Both Dharmendra and Amit have done their Ph.D. in Botany from Jaipur University, so they were very interested in the flora of southern Rajasthan (that’s where Pratapgarh is). I am not very good with my flora, at least compared to the two of them, so it was a great learning experience for me. I do know most of the common species of Central Aravalis (where Ranthambore national park lies) but Pratapgarh was a slightly different ball game. We saw a lot of interesting plants and my best one was the Caparice zylenica, whose flowers turn from white in the mornings to crimson by the evenings. We also came across four different species of snakes – a Rock Python, a Banded Racer (reported for the first time from that area), a Bronze back tree snake and a Saw Scaled viper (one of Rajasthan’ s most poisonous and common snake). We also came across an old road kill (on the way to the Pratapgarh town, where we had to go to get supplies) of a green coloured Keelback snake. We did not come across many large animals, except a few jackals, wild boars, langur monkeys, Nilgai or the Indian Antelope and quite a few Striped hyenas (that were often mis reported by the villagers as a leopard). The hyenas were totally nocturnal and it was easy to mistake them for a leopard in the nights. Did not see many interesting birds, except for a few nesting Sarus cranes (India’s largest birds) on the drive from Bundi to Chittor (no where near Pratapgarh).
A typical day used to start with getting up at sunrise and heading soon after to the dang in the jeep that Mr Fateh Singh Rathore had kindly leant to us. We would do a quick run over all the tracks to see if we found any pugmarks. After a few hours we would try to find some forest guards to get news about the “cage traps”. All we heard that no leopard had been trapped. The Forest Officers had promised us that we would be informed immediately if they did manage to trap a leopard, so if we did not hear from them by late mornings, we knew that no leopard had been trapped. They did trap a man once – a drunk guy who decided to steal the goat that was used as a bait. He got trapped and had to spend the night in the trap. By 11 in the morning we would get back to our small camp for a meal, that Ram Singh would cook. By noon we would again be on top of the dang, exploring some area that we had not previously explored. We would take the jeep as close to the place ass possible and then start off on foot. By the evening we would be back for dinner. We would again head out in the jeep around 9 in the night, with a powerful night light. We spotted a fair amount of hyenas on such drives but never a leopard.
Sometimes we would have the forests tranquilizing expert with us, though most of the time we were on our own. The tranquilizing expert was a nice Sardarji (Sikh person) from the Udaipur zoo. He told us that he stood no chance of getting any leopard with his dart gun, because the range of the gun was very poor. Besides, even if he did manage to hit the leopard with the dart, the drug would take about 10 minutes to take effect and by then the leopard would be away and hiding. The drug lasts for about 10-15 minutes and after that the leopard would be conscious once again. The point that he made to us (loud and clear) was that if did manage to dart the leopard and even if we knew that the leopard had taken off and hidden in a kho, who would go after him to check if he was conscious or not. He sat on a tree in Pratapgarh all night with a bait tied close by, hoping that the leopard would take the bait. But that never happened. Every third day we went to the Pratapgarh town to get petrol for the jeep and to replenish our supplies. That was time for me to get a few beers. Amit and Dharmendra do not drink any alcohol at all. We spent about 10 days like this. On the 11th day the leopard struck again.
One evening we reached the Forest camp and a few guards came running towards us. They told us that they had just got a message (about half an hour ago) that a girl had been killed on the other side of the dang. The forest officials and the police department had already left for the area. We drove like mad men but it still took us about half an hour to get to the spot. By then it was getting dark. By the time we reached the spot there were more than a hundred people there looking for the leopard. We learnt that the girl had gone collecting gum with her mother. Around 5 in the evening her mother heard a scream a few meters away and she saw that a leopard had got her daughter by the throat. She ran after the leopard who initially tried to run with the dead girl but later on abandoned her and disappeared. By that time a few more people from the closest village (the dead girls village) ran to the spot. The girl was dead and the villagers took her body to her village and then informed the police and the forest department.
When we reached there we found that there were a few search parties that were spread out all over the area looking for the leopards. The first thing we did was got in touch with the District Forest Officer on the wireless (he was part of one search team) and asked him to call back all the search teams. We reasoned that the leopard would normally come back to the kill spot after all the human disturbance was over. We then asked the Forest officers to get a cage-trap and set it up close to the kill spot. That was easier said than done. The cages were very heavy and the terrain was not helping much. The guards managed to get the cage close to the spot. We got a goat and killed it at the kill spot and then dragged the dead goat to an opening near the cage. We got the girls clothes and put them on top of the dead goat. We then asked a police shooter to sit inside the cage, locked the cage and hoped that the shooter would be able to kill the leopard if it showed up. The leopard had been declared a man eater and there were orders out to kill it “after ensuring that it was the man eater.” After “setting up” the kill we left the area and waited about 2 kilometers away from there. Te shooter was told to wait for about 4-5 hours and if nothing showed up till then, he should send us a message on the wireless. At midnight we heard from the shooter that he wanted to come back. Some guards went and got him out of the cage. We then took the dead goat and put it inside the cage and covered it with the girls clothes and set the trap door up.
When we came back the next day we found a lot of leopard hair just under the trap door, that had fallen shut. The leopard did come back and even tried to enter the cage but the trap had fallen prematurely. After that the leopard had tried to eat as much of the goat as he could through the bars. So close and the trap did not work. The gate must have fallen on the leopard who managed to sneak out from under the trap door.
I had to leave the next day (back for Ranthambore) because I run a tourist lodge for a living and it was our most busy season then. End of our leopard hunt– at least mine as I had to get back to making a living. A few days later, Dharmendra called me up and told me that their first leopard – the old limping male was trapped. The forest officials with some input from Dharmendra decided to use a dead goat as a bait instead of a live one. And on the first day they tried it and they trapped the leopard (and took it to the Udaipur zoo). A few days later another leopard was trapped, a few kilometers off, in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh. This was the work of the Madhya Pradesh forest department. That was the end of the man eating leopards of Pratapgarh. We still do not know which one was the killer – maybe both of them were.