Spot the Killer

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How leopards are hunted as ‘maneaters’ with appalling ease in Uttarakhand

Lakhpat Singh Rawat is about 50 years old and could pass off for what he is by day, an unremarkable school teacher in the town of Garsain. Yet, he is a legend in the hills of Uttarakhand. Since 1992, he has killed 41 maneaters, all leopards bar one—a tiger. Even Jim Corbett’s record does not quite match up; between 1907 and 1938, the colonial-era’s legendary hunter gunned down 19 tigers and 14 leopards, a total of 33 maneaters. Rawat, already eight up, is not even done yet.

Each time a leopard kills a human, Rawat is one of two men summoned to rid the region of the menace. He operates with a team of three, including a representative of the state’s wildlife department to vouch for the place, time and circumstances under which the dangerous animal is done to death. Rawat boasts of a 100-per cent success rate. This is a claim that gets him plenty of public acclaim in a state that sees about 70 people fall victim to leopards every year, but raises troubling questions about the killing of wild cats with wanton ease.

In a recent instance, Rawat killed a leopardess and her cub (a death he regrets) with what he claims was a single shot of a .315 bore rifle he recently acquired. Locals and officials may have taken his tale at face value, but the fact that the cat and her cub were some hundred yards apart from each other—as he admits— makes it highly implausible.

Who is this man? And what is he up to?

When we meet Rawat at his house, half a kilometre uphill from the nearest road, there is snow on the ground and a hailstorm outside. His living room, cramped with outsized furniture, opens on to a courtyard that overlooks hills lush with greenery. A loft that juts out of a wall next to the entrance is full of trophies. Leopards, he says, are not beasts. “I love them. But sometimes they have to be hunted down for the larger good of society.”

Over the years, he says, he has devised a set of thumbrules to identify maneaters. “They prowl just after sunset,” he says in Hindi. The best time to catch them is 6–8 pm. Either that, or just before dawn. Rawat’s logic is simple: maneaters operate just after dusk because children, their main prey, do not venture out of homes past 8 pm. “If leopards come out later at night, they can safely be assumed not to be maneaters.” Most of these spotted cats are scavengers, he says, and usually survive on restaurant leftovers or get by hunting small animals like rabbits. Dogs, though, are their favourite urban cuisine.

Once these big cats happen to taste human flesh, however, they turn into maneaters. When summoned to hunt one, Rawat says, he gathers his team, waits for sunset and flashes his powerful lights around, scanning the hills for a reflection in the eyes of a predator in the dark. If he sees two shiny dots next to each other, he beams more light in that direction to confirm the sighting, and then—within a split second—fires a bullet.

Ask what makes him sure that a leopard so sighted is indeed a maneater, and he repeats his post-dusk, pre-dawn logic. Plus, he says, his years of experience have granted him a sort of ‘divine acumen’ to judge at first sight if a leopard is a maneater or not. “I just need three seconds to figure that out in the glare of the light,” he says.

How does he explain the daylight killings of humans by leopards? “These happen in the field or in the open, not in human settlements.”

Consider the story of Huna village in Lamagra block of Almora district, where four humans were killed in daylight within three months. In response, two females and one male leopard were killed as suspected maneaters. One of these feline lives was claimed by Rawat, and the other two by his one-time assistant Joy Hukel. The kills were greeted with relief in the village, but they could have been cases of mistaken identity. For, a trio of maneaters in the same area defies likelihood; and even after the first two were killed, villagers were still being preyed upon. But the two hunters argue that a nearby cremation ground where local leopards fed on half-burnt bodies had been turning lots of them maneaters. Also, leopards are not territorial creatures and the area in question was large enough for several of them to prowl around. This reasoning is odd, since there are similar cremation spots in other leopard- populated parts too, and they haven’t complained of too many maneaters.

In Rawat’s estimate, the leopard population of the region’s hills has gone up substantially in recent years—fivefold, he says. This is a mindboggling multiple, but he claims that a leopardess usually has a litter of five cubs every two years.

What about infant mortality? “No animal kills leopard cubs,” he says, adding a breath later that, “there is not much left in the jungle to eat wherever forest cover remains, so leopards are forced towards human settlements”.

But if their prey base has dwindled, how would leopards multiply so rapidly? Wildlife studies have long pointed to a link between the two.

We take these doubts to our meeting with Joy, a soft-spoken man who also works as a road contractor. His modus operandi is different. Instead of scanning the dark hills with search lights, he prefers to lay traps of animal bait to attract maneaters. He explains how he does this by taking us to Ranihat village in the Kirtinagar block of Tehri district, where he recently gunned down a presumed maneater. On 11 December, six- year-old Sakshi, the youngest of a family of five, was killed by a leopard here. The sun had just descended, and a power cut had made the family step out of their house, which overlooked the main street 15 yards down a slope. The girl’s father, Vinod Singh Negi, a 36-year-old farmer with a limp, could do nothing but watch in horror—alongwith his 12-year-old son Digambar and 9-year-old daughter

Meenakshi—as a leopard leapt out of the dark, dragged Sakshi down the slope and across the road, and vanished into some bushes under a tree.

