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The Leopard Assassin

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As a hunter, Lakpat Singh Rawat does not like to be compared with Jim Corbett. But with three dozen kills in less than a decade, his presence in the hills of Garhwal is lethal for any man-eater with spots

Back in the spring of 2002, a wild beast was menacing the locals of Adibadri, an ancient temple village near the town of Ghairsain, some 400 km from Dehradun, Uttarakhand. At the time, Lakpat Singh Rawat taught science and maths in the village. “Those were days of terror,” he recalls. “Every day I taught the kids, and the next day someone would be absent—forever. Within a month, the leopard had taken nine kids away, most of them from my school. I just had to do something about it.”

It was time to act, Rawat decided. A gun hobbyist, Rawat had enrolled in the Indian Army’s guerilla training camp that summer and emerged first in rifle shooting. So he bought a gun for about Rs 1.2 lakh, and applied for a licence to rid the area of the temple man-eater. The gap between the licence application and its granting, however, was too long for some of his unfortunate students and fellow villagers: the leopard claimed three more kids in the interim.

To understand the menace a leopard can pose in the hills of Uttarakhand, it’s instructive to examine the statistics. City newspapers don’t often report it, but rogue leopards pose a real and present danger for village folk here. Since 2000, some 210 people have been killed in leopard attacks in the hill state. Another 350 have been injured.

For most of this decade, Rawat has dedicated himself to fighting this scourge. According to several people who know these woods well, he has shot the largest number of big cats in India since the legendary Jim Corbett. Notably, each of his kills has been legal, each more dangerous than the last, and each aimed squarely at the ghost of the forest: the elusive and cunning man-eating leopard.

THE MAN

Rawat lives in a remote region of the Garhwal Himalayas where elevations average 2,000–2,500 metres above sea level. Since Garhwal still has a relatively sparse population and is yet to be afflicted by mass deforestation, leopards can find easy cover in these mountains. And it’s in these wilds that he thrives—a man in his primordial state.

Rawat has applied to the state’s forest department for a job as a hunter (strictly of man-eaters, of course) on deputation

It has not materialised yet. In the meantime, his day job must form his livelihood, earning him a few thousand rupees as a teacher and district-level coordinator of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a central government initiative to bring education to underserved areas.

When Rawat moonlights as a hunter, he looks the part. Clad in army fatigues, he’s a lean, well-built man with a body acclimatised by long walks on steep ridges. He appears far younger than his 47 years. He also bears a striking resemblance to the actor Omar Sharif. His weapon of choice is an old beauty: a .315, an air-cooled, bolt-action rifle that is easy to operate and fires 8-mm bullets which at close range—200 yards or less—can pierce the heart or head of all large cats. On expeditions, he has the iconic hunting rifle with its telescopic sights flung almost casually over his broad shoulders.

THE STUDENT

But appropriately for a man who teaches to earn his living, Rawat is still a student. “The trick is to understand the animal,” he says. “A man-eater is different from a normal leopard. He will almost never return to the kill. He will try to eat as much as he can in one go. So it is very difficult to get him. The terrain from Rudraprayag to [Ghairsain] is extremely rough, with some ravines 1,200 ft deep and some rock faces that climb almost vertically 2,000 ft. It took me three weeks of tracking before I realised a simple fact: the man-eater is a stickler for timing. Come evening, and he hides around the village in wait—if need be, all night.”

For his first kill, Rawat positioned himself on a rock ledge with a clear view of the green that separated the village from the forest. “I was waiting for the leopard for the third straight evening that I thought would become another night-long vigil,” he says. “Except for some migrant labourers working down the road, it was a cold and quiet evening. The clatter of a boy washing dishes was disturbing me, so I swayed around and then froze. It was clear light at 4 pm or so, and just 10 metres from the boy, I spotted the stalking leopard. It was very quiet and I was determined to ensure it stayed that way. I had only one shot. If I missed, the boy would panic and could be killed.”

“I did not miss.”

THE PERFECT KILL

That first kill has been followed by 35 others so far, each one revealing a little more about how to achieve the perfect kill. “The leopard is a true guerilla,” Rawat says. “He will only attack when certain, he will avoid a more powerful enemy, and he will know his terrain like the back of his paw. To get him, you have to think like him and a little more. The tough part is tracking him. Around these parts, leopards don’t fear anyone, so they rarely climb trees. I have shot all my leopards on the ground. The truth is that this rifle is good enough for a shot from 250 yards away, and at night you can easily blind the leopard for a couple of seconds through [a large handheld] torchlight. In that flash, you have to shoot.”

Shooting, Rawat reasons, is a lot like cricket. Quick hand-eye coordination, a perfect stance and neat balance, combined with some timing and luck—it all comes together for a perfect shot.

THE HUNTER’S LOGIC

The business of shooting these spectacular animals—especially with poaching such a common problem—is far from black and white. Even Rawat concedes that his job has shades of grey. Questions abound. How long should the authorities wait before declaring a leopard a ‘man-eater’? Isn’t there a danger that the wrong leopard might be killed? Why has there been such an upswing in the number of man-eaters in India (he killed 12 in 2009 alone)? And doesn’t it make more sense to tranquillise the animal and take it to a zoo somewhere?

Rawat has given these issues a lot of thought. “Every kill is, of course, a great loss to the jungle,” he says. “We have no tigers in these parts so the leopard is the alpha animal here. The irony, however, is that I am actually saving this magnificent creature. You have no idea how much rage a dead child can evoke in even sensible human beings. In 2006, villagers started a forest fire near Almora—they didn’t know how to get the leopard, so they decided to kill everything. Often goats are tied up as bait with slow acting poison, and a harmless regular leopard gets killed instead of the man-eater.”

Seen from this angle, Lakpat Singh Rawat can be counted as a conservationist. Still, there is much controversy around when to classify a leopard as a man-eater. Currently, for instance, Corbett National Park has a tiger that has killed two women but is yet to be declared a ‘man-eater’. Sources in Uttarakhand’s forest department in Dehradun say that four human kills would earn a leopard the tag of a ‘man-eater’—making it fair game for hunters.

THE INEVITABLE COMPARISON

Since there are no man-eaters to slay right now, Rawat and I spend two days and one night searching for just a glimpse of the big spotted cat in his natural habitat.

On our last night together, as we light a bonfire, the conversation inevitably drifts to Jim Corbett, the famous hunter of man-eaters. Corbett killed at least 19 tigers and 14 leopards between 1907 and 1938, and was once considered a saint in these parts. How does Lakpat compare himself? “There is simply no comparison,” he says modestly. “Corbett hunted alone and on foot. I have the advantage of the jeep and search-light. Corbett preferred moonlight. His weapon of choice was a double barrelled 450\400, or he used a 7x57 Steve rifle. Mine is much more lethal. Corbett shot most of his animals from about 50 yards away—I can do it from 250.”

There is also one more crucial difference, he confides. In Corbett’s era, there was a bounty—an award of Rs 5,000 for the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag, for instance, which terrorised Hindu pilgrims at nearby shrines.

All Rawat gets is the permission of authorities and goodwill of villagers. In fact, he ends up spending about Rs 10,000 per kill of his own money. Occasionally, though, grateful villagers pitch in to reimburse him. 

Clearly, Rawat is not out for any financial gain. “These days, rewards for killing man-eaters are considered politically incorrect,” he says, with a wry smile.