In Corbett country

Published : May 04, 2012 00:00 IST

A memorial stone at the location where the Rudraprayag maneater was shot.-

A memorial stone at the location where the Rudraprayag maneater was shot.-

A journey across the terrain of the man-eating leopards of Jim Corbett.

GOLABRAI is a small settlement on the left bank of the Ganga on the pilgrims' route between Rishikesh and Kedarnath-Badrinath, revered places of worship in Uttarakhand. Nearly 100 years ago it had a row of grass-thatched pilgrim shelters, a trough for drinking water collected from a crystal-clear stream coming down from the mountain, and a two-storeyed house of the pundit who owned the shelters. This hamlet shot into prominence on May 2, 1926, when Jim Corbett shot the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag on the eleventh night of his vigil from a mango tree.

The leopard was shot in the dark over bait. The bait, a goat, which survived with minor injuries, remained a hero for the rest of its life and wore a brass collar to display its exalted status. The goat has long since died and the pundit's house is in ruins, but the mango tree still stands. The Rudraprayag maneater, having killed 125 people, had become well known all over the British empire as it operated on the pilgrims' route, and pilgrims carried terrifying tales about it to their villages and towns. On the contrary, the Panar maneater, which reportedly killed 400 people and was killed by Corbett in September 1910, had not become well known as it operated in the far-flung areas of Kumaon seldom visited by people from other parts of India.

We were in the territories of the Rudraprayag and Panar maneaters in the first week of December 2010 trying to know more about Corbett, the people of the landscape and the status of wildlife there. Golabrai is in the deep Alaknanda valley and gets sunlight only between noon and 3 p.m., and although it is at an altitude of only 600 metres, the nights, particularly in winter, are extremely cold. Our stay was at the Anoop Negi Memorial School on the Rishikesh-Rudraprayag Highway, built in memory of Anoop, who died as a young fighter pilot in an MiG-21 crash. (Anoop was the son of A.S. Negi, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Uttarakhand, and co-author of this article.) Our bed was warm and comfortable, but our sleep was broken by the repeated alarm calls of a barking deer, which called from the mountain behind the pundit's house. We were told in the morning that leopards still frequented the area and occasionally even entered the school compound.

One memorable attempt made by Corbett to kill the Rudraprayag maneater was on April 15, 1926. On the evening of April 14, the leopard killed a boy in a village called Bhainswara, 18 miles (29 km) from Rudraprayag across a mountain ridge which rises above 2,000 m. When this message was conveyed to Corbett around 11 a.m. the next day, he was eating a late breakfast after a 12-mile (19 km) perambulation on the pilgrims' path, which then used to run along the right bank of the Alaknanda. Immediately, he took his rifle, a few cartridges and a torch and set out with one of the two who had brought the message. His companion had assured Corbett that they had only 18 miles to go, but as they crested hill after hill with deep valleys between, Corbett realised that he had undertaken to walk against time 18 of the longest and hardest miles he had ever walked.

The sun was about to set when he reached the village. After drinking a cup of tea provided by the villagers, he carried the body of the boy to the courtyard of a house (by beating drums through the night the villagers had kept the leopard from feeding on the body) and fastened it to the ground on a peg by a chain. Then he had a wash in the nearby spring, and as there was no suitable tree nearby, he waited on the veranda behind the cover of a heap of straw.

Around 8 p.m., a storm started. While it was raging, Corbett heard the sound of an animal creeping on the straw, which frightened him to death because he thought the leopard was sneaking up on him. When he was about to fire the rifle to cause a diversion, a kitten, soaking wet, jumped down between his arms and chest and found a comfortable place in his coat. This was immediately followed by a savage fight between the maneater and a local leopard. As the sounds of the fight receded from the village, Corbett realised that the local leopard was winning and he had no chance of killing the maneater that night.

Corbett found the return walk to Rudraprayag extremely tiresome as he was totally depressed. But the villagers he met on the way cheered him up with their boundless faith in their philosophy, a faith strong enough to remove mountains, very soothing to depressed feelings and that no human beings or animals can die before their appointed time and that the maneater's time had not come called for no explanation and admitted no argument.

We tried to visit Bhainswara one afternoon, but as the last 30 kilometres of the 50-km road from Rudraprayag was very bad we could reach, when the sun was about to set, only Molkhakhal at an altitude of 1,700 metres, hardly a kilometre from Bhainswara. When we enquired about the incident, which happened nearly a century ago, 62-year-old Gajesingh Chaudhary, who retired from the Indian Army in 1984, said that his mother, who had died at the age of 92, used to speak about the incident of the boy getting killed by a leopard and a white man trying to kill the animal. When asked whether there were maneaters near the villages in the area, he said that there were wild pigs, barking deer, serows and sambar in the oak forests near his village, and leopards, therefore, did not kill humans. However, there were occasional attacks on goats, sheep and dogs.

Our drive to the Dhaula Devi forest rest house (1,800 m), amidst deodar trees and overlooking the Panar valley, was long. Nevertheless, it gave us an opportunity to learn a lot about the landscape, the wildlife and also Corbett. We learnt that a child was killed by a leopard three years earlier in Tilani, 5 km upstream of Rudraprayag. We photographed the Chatwapipal bridge, 30 km upstream of Rudraprayag, which Corbett closed with thorn bushes, hoping to force the leopard to use the Rudraprayag bridge. Corbett spent 20 nights up on the platform of the Rudraprayag bridge (climbing and getting down from the platform with a bamboo ladder, which was four feet short of the platform, was an acrobatic feat every time) hoping to shoot the leopard when it crossed the bridge. In all the 20 nights of vigil, when Corbett lay on the platform more worried about the cold waters of the Alaknanda rather than the jagged rocks 20 m below, a lone jackal crossed the bridge, just once.

