“In an area in which an established man-eater is operating everyone suspects their own shadows, and every sound heard at night is attributed to the man-eater.” – Jim Corbett.
With clock ticking at 12 in the daylight of 6 September 2016, Govindi Devi of Talla Gaujini village, wrapped up her daily chores as usual and went into the jungle to collect fodder for the cattle. She has been following this routine since the time she came to this village as a bride. Talla Gaujini is located just on the fringes of the southern boundary of Corbett National Park.
When she did not return home for hours, the family members along with other villagers launched a search in the jungle. The blood trails lead them to the partially eaten body of Govindi. Unfortunately, it was too late.
There were some pugmarks around her body. The news spread like a fire in the neighboring villages. Forest officials and hundreds of villagers rushed to the spot and at first, the pugmarks were assumed to be that of a leopard. However, since the sugarcane harvest season is round the corner and fields are packed of full grown sugarcane, the pugmarks could not be traced for a long distance.
The death of Govindi has resulted in frayed tempers among the villagers.
Initially, the forest department took it as a chance encounter but before the situation could have been analysed, another incident was reported on 12 September 2016 from the adjoining Gorakhpur village. This time the victim was Paramjeet Singh.
This killing was however important from the point of view of the authorities. This incident made it clear that the accused is actually a tigress and not a leopard. Though the tigress was not spotted on the scene, it was only her pugmarks which later became an important evidence for the authorities.
The fear had also embraced the villages neighboring Dhela range of the Corbett National Park. Agitated villagers have started making things difficult for the authorities. They are carrying out protests and agitations in the entire area.
Soon after the second incident, the forest department geared itself for action. Cage and camera traps were installed, a team of forest guards were deployed in the region and members of Rai Sikh community were also included in the operation. They are generally trained in tracing blue bulls and other animals. Trained elephants from Corbett started patrolling the area but the killer remained an enigma, and seemed unruffled by these developments.
To call the tigress a man-eater at that moment would have been nothing, but a claim made in a hurry. Time went by as days turned into weeks but the forest department could only locate her pugmarks. All maneuver to corner her failed. Moreover, the full grown sugarcane fields were making things much more difficult for the authorities.
In the meantime, the tigress made her third move on 26 September. The victim was Suman Negi of Sewalkhaliya village. She was badly injured but fortunately, is still alive.
The entire village plunged into panic right after this. The forest department’s inability to tackle the menace made the villagers livid with anger and forced the authorities to issue a death warrant.
On the evening of 27 September, I received a call from a friend and former warden of Corbett National Park Upadhayay. As soon as he informed me about the third victim and the warrant that has been issued, I realised the urgency of the situation and rushed to the spot along with my cameraman Shahnawaz and friend Ankur.
This particular confrontation has turned out to be much of a film sequence where helicopters and drones in the air and elephants and a team of more than 150 forest guards on the ground are trying to corner the man eater. The tigress is smart enough to have fooled all of them. She is posing for the camera traps, enjoying the baits that the forest guards are providing her while making a narrow escape from the guns of the official hunters.
Next morning, while I was patrolling the area along with the search team, she crossed the gypsies with a blink of an eye. Before the hunters could have loaded their guns, she faded into the sugarcane fields. But, there was something else too which stopped the hunters from shooting and that was the mob.
The gathering of onlookers is the biggest challenge for the department. Helicopters and drones are somehow not the means to handle a man-eater.
Upadhyay was waiting at the side of the road at Karanpur, some 5 kilometers from Ramnagar. I immediately moved to study and understand the area. The entire region of its operation is covered by paddy and sugarcane fields. A tigress to be operating in an agriculture field is an unprecedented and a very strange incident indeed.
I stayed back for two days but then I felt disgusted with the way a man-eater was being handled and decided to return to Delhi though I left Shahnawaz there to cover the operation.
On 3o September when I am back in Delhi and attending the meetings Shahnawaz called. I just crossed my fingers while praying that the tigress has been caught but to my dismay, no. The tigress has her own plans. In just four days, she has attacked Bhawani Devi of the same village from where she started her attacks.
