepak stepped out for “fresh air”. Diwan Ram says it gets very stuffy inside their hut, without fan and light. The leopard attacked around 7 pm.

The day after Deepak died, the Uttarakhand government installed an electricity line for their homes. There is power now, and the family has put up a single bulb.

“On the path were the pug-marks of the leopard that had killed the woman, and they were identical with the pug marks of the leopard that had followed me”: Chapter 7

Bespectacled and wearing a faded polo shirt with frayed collars, Lakhpat Singh Rawat is a far cry from the image of Corbett in regulation colonial hunter wear — khaki jacket and shorts, a hat on the head.

But, says the 51-year-old, a father and maths teacher, he may have bettered Corbett’s record already. “Corbett had 33 kills, of which only 12 were man-eaters. I have 50 kills, all man-eaters.” Of them, 48 leopards, two tigers, beginning 2002, confirmed by the Forest Department. Corbett’s count was 19 man-eating tigers, 14 leopards.
Rawat keeps fastidious records of his hunts on his laptop. He also keeps scanned copies of permits for each hunt.
Underlining the comparison with Corbett further, Rawat says that, like him, he doesn’t charge any money for the job.

Sitting at his ancestral home atop a hill, that is at least a 40-minute climb from Gairsain village in Chamoli district, Rawat speaks about how he became a hunter. Books from the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan lie stacked on his left, guns to his right.

The first leopard he shot was an animal terrorising schoolchildren in his native village, that killed 12 in 2000, he says. He had just won a district shooting championship, and thought he was up to the task.
While he clearly loves this double life, Rawat regrets that the government only remembers him when “they have to kill a leopard”. “Why make me an executioner? I could help save these animals too… What’s their fault? We took its food, its home.”

If people took precautions like travelling in groups at night and keeping dense undergrowth around homes cleared, the conflict would lessen, he adds.

Athreya of the WCS questions the romanticisation of hunting, as reflected in Corbett’s accounts. “Hunting is very much linked to status,” she says. “It continues to be about masculinity and prestige.” About Corbett’s claims of kills, she says, “I am not sure how any hunter could identify a leopard with just a quick glance.”

Sarita Devi, for one, agrees. Noting how all they could find of her son Karan were “a few bones”, she says, “I don’t think he (Rawat) killed the right animal. Since then, many people have seen that leopard again.”
So, the village has been offering prayers to ‘Goddess Bhagwati’, a manifestation of Shakti as ‘prakriti’ or nature. An ancient temple in Harinagri has the goddess seated on a big cat that has a tiger’s head and a leopard’s spots. “She is angry with us as we are destroying the forests,” says Sarita.

In his book, Booth wrote that while a devout Christian, Corbett often prayed at temples and had erected a small shrine for the same goddess that Harinagri now prays too.

Rawat never hunts without obeisance to Goddess Bhagwati either. “She guides my gun, so no innocent animal is hurt.”

“Pressing the button of the torch I saw that the sights of the rifle were aligned on the shoulder of a leopard, and without having to move the rifle the fraction of an inch I pressed the trigger, and as I did so the torch went out”: Chapter 23

Located on the banks of the Alaknanda river, Golabrai village is a kilometre from the Rudraprayag town centre. It’s here that Corbett finally gunned the Rudraprayag leopard down, on May 2, 1926. Measuring the body, Corbett noted its “worn” teeth; “part of one toe and claw missing” (from bullets fired by army officers); and especially its “black” tongue and mouth (Corbett surmised this was due to the poisons it had swallowed during attempts to kill it).

In the book he wrote in 1947, Corbett also talked about the lessons he learnt. For a man-eating leopard, “the presence or absence of cover makes no difference”. He also believed that a leopard became a man-eater after tasting human flesh.

Earlier this year, a study by the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department and Wildlife Trust of India at Pilibhit Tiger Reserve said 2000-2013 data showed that 77.8 per cent of leopard attacks took place when victims, mostly children, were sleeping, standing idle or defecating. Since then officials have asked families to not leave small children unattended near the forest or at night, to keep surroundings well-lit, and to clear shrubs.

However, forest officials also warn against drawing any uniform conclusions. In Maharashtra, for instance, studies have shown that leopard population density in an area with human habitation has no impact on the number of attacks. Other studies in the state have shown that translocation of leopards can, in fact, increase attacks.

“The problem is that leopards are very secretive. They leave no information behind. That is what evolution has taught them. Right now, we are looking at all possible factors — loss of forest and prey, increasing development works in leopard habitats and poaching — for leopards attacking humans,” says a Forest Department official, who doesn’t wish to be named.

Rawat believes the leopard faces another drawback: no one cares about it compared to its much-celebrated cousin, the tiger. Rawat talks about the time he killed a tiger in 2011. “First everyone wanted me to kill the tiger. But when it died, there were protests. No one cares about the leopard like that.”

Ramesh Singh, a forest ranger at the Rajaji National Park, notes that what also seals the leopard’s fate is that killing it is cheaper than rehabilitating it. “Tranquilising a leopard, taking care of it, costs about
Rs 5 lakh. Killing the leopard and compensating for the human death is just Rs 3 lakh.”

Dhananjay Mohan, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, refused to comment on the leopard-man conflict.
Over at Golabrai, the grass-thatched shelters that housed the pilgrims to Kedarnath and Badrinath which Corbett mentioned are long gone, replaced by hotels with beckoning neon signs. Officials estimate 5 lakh tourists and pilgrims visit annually now, up from 60,000 then.

The Chatwapipal bridge 30-km upstream, that Corbett had closed to restrict the leopard’s movement, still stands, but is not used due to other concrete bridges.

Also stands the mango tree, where a jittery Corbett had lined up that final shot. The tree now rests amidst a small park that also holds Corbett’s bust, to mark his role in ending the leopard’s terror. But the stone on which stands his plaque and bust is chipped and surrounded by empty beer bottles.

“A few tourists ask about the park. But Corbett is part of the past. We are more concerned with jobs,” says Rahul Bisht, 19, who works as a kitchen hand in a nearby hotel.

So, Bisht doesn’t mind the Chardham road coming up 92 km away. It would bring tourists round the year, unlike during just the pilgrimage season. The state’s Tourism Department says there was a dip of 25 per cent in domestic tourism and 20 per cent in foreign tourism after the flash floods of 2013. The BJP government has been promising to bring the numbers up.

And so, the home of Uttarakhand’s over 700 leopards, shared with 242 tigers and other large fauna, is set to shrink further.

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