Navin Raheja


Stories on Wildlife

In Search of Man-Eating Leopards

It was a chilly December afternoon- December 17, 1997, to be exact- when my car broke down no sooner than I left the non-descript hamlet of Duggada for Haldupurao, my destination which also happens to be 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 life. That one incident would bring 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, I somehow located a dilapidated 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 on a hill to my left. A closer look at the surrounded revealed that the premises was actually quite strategically located on edge of a valley. A huge lawn in front of the room beckoned me, and this is where I decided to have my cup of tea- in the dying evening light, under the shadow of an old Sal tree.

But as I descended 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 Poojari ventures out. Please come inside immediately and don't forget to bolt the door.''

Within next ten minutes, with stories from caretaker and other staff within closed doors of the bungalow, I had become an expert on Poojari. A man-eating leopard, which went by the name of Poojari, had killed over 30 humans in and around Duggada during past two 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 30 human deaths? What must be the reasons which made a man-eater and what traits might have kept him alive despite best efforts of forest authorities and local shikaris? Has the leopard started killing humans, not its normal diet, because we have ravaged its natural habitat? Who is at fault here - he or we?

The questions remained unanswered, for I learnt that Poojari 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 consciousness!

My further visits to Paudi district made me realize that the terror of a man-eating leopard was not confined to Duggada alone. They exist and operate in large areas of Uttarakhand, afflicting damage to humans at regular intervals. (please note- The Poojari of Dugadda who could not make me his dinner is not to be confused with the man-eating leopard of the same name which stalked and killed humans areas around Kotdwar, not far from Dugadda, in the early 70s. The 'original' Poojari. Which killed over 40 people was captured and sent to Lucknow zoo in 1972. It was named Poojari as it lived in a cave near a '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 man-line 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 continue unabated in Uttarakhand for over 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 are more prone to leopard attacks than people living along the same mountaneous stretch, but outside these belts?

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 continue to live in perpetual fear of man-eating leopards. These are the areas from where I came across several horror stories: a school-going girl literally snatched from her mother's hand by a leopard, a man seeing a leopard dragging and disappearing with his wife in a thicket, a drunk making a fatal decision of collapsing on the road-side and becoming a leopard's victim.

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 I 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 terrorizing man, but only in order that he might live..."

Corbett is long gone from the scene. Leopard, the handsome prince of Indian jungles, is holding on to dear life in Uttarakhand. That it has turned into man-eater should not come as a surprise to us. Fact is, all of us have contributed in some way to this unfortunate phenomenon.

The search for reasons which cause an otherwise healthy leopard to turn into a man-eater has brought me to several known and unknown places in Uttarakhand. For over past two decades, I have focused on the areas around Paudi, since most incidents of human killings take place here. Very little scientific research has been done to pin-point the causes. I will, of course, delve on these issues in a future article. However, among other factors, it's the gradual degradation of forest cover over the decades in the Paudi-Garwhal region which has led to a leopard losing its fear of humans.