Many years ago, I was travelling in a cab from Dehradun along the National Highway leading to Gaurikund in the state of Uttarakhand. The road winds through the foothills of the mighty Himalayas through picturesque countryside. After a while I reached a town named Rudraprayag. A few minutes of drive from this town, there is a tree by the side of the road where a notice has been put up.
The cab driver drew my attention to the notice and slowed the vehicle to allow me to read what was written. What I read was a chilling reminder of a frightening phenomenon that occurred almost 100 years ago. The notice read: “This was the tree on which Jim Corbett sat and shot dead the Man Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag in 1926.”
The famous hunter Jim Corbett has described the case in a story with vivid and shocking detail which can terrify the readers even today. His story titled “The Man Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag” is a hair-raising account of what happened over a five year period in which the leopard killed 125 humans. That was the official tally but the real number was reportedly close to 200.
The tale behind it is one of the strangest stories in the history of the humans. Back in 1918 the great Influenza Pandemic (also known as Spanish Flu) spread like wildfire throughout the world and took a heavy toll of human lives. Among the regions most severely hit were the hills of Garhwal.
The remote villages in the hills had no hospitals or medical facilities. If any person contracted the flu, it was certain death. The huge number of daily deaths caused chaos. So many people died that the villagers had no time to carry out the usual cremation rites. They just took the bodies to nearby forests and left the bodies there.
Now what happened was that a leopard which lived in those jungles found that it was being provided with a plentiful supply of food. It began eating the dead bodies that it found in the jungles. And after several months, it became habituated to human flesh and the easy source of food.
But gradually the pandemic began easing off. The number of deaths came down. But this caused a new problem. The leopard now found that it was not getting any more dead bodies to feast upon.
So now it began hunting down humans for food. The town of Rudraprayag lies on the route taken by pilgrims to reach the holy shrines in the mountains. The tired and weary pilgrims fell easy victims to the leopard’s stealthy and ferocious attacks. It preyed under cover of darkness. On one occasion it had the temerity to enter a hut where pilgrims on the way to the Kedarnath shrine were sleeping.
It lifted a child sleeping by the side of his mother. Its powerful jaws clamped down on the child’s throat and stifled whatever sound the child may have tried to make. And then it coolly carried its victim away from the spot. A frantic search the next morning revealed a grizzly sight. The half eaten body of the child lay about a mile away from the hut.
On another occasion it snuffed out the life of a young boy. He was an orphan who was employed by a farmer to look after sheep. He had been given a bed to sleep in a shack along with the goats and sheep. One night the leopard broke down the flimsy door of the shack and carried away the boy. The poor child’s cries of despair could not be heard by his master who was fast asleep in his big house.
Thus, every week, the leopard carried out its death dealing strike. It moved fearlessly and confidently from one village to another using the dark night as a shield to remain unseen. Thousands of villagers lived in sheer terror. Being uneducated and superstitious, they began to believe that the animal was a manifestation of the Devil. Even the English government officials referred to the animal in hushed tones.
British soldiers and amateur hunters tried to track it down but failed. Eventually the district administration called upon the services of Jim Corbett who lived in Nainital and who had a reputation of being able to hunt down man-eating tigers.
So Corbett arrived in Rudraprayag determined to finish off this killer once and for all. Then began a battle of brains between the devilishly cunning animal and the expert hunter. Corbett tried many tricks. On many nights he tried to lure it into a trap. But the leopard seemed to have a sixth sense and knew where the rifleman lay in wait for him. If Corbett waited in one village, the animal made a kill in another. If Corbett went there, the leopard returned to the first site.
It took the hunter more than a whole year to succeed. He once again tried a trick he had tried earlier. He tied a goat near a tree and sat on one of the tree branches throughout the night. A bell had been tied around the goat’s neck so that if it was being carried away, Corbett would hear the noise of the bell and understand what was happening.
Well after midnight, Corbett heard some dogs barking in the village. He was an uncanny hunter and he could sense the presence of the killer leopard nearby. Without making any noise, he carefully lined up his rifle towards the spot where the goat was tied.
Then he heard a swift rushing noise following which the bell around the goat’s neck began tinkling violently. In the pitch dark, Corbet could just see the white colour of the goat. And then Corbett switched on a flashlight that he had with him. At once he saw the leopard which was in the act of killing the goat. Corbett’s rifle was already aimed. All he had to do was pull the trigger.
The hunter snapped off an instant shot and immediately knew that the target had been hit. The animal leaped up and fell down heavily. So Corbett knew that it was either dead or badly wounded. But unfortunately for him, his flashlight went off at that very moment. So he could not be completely sure if the animal was dead. If it was only injured, it would be extremely unwise to approach it.
But after a while Corbett heard the sound of the bell tinkling gently again. He guessed that the goat was now happily munching on the grass around it. So the leopard was definitely out of action. Nevertheless Corbett waited in the tree till dawn broke and he could see well enough. Then he climbed down from the tree. It turned out that he had not missed his mark. The one and only bullet had hit the animal just above the chest. It had staggered away for about 50 yards before dying. It was now lying dead.
Thus ended the tale of a tyrant animal which had terrorised the inhabitants of the surrounding villages for many years. It had killed children and adults alike. The villagers were overjoyed when they came to know that the Shaitan, as they called it, was dead. They held a big celebration to mark the occasion and according to some magazine reports, the celebrations are held even today, once every year.
Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned writer and journalist who has worked with The Hind, among other publications.