IN JULY THIS year, a dentist was travelling in the quiet darkness of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand. It was 3.30 am. And he was carrying a .30- 06 Springfield rifle and a 12 bore shotgun. Prashant Singh was looking for a leopard in the Motichur range, about 40 km away from Dehradun. Although villagers who live nearby rarely step out once evening sets in, there is always a stream of unsuspecting outsiders. The Motichur range falls on the Chaar Dhaam pilgrimage route. There is a national highway here and also a railway line. Many people take this road, sometimes late at night, and often step out of their cars to take a break or to relieve themselves, even though signboards have come up warning of leopards who have in the past three years killed 14 people. Some believe the number is larger. Often, these bodies are found mauled, with signs of their flesh having been consumed.
The leopard that Singh was pursuing, he believes, had killed 25 people. Singh is an authorised wildlife shooter. When a big cat is declared a ‘man-eater’ in Uttarakhand and can’t be caught, Singh is often called to put it down. But this leopard had been eluding Singh for over two months. He had spent 15 nights at a stretch at first. But at one point, he had a fall in the jungle and tore a ligament. He was back now after having recuperated. A week had gone by. But the leopard had still not shown itself.
Leopard attacks in this region, and the alleged eating of human flesh, are believed to have gained in frequency after the 2013 floods. This has led to the conjecture that some leopards fed on the bodies of people who drowned in the floods and got caught at a barrage close to Motichur. No doubt, scavenging on the dead (if true), and hunting humans as prey are two entirely different things. But the theory has flourished in the wake of frequent killings.
Singh does not claim to believe in these stories. He doesn’t know if scavenging can result in a taste for human flesh. But he knows that this is a troublesome region and that many of these beasts are facing a huge shortage of food.
Singh likes using a makeshift shelter atop a tree, or machaan as it is popularly called; he prefers to set up one near a spot where a leopard recently made a kill and perhaps tried to hide the body from other scavengers. “Big cats are successful [in their hunts] like one in 10 times. So they hide their kill and return to it,” Singh says. Much of it is a game of patience. Another hunter likens sitting on a machaan to fishing. For a shooter, although there is physically very little to do, it is mentally very exhausting. Along with the shooter will be an assistant—someone deputed by the forest command or a local—whose role is to shine the lights. The shooter must stay very quiet and incredibly alert, says Singh. For weeks, nothing will happen. And then suddenly, there will be a rustle, and you will catch a glimpse of the animal you have been chasing for months.
Singh did not need to climb a machaan to kill his man-eater. That early morning, Singh was scanning an area close to a village on his jeep when a stroke of fortune came his way. The spotlight, handled by an assistant in the jeep, fell on a limping leopard 65 yards away. It tried to scamper away. But Singh was ready. “I brought it down with a single clean shot right through the head,” he says.
The leopard, it turned out, was about six or seven years old. It had a missing paw. Singh reasons this could have been partly why it turned into a man-eater— not being fast enough to catch other prey.
Singh later returned to his home in Dehradun and to the stable but dull practice of dentistry.
India has been relatively successful when it comes to the conservation of its big cats. The country is currently home to around 60 per cent of all tigers in the world. In the 2006 tiger survey, India was found to have around 1,411 tigers. The last census, conducted in 2014, found 2,226 tigers. The same survey also looked at the country’s leopard population and estimated that there are 1,200-1,400 of them. Yadvendradev V Jhala, the scientist who was part of the 2014 census, told The Times of India that the leopard population is currently “quite healthy” and that they “are doing far better than tigers because they can survive in scrubs and human- impacted forests as well.”
Hunting for sport was officially banned in India in 1972. But whenever an animal begins to terrorise a certain place, forest officials reach out to private citizens to hunt it down
The rise in these numbers has coincided with reports of rising man-animal conflict. People are intruding into forest areas. Some say that many tigers and leopards live outside protected reserves. Every time a big cat kills a human, there is intense pressure to capture or kill the predator. Tranquilising and catching a big cat is difficult, especially in hilly areas like Uttarakhand. And forest departments , some argue, don’t have the wherewithal to take troublesome animals down.
