'There is no more terrible thing than to live and have one's being under the shadow of a man-eater' - Jim Corbett, Man-eaters of Kumaon.
I was in the middle of a shimmering green paddy field, which was swaying to music I couldn't hear, on the fringes of the Sal forest of Seohara. I had seen movement from the corner of my eye and in a fraction of a second I knew those were the stripes of a tiger. I wanted to run towards my cab on the road a 100 metres away but the marshy soil sucked my shoes in and I couldn't move. Then, there was a blood-curdling growl. I gave up and closed my eyes tight.
I was breathless, my throat was dry as I woke up from the dream. Sachin, the driver, was asleep. Never had I felt that kind of fear before. I was waiting for the team that had gone inside the forest on two elephants - Roopkali and Pawankali - for a tiger that had killed eight people since May this year. The heavens had opened up completely but the search went on for three hours, so I fell asleep and had that dream. Just a day with tigers on my mind did that to me. It was futile to imagine the villagers' plight.
The Pilibhit forest division of Uttar Pradesh has five ranges, one of which is Deoria, where this tiger had strayed from. There is no official record for tiger presence here. After the fourth killing of a man who had gone to collect mushrooms, it was captured by a camera trap. After killing two more, it had travelled 19 km to reach Shahjahanapur's Chatiabalrampur village and killed another two. Only the last man was killed outside the forest. That's where matters stood when I reached.
Fear and loathing
If you were airdropped in this region, you would mistake it for Punjab with Sikhs from Pakistan rehabilitated post Partition. Paddy and sugarcane fields complete the landscape. Chatiabalrampur is no exception. Houses far away from each other, many of them now empty, you could slice fear out of thin air. "The cattle don't go out to graze and people don't go out farming. It's due to the brave villagers that I got my brother's body in the night from the jungle," says Baldev Singh, brother of Pratap Singh, the first victim
Prabhjot Singh recalls what Baldev said to the villagers: "Arre sikhon, I heard you are very brave. Is your bravery all but gone after coming to UP? I beg you to get my brother's body." The tiger was sitting on the body when they reached. Gopal Singh, his neighbour, dragged the body from under the tiger. Three days later he became the next victim. The villagers believe that it was an act of revenge.
By dusk, they all move to the church with their cattle and few slept on their roofs. "We keep getting false alarms. Even when it's a dog, they report a tiger. Dehshat hai yahan pe (there is terror here)," says Brijesh Kumar, one of the five policemen deployed in the village. After the second death, people took to the streets.
"They wanted to set our vehicles on fire and throw us in front of the tiger," recalls S K Kashyap, forest ranger of Khutar. "One more death and we will have to pay with our lives." The families will get the Rs one lakh compensation when van mantri finds time to come. Mithlesh Kumar, MP (Samajwadi Party) had demanded they be given Rs 10 lakh instead. Panchayat elections are around the corner.
Avijit Bhawal, Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat - veterinary doctors - and Milind Pariwakam, a wildlife biologist, made up the core team of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) that pursued the tiger with help from 50 forest department staffers of Shahjahanpur. P P Singh, district forest officer, led from the front. The cost per day: Rs 50,000.
'When one is moving in an area in which a man-eating tiger is operating, progress is out of necessity very slow, for every obstruction in one's line of walk... is capable of concealing death,' writes Corbett. For that reason and many more, the team was staring at a formidable task.
The 'wild rescue' ambulance gave them the tag of 'those who came to save' the maneater. More hostile was the weather, with rains destroying pugmarks and leaving the forests waterlogged, making it tough for the combing operation. The fuel for the human-tiger conflict in this area comes from the sugarcane fields on the fringes of the forests.
"The prey animals come and the predator follows them. I would say it's a perfect tiger habitat - to rest, to hide, to hunt, and to rear," says P P Singh. Harvest time is ripe for conflict.
Bhawal and Bhat are the modern day Corbetts. But unlike him, they carry dart guns to execute the order to tranquillise the tiger. In this case, a three-year-old sub-adult male, a vulnerable age. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) distinguishes between a mankiller and a maneater. Only man-eaters are shot dead. Shooting is not half as tough as darting.
On September 2, Bhawal almost succeeded but the dart was deflected after hitting the tiger. Later during the analysis, the video clip suggested that a forest guard might have fired his gun in panic, hurrying the tiger. 'Nerves wear thin when hunting man-eaters,' testified Corbett.
"Please don't call this a maneater. These are all chance encounters that have happened in succession," says Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary of NTCA, who had come to take stock. In a meeting with the UP wildlife officials, who had strict orders from CM's office that no more killings will be tolerated, he had argued that there wasn't enough evidence to say that the same tiger killed all eight victims.
But they wanted the tiger shot. There were no solutions to save both, the cat and the people. According to sources, the tiger was not allowed to enter the Kishanpur sanctuary because the officials didn't want the headache of a maneater.
As this goes to print, the operation is on and the tiger still elusive. The villagers are seething in anger, as it seems for the government the life of an animal is more important.
"Where is the army?" Prabhjot Singh of Punoti Khurd asked me. "Maneka Gandhi says the tiger shouldn't be killed. Let her come here and live." His son had spotted the tiger crossing the Assam road that morning on the last day of my stay - just a few hundred metres away from his tea shop, where I had my breakfast, lunch and many cups of chai. Was it watching me all the while?