Spotting the killer

August 30, 2013 06:41 pm | Updated November 10, 2021 12:28 pm IST - CHENNAI

A suspected man-eater: Captive for life. Photo: Janaki Lenin

A suspected man-eater: Captive for life. Photo: Janaki Lenin

A leopard was shot dead in Mandi district, Himachal Pradesh, on August 11 on the charge of man-eating. Newspaper reports say its stomach had the remains of a dog, not a human. Conservationists were outraged that an innocent leopard had been killed. Between the last human death on July 28 and the leopard’s death, two full weeks passed, as would have any human flesh in the gut. How was a hunter to divine if the animal in his sights was a man-eater?

Two nights later, another person was attacked. Perhaps an innocent animal had indeed been destroyed. Or perhaps there was more than one man-eater.

Understandably, villagers wanted the area rid of the man-eater. But what does the animal look like, and how does one identify it?

Leopards do not live in mutually exclusive zones. A male’s territory may overlap with a couple of females’. A mother leopardess may have grown cubs living with her. How does one deduce which animal was the culprit?

Rom and I visited Lakhpat Singh Rawat, a licensed man-eater slayer, in the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand, in December 2012. In mid-November, a leopard had taken a five-year-old boy at Gauchar.

Although Rawat combed the area every evening, the trail was cold. The scratches on a nearby tree where a leopard had raked its claws were the only evidence of the cat’s presence.

Rawat is a school teacher who took up the gun in the year 2000 after he lost 12 students to leopards. In an e-mail, he had said he studies the pugmarks of the man-eater at the site of the tragedy, and tracks the animal’s movements for up to 25 days. Only when he’s certain it’s a man-eater, does he take a shot. We weren’t convinced; the tracks of average adult leopards look identical, and this method has been scientifically discredited.

Rawat then said when his spotlight picked up the reflective eyes of a leopard, he had only three seconds to decide if the animal was a man-eater. We were appalled. When one leopard looks just the same as another in broad daylight, how could anyone arrive at a considered decision in a moment’s notice in the dark? Under pressure from panicky villagers and forest officials desperate to make the problem go away, would he squander an opportunity to kill the animal?

In March 2013, another child was killed in Gauchar, and a leopard was shot dead. Was it the child-lifter? No one knows. It was killed while tucking into a calf.

Would a leopard caught eating a human corpse be guilty of the crime of manslaughter? Leopards are scavengers, frequently feasting on others’ kills. Even if a leopard is caught on a corpse, it doesn’t prove it killed the person.

Wherever we travelled with Rawat, people hailed him with folded hands, posed for photographs with him, and welcomed him into their homes. He was a local hero.

A forest official requesting anonymity said the department was forced by agitated villagers to kill leopards. On one occasion, eight of his men were doused with kerosene and confined to a room by villagers who threatened to set them on fire if the man-eating leopard wasn’t killed. The official had to deal with the situation with no direction from his boss who had switched off his phone. With no space for negotiations, the man said he was forced to sacrifice a leopard. He agreed it was illegal, didn’t solve the problem, but at least, it appeased the villagers who set his staff free.

In Mandi, a cub, said to be the man-eater’s, and an adult male leopard were shot dead in separate incidents over the following two weeks. The cub’s killing was unjustified, but why was the latter suspected of being a man-eater? It committed the crime of being seen near the site of a human kill.

Everyone — conservationists, villagers, and the Forest Department — agrees a man-eater has to be removed, but no one can say how to identify one.

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