Enter the shikari.
Hunting for sport was officially banned in India in 1972. But whenever an animal begins to terrorise a certain place, forest officials now increasingly reach out to private citizens to track and hunt it down.
This group of ‘authorised’ shooters is small, mostly people of aristocratic backgrounds whose families have a history of wildlife hunting in earlier times. But there are also others—schoolteachers, contractors, businessmen and professionals, like the dentist Singh. Most of them claim to have begun authorised hunting out of a sense of adventure, but continue to do it to help people affected by the animal.
Among the most famous of them is Lakhpat Singh Rawat from Garsain in Uttarakhand. A district education officer now, he was a schoolteacher for several years. He has so far killed 50 leopards and two tigers. His first kill, dubbed the ‘Chamoli man-eater’, was believed to have killed 12 humans, mostly children. Some of these kids were students at the school where Rawat taught. “It was so bad. We did not know whether all the kids would return to class [the next day],” he says.
Rawat—who had had been trained as a marksman and even been gifted a rifle at a district competition—eventually managed to get permission to shoot the animal after several other hunters had failed. It took him eight months to track it. “I was just very angry. Kids were dying, but no one was able to kill that animal,” he says. “But once news of the killing spread, I began to get more calls of help.”
“The 1972 Wildlife Protection Act was the final nail in the coffin for the gentleman shikari,” Nawab Shafath Ali Khan says. “The tiger population used to be under control [when aristocrats were allowed to hunt],” he adds, “There used to be controlled hunting. They controlled man-animal conflict… But look what has happened now. Project Tiger has been successful. Their numbers have increased, but not the forest cover, not their base prey. They have been chased out from their protected areas [by other tigers]. They lead frustrated lives, a hungry existence… If instead of three meals, I give you just breakfast, how will you feel?”
Khan is a flamboyant figure. A descendant of an aristocratic family in Hyderabad, he is almost always seen dressed in camouflage attire. Although he has a house in Hyderabad, he spends most of his time at a countryside home close to Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai National Park.
Asghar has been part of hunting expeditions of his father over a decade, and even accompanied him to Tanzania to hunt lions on legal game trips
Part of the team that recently shot a tiger known as T-1 in Maharashtra—although it was his son Asghar who pulled the trigger—Khan speaks animatedly of his hunting experiences. However, he considers himself a conservationist. He claims to have shot at least 40 dangerous animals like tigers, leopards and elephants in India, besides also having handled state-sanctioned cullings of wild boar and nilgai.
According to most shooters, government authorities and forest officials are ill-equipped to tackle troublesome beasts. “Most of these guys don’t have a clue,” Khan believes. “They can’t distinguish a leopard from a tiger when they see pugmarks… They don’t know how to use weapons.”
Vidya Athreya, a well-known leopard researcher and scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, disputes those claims and is against the hiring of private guns for any such purpose. “Are you telling me commandos... in Naxal areas can’t deal with it? You can’t have private shooters. Common sense tells us it’s a bad practice. You just can’t hand over responsibility to someone else,” she says.
Joy Hukil, a middle-aged contractor and businessman in Uttarakhand, has killed 31 leopards and a tiger so far. He first began hunting in 2007, when he shot his first leopard; it had had taken 11 lives in Uttarakhand’s Badiyargarh area and been categorised as a man-eater.
In 2014, Hukil came in for criticism for killing an injured leopard that had claimed two lives. He found it hiding in a field and his shot hit the animal’s spine. “It was half dead,” he says. Instead of waiting for others, Hukil decided to put it out of its misery.
Khan claimed his first kill in 1976. He was 19 years old then and living in Mysore. A rogue elephant nearby had killed 12 people. His grandfather Sultan Ali Khan Bahadur had been asked to kill the pachyderm. “But he was 80 years old then. And I already had a gun licence,” he recalls. Three days after his grandfather gave him the mission, using the help of a man who had narrowly escaped the elephant, Khan drove into the jungle and then continued the rest of the journey on foot. “The elephant suddenly appeared, charging like a railway engine, flattening bushes and everything. But I stood calm and shot it,” he says.