The family raised an alarm, of course, and other villagers emerged with sticks and charged towards the bushes. It was too late. Sakshi’s body was recovered with a deep gash in her neck. The leopard was nowhere to be seen. Joy, with a record of 10 maneater kills till then, was summoned by the state’s wildlife department and authorised to exterminate Sakshi’s killer. He did what had to be done.

“It is not easy when an incident like this happens,” he says in Hindi, “There is immense pressure from angry villagers and the wildlife department to kill a leopard as soon as possible. The villagers are furious.” Last October, Huna’s residents had blocked a highway in anger after two village women were killed in separate incidents within two days in broad daylight. They effectively held the local administration hostage, demanding the culprit’s death. “The villagers accompanying me on a hunt after a similar incident in Tehri district forced me to kill the first leopard I sighted,” says Joy, “They threatened to beat me up if I didn’t. The situation was very volatile.” This, after he tried convincing them that “killing the wrong leopard won’t help”, he says.

At Ranihat too, agitated villagers were baying for leopard blood when Joy arrived a couple of days after Sakshi’s tragic death. He got to work rightaway, he says. He surveyed the area for signs— such as pugmarks—of the maneater.

“Mostly, by the time I arrive,” he admits, “the pugmark impressions are lost.” He tries to compensate for lack of evidence by making enquires about the frequency of leopard sightings in the area. Village women, he says, are good sources of information to identify culprit cats as they walk long distances to collect firewood and work in the fields as well.

After four days of no success, Joy was driving back when he had a stroke of luck. It was a few hours before sunrise— about 4 am—on 16 December. Just a kilometre away from where Sakshi was killed, he saw a leopard cross the road in front of his car, and stopped. He heard cries of horror in a house just off the road, and decided to investigate. He was told that a leopard had scratched their window, trying to claw its way into their house. It had killed a calf of theirs earlier that night and had returned to take possession of its kill. Since it had not succeeded, Joy was sure it would be back soon. So he placed the calf’s body as bait in the frontyard of the house, took position on the roof, and waited. The leopard returned within an hour. Joy shot it dead.

Was it the same cat that killed Sakshi? There is no way of knowing, but Joy is confident it was. In has been a month since he shot the leopard, and the village has had no attack after that. Is this evidence enough of the dead cat being a maneater? “We don’t do [identifications] scientifically,” admits Joy, “and there is public pressure that makes the situation difficult. Hunters are prone to mistakes.” He insists, though, that he himself has never made one.

It is not just Rawat and Joy who have an interest in retaining their reputations of accuracy in spotting maneaters. It is convenient for Uttarakhand’s forest department as well.

The law is clear that only the state’s Chief Wildlife Warden can declare any predator a ‘maneater’—and thus a legitimate target. This policy has broad approval. Even conservationists agree that dangerous animals need to be dealt with: perhaps for the overall good of the species. “Villagers can’t be expected to live in a constant shadow of death,” says wildlife conservationist Belinda Wright, “Maneaters have to be removed from local populations, otherwise leopards will end up having too many enemies.”

Trouble arises when wildlife norms are flouted. This is being done brazenly in Uttarakhand. The forest department is not supposed to issue a hunting permit in anyone’s specific name; any killing is preferably to be done by a staffer. In practice, however, the district forest officer deputes either Rawat or Joy by name to do the job. Rawat has even been issued a hunting permit in writing by the district magistrate, an administrative officer in charge of local law and order.

No less worrisome are the two hunters’ pretensions to wildlife expertise. An anti-poaching forest officer of Uttarakhand, asking not to be named, rejects Rawat’s contention that leopards in the region have multiplied lately. In fact, he says, “Leopards in Uttarakhand will perish before tigers.” He cites several facts to back his argument. Human- leopard conflict has existed for centuries; leopards usually live close to human settlements and are therefore seen more often by people than tigers are. The conflict is worsening because of the growing dependence of leopards on human habitations for food. Yet, insufficient scientific research on leopards—India does not even have a census of these cats—makes it hard to formulate a policy of informed intervention.

The officer sees no solution to the problem of leopard-human conflict unless most of these cats are placed in special enclaves away from human habitation. Until then, since leopards usually attack lone figures in the dark, he suggests village streets should be lit brightly and toilets built to keep villagers from making pre-dawn forest trips in the dark.

In 2011, the Union Ministry of Envi- ronment and Forests issued its ‘Guide- lines for Human-Leopard Conflict Man- agement’. This 22-page document slots the nature of attacks (with case references) into two broad categories: ‘accidental’ and ‘deliberate’. In case of a deliberate attack, it recommends the animal’s capture either by a tranquiliser shot or cage entrapment. This is to be carried out by an emergency response team to be set up in all forest divisions. Lethally armed shooters, preferably of the forest department, are to stay on standby, just in case. The Ministry’s emphasis is on capturing the deadly animal, not killing it.

For families of maneater victims, however, such a reasoned response offers no recompense. Often, all that can satisfy them is a dead leopard. And that could mean any large cat with spots.