With her last attack on Gauri Patwal of Bhawanipur village on 5 October, she went missing. Gauri was injured and is undergoing treatment at a hospital in Haldwani. No causalities have been reported after this, nor has she been trapped. All attempts to trap her went in vain. Her last pugmarks were found near Dhanakpur Ghati, a place just a stone’s throw from Corbett. She is probably moving back from where she had come.
On 19 October, the Rai Sikhs which were included in the patrolling team traced the tigress near Gorakhpur village, where she had made her second kill. This time they decided to keep it confidential and wait for the morning. She was shot dead on 20 October in the morning, just hundred meters away from the house of Paramjeet, the unfortunate second victim.
Though happiness has returned to the villages of the Dhela range but has left many questions unanswered.
Nestled amidst the foothills of the Himalayas is the quaint state of Uttarakhand, embraced by the enchanting beauty of sal and oak, snow clad peaks and lush mountains. The state attracts hundreds and thousands of tourists every year and then there is Corbett National Park, the first to hold the baton of Project Tiger.
This beautiful state has its own set of problems. Besides the jaw dropping sites, there is something rare, something unusual about this beautiful state which many among us are not aware of. Well, the place has a history of producing man-eaters, precisely from the time of Jim Corbett.
Year after year, or rather I say month after month the state makes it to the headlines, and all for the wrong reasons.
You may not believe but according to one of the reports, around 400 people have died in some 14,000 villages that exist in close proximity of the forests between the years 2000 (when the state of Uttarakhand was formed) and 2015. Of these 400 people, around 241 were believed to have been killed by leopards. Further, these man-animal encounters have killed 800 leopards, 90 tigers, and 280 elephants during the same very period.
For us who breathe in the comforts of cities, "man-animal conflict" is nothing more than a phrase which we all have read sometime in some column of a newspaper. But have we ever realized the bitter realities linked to it?
Man-animal conflict in Uttarakhand has reached an alarming proportion. Rapid changes in the forest ecosystem, mainly owing to excessive human intervention and climate change, have been forcing wild animals to stray into human habitations often.
My statement that the state has a history of producing man-eaters might have made you curious and you would probably be looking for the reason behind it. I am sharing just a few of the recent episodes which will justify my statement.
Corbett managed to check-mate a wily leopard, but that was 90 years ago. The region is still not free from the menace of man-eating tigers and leopards, or an occasional elephant deciding to go on a rampage. The man-eating tigress which emerged here in 2014 has unleashed among masses the same primal fear which had gripped Rudraprayag in the days of Corbett.
A man-eating tigress had appeared unannounced in and around Uttar Pradesh's districts of Moradabad and Bijnor. These are the districts on UP-Uttarakhand border. She killed six people in a shockingly short span of 16 days. Her tell-tale pugmarks at the scene of each killing were the only evidence of her presence. The terror which this tigress triggered in Uttar Pradesh is unheard of in recent memory.
In 2013, a leopard attacked four people in the very same region the present tigress is operating. She was shot dead by an official hunter.
A year back in 2015, Devki Devi, a resident of Dhela village near Corbett National park had gone into the jungle never to return. Pugmarks of a tiger were spotted all around her half eaten body.
The bigger question is, whom to blame for this sorry state of affairs? These speechless animals or the people who for their daily needs, such as fodder for cattle, wood to cook food et al get into these jungles?
A bitter truth is, humans are to be blamed. We have ruined jungles to build our homes and with that, we have destroyed their natural homes. We have brought them closer to human lives, and believe me, very close. Till when will these speechless creatures face the consequences for the offenses they have committed just to save them and their homes?
The wildlife authorities, despite their best efforts, have failed to curb the increase in the fatal animal attacks on humans.
Many people in the affected Uttarakhand region have little idea of India’s success in tiger and leopard conservation. And here lies the crowning irony. The same animals which are priceless to the world are but a monster to them. So who is more skewed in this particular instance, one may ask?
A casual visitor to Corbett, or any other national park of India, is generally too busy enjoying and photographing wildlife. It seldom occurs to the visitor that most of our wild preserves have become victim to man-animal conflicts. And, when the situation reaches a flash-point as it did at the Corbett Tiger Reserve, the wildlife is often at the receiving end.
Updated Date: Oct 21, 2016 18:39 PM