According to a source familiar with wildlife shooters, many of them are individuals with political connections. When attacks on humans occur, locals at the affected villages drum up demands for killing the animals. Then they use their political leverage to land hunting assignments.
Ever since the day when Khan shot the elephant, he has periodically got calls to take down some animal or the other. The most recent of these calls came from Yavatmal in Maharashtra where a tigress with two cubs had eluded capture for over two years.
The pursuit of T-1 turned out to be one of the country’s biggest tiger hunts ever conducted. Hundreds of wildlife officials, veterinarians, experts, sharpshooters, police commandos, all of them from various parts of the country, set up base camp in rural Maharashtra chasing the tigress for over two years.
There had been occasions where they nearly got her. According to Khan, six attempts were made to tranquilise T-1, and by August, frustration was building up at the base camp. That month, three people were reported killed. Two months later, one of the elephants brought in to help broke free and trampled a woman to death.
“The mission was doomed right from the start,” a person who was part of it says. “There were just too many people involved.” According to reports, there were differences among various parties on how to proceed.
The group of 'authorised' shooters is small, mostly people of aristocratic backgrounds whose families have a history of wildlife hunting. But there are also other professionals
“People were very scared,” Asghar says. One night in October, a farmer from Atmurdi village in Yavatmal was apparently atop a machaan not more than eight feet off the ground when T-1 approached and spent a few minutes growling at him. “When I saw him the next morning, [the farmer] was still shaken,” says Asghar, “He had spent the entire night up there, and came down only when other villagers showed up. He had tried to hide himself with plastic bags.”
Asghar has been part of various hunting expeditions of his father over the past 10 years, and even accompanied him to Tanzania to hunt lions on legal game trips. But the recent scrutiny—of activists over his shooting of T-1—has gotten to him. “To me, I failed because we could not catch T-1 alive.”
On November 2nd—the day T-1 was shot—some veterinarians had sprinkled the urine of another tigress at the spot she was eventually shot. This was an ill-advised move, Khan says, because tigresses, especially those with cubs, can behave unpredictably on the suspicion that another tigress is in the area. “They made suggestions like this before too, but I dismissed it,” Khan says. “But this time, without telling us, they had sprinkled the urine on the main road. There was a bazaar that day in Ralegaon, so many people were travelling on that road all day and evening.”
Khan was away in Patna that day. He was to return on November 3rd. The tigress was spotted crossing the area several times that day, and Asghar was called. He was in a jeep that evening, Khan says, on backup patrol.
When they came upon the tigress, a forest official took a tranquiliser shot at it. Asghar says the tigress then charged towards some people behind his jeep. Some have disputed this claim, suggesting that the jeep moved closer towards T-1 after the dart was fired. “I had to take the shot,” Asghar says of the bullet that felled the tigress. “If I hadn’t and anyone was killed, everybody would ask what the shooter was doing.”
PRASHANT SINGH IS unlike other shooters and never poses for pictures with his kills. Two years ago, when he shot a leopard that had killed two girls near Lansdowne, a hill station in Uttarakhand, he found that its stomach was empty. “It had killed the kids, but not eaten them. It had been hungry for a long while,” he says. “There was just no prey in that area for [the animals].”
The incident reminded him of his first kill in 2012. Then, a leopard had just claimed its second victim, a four-year-old girl born to a Nepali labourer in an area called Chandmari. Singh reached the spot as quickly as he possibly could. He began following the leopard’s trail on foot armed only with a shotgun. At first, he came upon slippers, then a trail of blood, and suddenly, the sight of the leopard feasting on the body.
His first shot was not clean. The animal charged at him. A shotgun is a powerful weapon, but has only two rounds. Singh had only one left. The second shot took the leopard down. But what came upon him was not exhilaration. He says there was only an immense sadness.