In the first week of December we left for Pratapgarh, in the Chittor district of Southern Rajasthan. This area has some highly degraded teak forests – most of which have been cut down by the local villagers. These forests hardly have any wildlife left but a few leopards do live in the area. We went there for these leopards. Pratapgarh witnessed a number of attacks by leopards in the year 2004. By December 2004 leopards had killed 7 people – most of them children below the age of 12 years or so. The local officials tried to trap these leopards but were not successful. After the fourth person was killed it became a local political issue and a lot of people in Pratapgarh were demanding that the “man-eating” leopards be shot dead. The Chief Wildlife warden of the Rajasthan state (who is the officer in-charge of all the wildlife in the state) issued orders that the “man eating leopard be shot dead but this should be done only after ensuring that the leopard that is targeted is the man-eater.” This was easier said then done.
The Rajasthan Forest Department invited Tiger Watch to Pratapgarh to help track the man-eating leopard. Four of us – Dr. Dharmendra Khandal (the Field Biologist of Tiger watch), Dr. Amit Kotia (a botanist from Jaipur), Ram Singh (Dharmendra’s field assistant) and I – left for Pratapgarh, as team from Tiger Watch. Though none of us had any experience with man-eaters but all of us had spent a fair amount of time in leopard and tiger country. The forest officers were under a lot of political pressure to put an end to this menace. This was a big issue in Pratapgarh and every time someone was killed the law and order situation used to turn nasty.
In Pratapgarh, about 30 Forest Department officials were camping in a school building near the area where most of the killings had taken place. Since we reached Pratapgarh in the night we camped in the same school building for the first night. The next day we realized that this building was actually an hours drive from the place where the last incident had taken place. We thought that this was too far so we shifted to an abandoned hut about a hundred meters from the place where the last kid was killed. We collected all the information that we could get from the forest officials who were working on this project (it was called Operation Leopard) for over 6 months. We realized that except for three people (the first three to die) all the others were killed within a radius of 4 kilometers from a central hillock. The first three who were killed died in an area that was about 20 kilometers away. Most of the kids who were killed were killed when they had entered the forested area to collect the sap (gum) from a tree known as Anogeissus latifolia (locally known as Sadar) and that all these attacks happened when the kids were sitting below the tree and taking the gum out. Most of these kills happened between 1600 and 1800 hours when the kids are finishing for the day. We also realized that there was very little wild prey for the leopards in the area and they mostly must be hunting domestic cattle, goats and stray dogs.
The Sadar tree is a short, bushy tree and the gum that is secreted is done at the lowest 2 feet of the main trunk. To collect the gum one has to crouch down (to get below the low branches) and get to the main trunk of the tree. That’s why kids with their small built frames are best suited for collecting the gum. However, when they crouch down to collect the gum they look like prey to the leopard and this is when all the attacks happened. The gum sells for nearly Rupees 200 a kilogram (about 4-5 US dollars), which is a princely sum in rural Pratapgarh. The forest officials were trying their best to discourage the kids from going inside the forest area but the lure of money was too strong for the locals.
In their quest to trap or kill the man-eater the forest department was facing a large number of problems. The terrain was very tough and there were few motor able tracks with in the forested area. The ground was rocky and as a result it was very difficult to follow the pugmarks (foot prints) of the leopards. The area was pretty remote and communication facilities were very basic. Whenever someone died the information used to reach the forest control room after a few hours and by the time they would reach the area all the tracks were obliterated by the local crowd that invariably gathered there. They hardly had any resources or budget to handle such an operation. The staff that was involved with the project was just not trained to handle wildlife related problems. They had served all their lives in plantations and had no experience with wildlife. What they did have were good and hard working officers – the Divisional Forest Officer and the Assistant Conservator of Forest – who were in charge. But that is not enough.