With the clock ticking at 12 in the daylight of 6th September 2016, Govindi Devi of Talla Gaujini village, wrapped up her daily chores as usual and went into the jungle to collect fodder for the cattle. She has been following this routine since the time she came to this village as a bride. Talla Gaujini is located just on the fringes of the southern boundary of Corbett National Park.
When she did not return home for hours, the family members along with other villagers started the search in the jungle. The blood trails lead them to partially eaten body of Govindi. Unfortunately, it was too late.
There were some pugmarks around her body. The news spread like a fire in the neighbouring villages. Forest officials and hundreds of villagers rushed to the spot and at first, the pugmarks were assumed to be that of a leopard. However, since the sugarcane and paddy harvest season was round the corner, and fields packed of full grown sugarcane and rice crop, the pugmarks could not be traced for a longer distance.
The death of Govindi Devi has resulted in frayed tempers in the villagers.
Initially, the forest department took it as a chance encounter but before the situation could have been analysed, another incident was reported on 12th September 2016 from the adjoining Gorakhpur village. This time the victim was Paramjit Singh. The dead body of young Paramjit was still holding on the sickle which had some Tiger hair signifying that he could give a blow before falling to the Jaws of death.
This killing was, however, important from the point of view of authorities… This incident made it clear that the accused is actually a tigress and not a leopard. Though tigress was not reported on the scene, it was only her pugmarks which later became the evidence for the authorities.
The fear had embraced the villages neighbouring Dhela range of the Corbett National Park. Agitated villagers had started making things difficult for the authorities. They carried out Protests and Agitations in the entire area.
Soon after the second incident, the forest department geared itself for action. Cage and camera traps were installed, a team of forest guards were deployed in the region and members of Rai Sikh community (trained in tracing blue bulls and other animals) were also included in the operation. Trained elephants from Corbett started patrolling the area … but the killer remained an enigma and seemed unruffled by the developments.
To call tigress a man-eater at that moment would have been nothing, but a claim made in haste. Time went by as days turned into weeks but the forest department could only locate her Pugmarks. All manoeuvre to corner her failed miserably. Moreover, the full grown sugarcane and paddy crop/fields giving full camouflage were making things much more difficult for the authorities.
In the meantime, the tigress made her third move on 26th September. The victim was Suman Negi of Sewalkhaliya village. She was badly injured but fortunately, still alive.
The entire village plummeted into panic right after this tragic episode. The forest department’s inability to tackle the menace made the villagers livid with anger and forced the authorities to issue a death warrant.
On the evening of 27th September, I received a call from a friend and former warden of Corbett National Park, Mr Upadhayay. As soon as he informed me about the warrant that had been issued, I realised the urgency of the situation and rushed to the spot along with my cameraman Shahnawaz and friend Ankur Ajmera.
Upadhyay was waiting at the junction road at Karanpur, some 5 kilometres from Ramnagar.
I immediately moved to study and understand the area. A man-eating tigress to be operating within just 8 sq km of agriculture field for almost a month is an unprecedented and a very strange phenomenon
This particular confrontation had indeed turned out to be much of a film sequence wherein helicopters and drones in the air and elephants as well as a team of more than 150 forest guards on the ground for almost a month were trying to corner the man-eater.
The tigress too was smart enough to have fooled all of them. She was posing for the camera traps, enjoying the baits while making a narrow escape from the guns of the official hunters.
Next morning, while I was patrolling the area along with the search team, she crossed the gypsies with a blink of an eye. Before the hunters could have loaded their guns, she faded into the sugarcane fields. But, there was something else which stopped the hunters from shooting and that was the likelihood of somebody getting an accidental shot in the mob.
The gathering of onlookers seemed to be the biggest challenge for the department. Helicopters and drones did not seem to be the best gadgets to handle a man-eater.
I stayed back for two days but was disgusted with the way a man-eater was being handled and decided to return back to Delhi leaving Shahnawaz there to cover the operation.
On the 3oth September when I was the midst of a meeting, Shahnawaz called. I just crossed my fingers while hoping that the tigress had been caught but to my dismay, No! The tigress had laid her best plans. Within just four days, she had attacked another woman, Bhawani Devi of the same village where she had started her attacks from.
After her last attack on Gauri Patwal of Bhawanipur Village on 5th of October, she went missing. Gauri was injured and is undergoing treatment at a Hospital in Haldwani. No causalities had been reported after this, nor had she been trapped till then. Her last pugmarks were found near Dhanakpur Ghati, a place just a stone’s throw from Corbett Jungle. She was probably moving back from where she had come.
On 19th October, the Rai Sikhs which were included in the patrolling team traced the tigress near Gorakhpur village, where she made her second kill. This time they decided to keep it confidential and waited for the morning. She was shot dead on 20th October in the morning, just hundred meters away from the house of Paramjit, the unfortunate second casualty.
Though calm has returned to the villages of Dhela range but has left many questions unanswered.
Nestled amidst the foothills of the Himalayas, is the quaint state of Uttarakhand, embraced by the enchanting beauty of sal and oak, snow clad peaks and lush mountains. The state attracts hundreds and thousands of tourists every year and then there is Corbett National Park, the first to hold the baton of Project Tiger.
This beautiful state has its own set of problems. Besides the jaw-dropping locales, there is something rare, something unusual about this beautiful state which many of us are not aware of. Well, the place has a history of producing Man-Eaters, precisely from the time of Jim Corbett.
Year after year, or rather I say month after month the state makes it to the headlines, and all for the wrong reasons.
You may believe it or not, but according to one of the reports, around 400 people have died in some 14,000 villages that exist in proximity to the forests between the year 2000 (when the state of Uttarakhand was formed) and 2015.
Of these 400 people, around 241 were believed to have been killed by leopards. Further, these man-animal encounters have killed 800 leopards, 90 tigers, and 280 elephants during the same very period.
My statement, that the state has a history of producing man-eaters, might have made you curious and probably looking for the reason behind it. I am sharing few of the recent incidents which will justify my statement.
Jim Corbett managed to check-mate a wily leopard, but that was 90 years ago. The region is still not free from the menace of man-eating tigers & leopards, or an occasional elephant deciding to go on a rampage. The man-eating tigress which emerged here in 2014 had unleashed the same primal fear amongst masses which had gripped Rudraprayag in the days of Corbett.
The man-eating tigress had appeared unannounced in and around Uttar Pradesh’s district of Moradabad and Bijnor last year too. These are the districts on UP-Uttarakhand border. She killed six people in shockingly short span of 16 days. Her tell-tale pugmarks at the scene of each killing were the only evidence of her presence. The terror which this tigress triggered in Uttar Pradesh is unheard of in recent memory but it too, vanished back into the Corbett.
For us who breathe in the comforts of cities, “man-animal conflict” is nothing more than a phrase which we all have read sometimes in some column of a newspaper. But have we never ever realised the bitter realities linked to it?
Man-animal conflict in Uttarakhand has reached an alarming proportion. Rapid changes in the forest ecosystem, mainly owing to excessive human intervention, climate change, food chain loss as well as occasional territorial fights have been coercing wild animals to stray into human habitations often and this will continue to happen – only locations and circumstances will change.
A bitter truth is, humans are indeed to be blamed. We have ruined jungles to build our homes and with that, we have destroyed their natural habitat and prey base.
Many people in the affected Uttarakhand region have little idea of India’s success in tiger and leopard conservation. And here lies the crowning irony. The very same animals which are priceless to the world are but a monster to them. So who is more skewed in this particular instance, one may ask?