The Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Dehradun, is a stately complex constructed by the British in 1906. It is nestled in the most beautiful and green part of the city and holds many species of flora and fauna found in the region. In March this year, another locally found species paid a terrorising visit to the institution. On 14 March, a 17-year-old girl was mauled to death by a leopard which had somehow entered the FRI premises. Panic ensued and the authorities of the premier research institute decided that it would be best to tackle the problem the way it would have been tackled a century back in the days of the legendary hunter Jim Corbett: professional hunters were called in and they shot the animal within a week of the incident.
According to reports, Uttarakhand witnesses around 200 cases of leopard attacks each year. In the last decade, more than 60 people have been killed by leopards in the hill state. There is noticeable fear among people there, especially in the districts of Tehri, Pauri, Rudraprayag and Almora, which have seen frequent leopard attacks in the recent past. “The fear of leopards has replaced the fear of ghosts these days. Earlier, when someone would venture out in the night, people would narrate legends of ghosts, an ever-popular theme in the hills. Now it is the nocturnal hunter; the leopard, that we are scared of,” says Gulab Singh, a resident of Pauri, Garhwal.
The state has a long history of the leopard-human conflict. Corbett’s accounts of the leopard conflict in his book The man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag shed light on how much a terror had the leopard of Rudraprayag become. It is said to have devoured over 126 humans until Corbett shot it down. The interesting bit of the book is that it reveals the peculiar traits of the leopard, traits which make it an intriguingly intelligent hunter, even today.
The estimated population of leopards in 2005 in Uttarakhand was 2,105. The 2008 census saw it rising to 2,335. The population is said to have increased much more in the last seven years. The state forest department is holding a fresh survey this year to ascertain the leopard population. Leopards are an endangered species. With growing urbanisation and the subsequent deforestation in the state, the habitat for leopards has become increasingly fragile. Their prey count has gone down drastically. However, leopards are highly adaptive creatures. The lack of resources in the wild has made them look at human settlements as means to live. “Many leopards in the state have moved to the civil forests near villages where they find easy prey; cattle, goats and dogs from the villages,” says Anil Kumar Singh, team leader for the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL) project of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
However, this adaptability and intelligence has put them in direct conflict with human populations. Widespread fear of leopard attacks and pressure from the people for redressal of the situation has pushed the state government and the forest department to take immediate measures. Once a leopard is declared to be a man-eater by the forest officials, ‘professional’ hunters are called in to shoot the leopard down. This has brought hunters like Lakhpat Singh Rawat and Joy Hukil into the picture who have almost achieved celebrity status among people in leopard inhabited areas. Rawat, 50, is a school teacher from Gairsain, a town in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. He was roped in the year 2000 for the first time, to hunt down a man-eater in Gairsain. The leopard had killed 12 children. Since then, the state forest department has made use of his services time and again. Till September last year, Rawat had gunned down 45 man-eaters in the state. The count also includes one tiger which he shot down in 2011.
The pictures on his Facebook wall show Rawat posing proudly with his rifle in his hand along with the leopard he had just killed. These are trophy photographs similar to the ones that British Raj officers got clicked after a hunt, and maharajas before them. However, the tone of conquest is not reflected in our telephonic conversation: “Nobody wants to kill these magnificent creatures, only that once a leopard turns man-eater, it will go for hunting humans again and again. A kill becomes necessary at times. However, the initial efforts should be towards capture,” says an earnest sounding Rawat. In a couple of instances, Rawat has even refused to kill leopards he has spent time trailing. Last year in October, Rawat was summoned by the forest department to kill a suspected man-eater in Bageshwar, he, however, on looking upon the leopard, could not see any traits of a maneater and therefore decided not to pull the trigger.
According to forest officials, the urgency of situations make it difficult to carry out capture operations in most cases. Capture also requires resources; the latest technology such as tranquiliser guns and darts, a GPS tracker and other equipment. The forest department neither has these resources nor the knowhow to make effective capture possible at present. Joy Hukil, the other ‘famous’ hunter in the state narrates an incident which throws light on the present condition: “About four years back, forest officials had cornered a leopard who was suspected to be a maneater, it took them two hours to get the tranquiliser gun from the forest department office in the nearby town and once it arrived, it was found that the medicine in the tranquiliser darts had expired. This is the present state of affairs.” Hukil, who has killed 17 and caged five man-eaters till now, says that the leopard population is increasing at an alarming rate in the state. “People have changed their routines in villages out of the fear of potential leopard attacks. They try to avoid going out when it is dark,” says Hukil.