We drove along the scenic Pindar river, photographed the gorgeous Trishul peak and saw the Panwalunalladhak bungalow (1,950 m) surrounded by pine trees, where Corbett stayed in September 1910. This was during his second and successful attempt to kill the Panar maneater. His first attempt, in April 1910, had failed. In order to reach Panar, Corbett had to walk a little over 100 km and spend several nights in the villages in the maneater's territory. One night, as suggested by the village headman of Chakati (we learnt it as Jakati), Corbett spent the night in an unclean room. The next morning when he woke up, he was alarmed to see a man in the last stages of leprosy sitting on the floor near the bed waiting for Corbett, who had a morbid dread of leprosy, to wake up. The man said that he had gone to a nearby village to see his relative and upon returning to his room he found Corbett fast asleep and had been waiting for him to wake up. Corbett's account of crossing the Panar river, which was in spate, guided by a man who was just over four feet tall, is hilarious.

Sanauli village, where the last kill was made, is in a deep valley on the other side of the Panar. Sitting up in an oak tree, with its trunk protected by branches of blackthorn bushes, which actually saved his life, Corbett shot at and injured the leopard with his shotgun, in the darkness of the night, over goat bait. The leopard disappeared with an angry grunt. While he listened for further sounds, his men called out to find out whether they could go to him. Corbett suggested they light pine torches, keep to the high ground and approach the tree. As the uncomfortable seat on the tree had given him a cramp, Corbett got down from the tree with the help of his men and then suggested that it would be better to look for the injured leopard in the morning. His men, however, prompted him to go in search of the leopard, pointing out that they had strength of numbers and that they had torches and he had a gun. Corbett got a promise from his men that they would not abandon him and run away if the leopard charged. The promise, understandably, was not kept when the leopard, which could make a line of elephants that were staunch to tiger turn and stampede, came out charging with angry grunts. Fortunately, the men collided with one another while running and some of the burning splinters of pine fell on the ground, giving sufficient light by which Corbett could shoot the leopard dead.

Soon after the menace from the area was removed forever, Corbett suffered a relapse of malaria, from which he had only just recovered.

We had no problem reaching Sanauli village as we had the help of the forest staff. We drove about 50 km from the Dhaula Devi forest rest house past Chakati and across the Panar over a bridge to a village called Berkam, and from there walked into the valley where Sanauli, now a village of 80 households, is situated. The villagers, who seemed to be unaware of Corbett's visit, which happened a century ago, lead a peaceful existence. Their terraced fields are abundant in fodder tree species such as Grewia elastica, Celtis australis and Ficus roxburghii, which provide for their cows and goats. As it is common in many of the villages in the Himalayas, many men from Sanauli have served in the defence services or are still serving. Although the residents had to bring water for all purposes from a nullah nearly a kilometre away (water supply provided by the government was defunct then), they did not complain. Each house seemed to have a flush toilet. In Pauri Garhwal (Uttarakhand), where human-leopard conflict is a serious problem, the lack of toilets was observed to be one major reason for women and young girls being frequently preyed on by leopards. The animals on which the leopards fed earlier have been poached out of the forests. So leopards prey on girls when they leave home at night to relieve themselves. In Sanauli, however, the villagers said that though leopards were still around there were no attacks on children or women as there was sufficient prey wild pigs, goral and barking deer in the forests around. Predation on dogs and smaller livestock, however, was reported.

As we sat near the fireplace at the Dhaula Devi forest rest house and read through Corbett's accounts of the man-eating tigers and leopards, our admiration for the hunter and the simple and brave people of the Himalayas, who had immense faith in him and in Providence, grew immensely. What impressed us most was Corbett's thorough knowledge of maneaters. Corbett wrote that a leopard, even when it becomes a maneater, never loses its fear of man, and therefore attempts by leopards to prey on humans invariably happen when it is dark. Therefore, he correctly concluded, killing a man-eating leopard is much more difficult than killing a man-eating tiger which, once it becomes a maneater, loses all fear of man and tries to hunt humans even in broad daylight. As a general rule, therefore, all night-time kills of humans in Indian jungles, where both the predators operate, can be attributed to leopards and day-time ones to tigers.

There are certain alarming signs which should worry anyone interested in saving wildlife in Uttarakhand. We drove 760 km across the mountains (from Rishikesh, Gwaldham, Almora to Kaladhungi) that have excellent goral and barking deer habitats. Although we kept looking for goral and barking deer, we were disappointed not to see a single animal of either of these two species. We saw only two Himalayan yellow-throated martens, a small predator closely related to the mongoose, which is capable of preying on young goral and Himalayan tahr. Neither did we see any pheasants such as the red jungle fowl or the khaleej. We were saddened to see the carcasses of two Himalayan red foxes (a mother and her grown-up daughter) killed on the Nainital-Kaladhungi road by vehicles as they attempted to feed on a gray langur that had been killed by another vehicle. It seems that uncontrolled poaching in the past and killing of animals by speeding vehicles in recent years have drastically decimated species such as the goral and the barking deer in Uttarakhand.

The government should seek the help of local people to reduce poaching and bring down roadkill. Goral and barking deer are a valuable resource and saving them will enable leopards to coexist peacefully with humans.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India. Bivash Pandav teaches at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. A.S. Negi is a retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Uttarakhand.

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