It was a chilly December afternoon of December 17, 1997, to be exact when my car broke down as I just crossed the non-descript hamlet of Duggada on the way to Haldupurao Forest Rest House, which even today is one of the most beautiful and undisturbed spots in Uttarakhand’s Jim Corbett National Park. Little did I know then that the forced halt would open an altogether new chapter in my wildlife career.
That one incident brought me closer to one of the least understood phenomenon of Uttarakhand: that of the man-eating leopards!
Well, to come back to the story which sparked my interest in man-eating leopards, As my fiat car was giving trouble, I somehow located the PWD Government rest house in Duggada while a local mechanic towed away my car for repairs. As I entered the rest house, the sun was rolling down the hill to my left. A closer look at the surrounds revealed that the premise was actually quite strategically located on a hill top at the edge of a valley. A huge lawn in front of the room beckoned me and this is where I decided to have my drink— in the dying evening light, under the shadow of an old tree. A small river entered the valley and continued to the right in the beautiful landscape as the sun sank behind the hill.
As I sat down on a protruding rock on the edge of the forest, the caretaker’s scream from the kitchen made me jump in shock. “Sahib,” the caretaker, now rushing towards me, said, “What are you doing? Don’t you know this is the time when Man eater Bagh ventures out? Please come inside immediately and don’t forget to bolt the door.”
Within next few minutes, with stories from caretaker and other staff within closed doors of the bungalow, I had become an expert on this man-eating leopard and the one which went by the name of Poojari, having killed over 3 humans in and around Duggada during the past several years. All efforts to bag him alive or dead had failed. I left Duggada for Haldupurao next morning, but a few questions refused to leave my mind: how come the man-eater has not been captured or killed even after killing many people. What must be the reasons which made it a man-eater and what traits might have kept it alive despite best efforts of forest authorities and local shikaris?
Has the leopard started eating humans, not its normal diet, because we have ravaged its natural habitat? Who is at fault here — the animal or we?
The questions remained unanswered, for I learnt that the leopard was shot dead few months later by a local hunter. Strangely, even though I had not ever come face to face with Poojari, this particular leopard refused to leave my mind!
My further visits to Paudi district made me realise that the terror of a man-eating leopard was not confined to Duggada alone. They exist and operate in large areas of Uttarakhand, inflicting damage on humans at regular intervals. (Please note: The man eater of Duggada who could not make me his dinner is not to be confused with the man-eating leopard also by the name of Poojari which stalked and killed humans areas around Kotdwar, not far from Duggada, in the early 70s. The ‘original’ Poojari, which killed over 30 people, was captured and sent to Lucknow zoo in 1972. It was named Poojari as it lived in a cave near ‘Sidhbali’ temple.)
The cries of men, women and children who fall victims to man-eating leopards of Uttarakhand hardly reach the cities down in the plains. The mainline media is perhaps too busy with politicians and celebrities to take note of these tragedies which, over the years, have grown to Himalayan proportions.
If you think I am overstating the facts, please read on. More than 70 people in Uttarakhand get killed by man-eating leopards every year. Compared to this, only handful of people die in a tiger or an elephant attack all over the country!
More than anything else, I have been trying to find out why the phenomenon of man-eating leopards continues unabated in Uttarakhand for over the past eight decades? Jim Corbett shot his famous Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag in 1926, but since then many more man-eaters have appeared on the scene. And also, why do people living in certain belts of Kumaon and Garhwal regions of Uttarakhand more prone to leopard attacks than people living along the same mountainous stretch, but outside these belts?
When I visited the same PWD bunglow at Duggadda in the current winter of 2015 on way to Pauri FRH, I was told by the caretaker that a leopard still crosses this bungalow very frequently- but it is on the lookout for stray dogs of Duggadda only and is not a man-eater.
In my quest to make a film on man-eating leopards of Paudi-Garhwal, I made numerous subsequent visits to Paudi town and found people still continue to live in perpetual fear of man-eating leopards. These are the areas from where I came across several horror stories: of a school-going girl getting snatched from her mother’s hand by a leopard, a man seeing a leopard drag and disappear with his wife into a thicket, a drunk man celebrating on the main road becoming a leopard’s victim.
In a comment made eight decades ago stands relevant even today. In the concluding chapter of his classic bestseller “The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag” the legendary hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett makes this observation: “Here was an old leopard, the best-hated and the most-feared animal in all of India, whose only crime — not against the laws of nature, but against the laws of man — was he had shed human blood, with no objective of terrorising man, but only in order that he might live.”
Corbett is long gone from the scene. The Leopard, handsome prince of the Indian jungle, is still holding on for dear life in Uttarakhand. That it has turned into a man-eater should not come as a surprise to us. The fact is, all of us have contributed in some way to this unfortunate story.
Meanwhile a heartening piece of news is that the first ever leopard census has just been concluded in the country. The count, as per the census, stands at 7,910, excluding West Bengal and Northeast India. Experts believe that there are leopards outside the area that has been covered under this census and so the estimate of India’s total leopard population is to be in the range of 12,000 to 14,000. The number should be monitored every year to self-assess and conserve this beautiful feline for our future generations.
(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org).