No tiger is born a man-eater but it is because of our own folly that it starts preying on humans. Sunderkhal is a case in point. It is a charming little village on the outskirts of Jim Corbett National Park. Flanked by River Kosi on one side and the hills of Corbett on the other, it normally gets overlooked by tourists zipping from Ramnagar to Dhangarhi – the main entry point to the world-famous national park. But even those who stop here remain blissfully unaware of Sunderkhal’s scary secret.
While travelling from Ramnagar to Dhikala in Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, one usually overlooks the part of the road beyond Garjia Temple, which in recent years has been made an accessible interface on the side of the road beside a gorge. Most of the vehicles travelling on the Ranikhet or Bhartrojkhan circuit stop at this temple and the pujari comes to you with an ‘aarti’ and ‘tilak’ plate. After you cross the noisy bridge on the gorge, immediately the road becomes steep and curvy. A kilometre beyond and the road turns into a flat terrain and then bifurcates. It is here that Sunderkhal starts.
It was a winter evening on February 5, 1988, when I crossed Ramnagar and reached Ringora, where
I stopped to have tea at my old friend Bacchi Singh’s dhaba. It was well past midnight. I honked and yelled but he did not open the door, so I parked my Maruti van on the roadside in front of the dhaba and decided to spend the night on the rear seat of the van.
The next morning I woke up to the curious faces of villagers peering through the car windows. I walked into Bacchi’s thatched roof dhaba for tea only to be told: “Saab! Do not go to the jungle. There is a man-eater lurking around nowadays.” It is from here that the story of the man-eating tiger starts. “You were lucky to have survived the night,” he added. “Only a few days ago, a 25-year-old young man riding a horse, was killed by a tiger. The tiger knocked down both the horse and the rider. The man’s partly-eaten body was discovered a day later.” I also heard the story of Laxmi Bai. Sometime ago her daughter-in-law was killed by the tiger when she went to collect firewood across the Kosi at Sunderkhal. Only her clothes and slippers could be recovered.
Sunderkhal and the area around had always been the favorite hunting ground for man-eaters. The man-eater was exterminated by Thakur Dutt, nicknamed ‘Mini Corbett,’ near Laxmi’s thatched hut. But like the mythical Hydra, another killer tiger emerges on the scene after the last one is killed or captured. Jim Corbett, in his famous book, The Maneaters of Kumaon, gives a vivid description of Mohan, the man-eater, which operated in the same area at the turn of the last century.
Once again, on a stopover to Corbett, I reached Ringora in the dead of night. I again stopped to call on my old friend Bacchi Singh. But the answer I got from behind the door of his thatched hut was shocking: That Bacchi Singh had been untraceable for over a year. I learnt later that Bachhi had gone into the forest and vanished without a trace. His old wife now makes tea on the choolah, waiting for Bacchi to return.
The five months between September 2010 and February 2011 saw seven men and women of the area falling victim to a particular man-eating tiger. Though the animal was shot down by the forest authorities on the outskirts of Sunderkhal in February itself, fear refuses to leave the village. Even a cheetal call would send villagers running indoors. In fact, the villagers laid a virtual siege on the office of Corbett authorities at Ramnagar several times during January 2011.
The pull of Corbett remains as intense as ever, but over the years my responsibilities as the CMD of Raheja Developers kept my visits to Corbett limited and I could not really follow the Sunderkhal man-eaters for some time. But news of many human kills in the area in the span of a few months shook me, and I picked up my Forester again in January to follow the man-eater. Starting past 8 pm from New Delhi, I reached Sunderkhal around 2.30 am and sat with the forest guards around a campfire – their guns with safety latches down. Intermittently taking a round in my Forester, I tried to get a glimpse of the maneater or any other evidence.
For the rest of the night, I slept restlessly and pondered the motives of the man-eater. What drives healthy tigers to kill humans? I was told all the clues pointed to the fact that the animal was a male. The Sunderkhal tiger made its last kill in the afternoon of January 25, 2011. A youth, Pooran Chand, parked his scooter beside the road to relieve himself and his piercing cry is what people last heard.
The forest officials shot the tiger while it was still beside the partly-eaten body of Pooran Chand.
How can we keep tourists happy while providing enough breathing space to the tiger? Sunderkhal is an important wildlife corridor encroached by human settlements. Tigers and elephants have to cross Sunderkhal to reach the other side of the Kosi river and Ramnagar Forest Division. No doubt we require a holistic approach. Something which would leave the tourists happy while providing enough breathing space to the tiger.
If only we look carefully at relocating the villages, with adequate compensation to the villagers, and leave the forest to its original residents, can the tiger roam free.
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