The leopard has a rule, says Chhotelal Meena, sitting on his haunches beside a fire in his village house in Rajasthan’s Alwar district.
“If you snatch its kill, it comes back to avenge it. This one will come back and kill one more, I tell you,” adds the 40-year-old farmer, his eyes, yellowed by years of exposure to wood smoke, reflecting his conviction in the rustic wisdom he just pronounced.
Chhotelal’s argument has a reason. A leopard is suspected to have killed his father, 66-year-old Ram Kumar, on February 12 when the senior Meena went to relieve himself outside his home in Sili Baodi village.
The house, sitting on the edge of the village, is less than a kilometre from the Sariska Tiger Reserve, which has 14 tigers and more than 100 leopards.
But the big cat could not prey on its kill as villagers were alarmed by sounds of the man being brought down. The leopard fled when it saw humans.
“One of us went to see where the sound had come from and on seeing the leopard on top of my uncle, he shouted. When others came running, the leopard fled,” says Chhotelal’s cousin Ramavtar. “But it came back fifteen minutes later. I saw it licking blood from the same spot. The cat has tasted human blood.”
The leopard is believed to have killed four people in the village including Chhotelal’s father since February 5.
Since then people in about 40 villages in the area are living in a state of panic, shutting themselves up in their homes after sunset, the men taking turns to stand on guard throughout the nights.
The forest department has caught four leopards since then, one of them an old big cat which officials said was responsible for the human kills.
But the panic-stricken villagers are not convinced. Several cattle attacked and injured recently are also believed to be by the same leopard.
The leopard (scientific name Panthera pardus) is the most endemic member of the cat family in India and an estimated 12,000-14,000 are believed to be spread across the country.
But they have also become one of the biggest casualties of growing human population, their habitats destroyed and prey based diminished. Hundreds of leopards have been killed over the years in human-animal conflicts.
There have also been several instances of leopards attacking humans in Maharashtra and Uttarakhand.
And the terror of Sili Baodi village could be the story of any other village with a leopard nearby.
‘Long as a motorcycle’
But people in this Rajasthan village say this is the first time they are facing a “man-eater” leopard though they are no strangers to animals straying out of Sariska.
Some say there are more than one leopard killing people, while one man, who claims to have seen the animal, says it is “as long as a motorcycle” and might as well be a tiger.
Earlier in September and October, a leopard had killed two people in two other villages.
Ramavtar claims the Alwar collector who visited the village with forest and police officials had seen the leopard.
However, collector Muktanand Agarwal denied seeing the leopard but added that forest officials had suggested a high probability of a leopard’s presence in the area at that time.
Balaji Kari, deputy field director of Sariska, said the last leopard trapped was the one attacking humans.
“We have consistently tracked the animal, collected pugmarks and other case samples. We knew another incident will prove very costly for us and we worked very hard to catch this one,” Kari adds.
“We are certain that this leopard is the one behind killings. It is an old animal, over ten years of age, and must have been unable to hunt for itself. For the same reason it must have veered towards the villages and after killing the first victim, felt that humans were easy prey.”
The longest night
But villagers have refused to let their guard down.
Around midnight, Chhotelal, armed with a stick and a torch, makes a round of the periphery of his house.
“The dogs become dead silent when the leopard comes. They are damn scared of the leopard. A street dog went missing from the village some 5-6 days ago. The half-eaten body of the dog was found atop a tree in the fields,” says Chhotelal, before flashing his torch all around, including the treetops.
When the night falls, the village streets become deserted and kids start fighting among themselves over who will sleep in the middle. People who have gated houses say that in another fifteen days summer will be here and sleeping inside will become unbearable.
There are no toilets in the houses and people make it a point to relieve themselves before dusk ever since the leopard struck. The kids are made to do it in corners of the room.
Chhotelal’s relatives, who live in the village, are staying at his house for extra security. Men take turns to sleep for few hours and then to guard the night. Circled around the fire in the evening, smoking hookah and chillum, they discuss the events of the day.
Some argue that conflict with big cats never used to happen before. Others say that the relocation of tigers in Sariska has shrunk the spaces for leopards and forcing them to move towards the villages.
As the night thickens, the gathering around the fire thins. At 12:30, it’s only Chhotelal who is awake, when power goes off.
He gets up and lights a gas lamp. The yellow light of the two bulbs that was barely enough has been replaced by a much dimmer and greenish light of the lamp.
“You see the problem. It’s even more difficult to spot the animal now. It might be hiding right in the bush behind me and I would never know,” says Chhotelal.
As hours pass, the night becomes quieter, the barking of dogs grows clearer. A few houses away someone flashes his torch around from the roof of his house.
“This hour is the most dangerous. The leopard keeps waiting in the bushes for hours, waiting for men to fall silent and get drowsy,” he adds.
Chhotelal makes another chillum, picks an ember with his hand and places it on the pipe. As he takes a drag, he freezes. The skin on his forehead contracts and he trains his ears towards the bushes.
Suddenly, there is clanking of chains as the three buffaloes in his courtyard stand up. He flashes the torch at them and their wide-open eyes stare back at him. The buffaloes stand dead at their places. He quickly wakes up the two men sleeping on a cot beside him.
The men throw their blankets and spring into action. Picking up their sticks and torches they run in opposite directions, flashing torches and banging their sticks on the ground. Chhotelal rushes to the rooftop. The men stay put for a few minutes, before coming back. Must have been a mongoose, one of them says.
At 4 am the power supply comes back. At 4:30 am woman in the neighbourhood has started milking her buffalo. Few minutes later, the men in her house call Chhotelal for tea.
By 5 the village has come alive with people starting their day. Chhotelal goes over to the neighbour to have tea, but not before stopping on the way to answer nature’s call. He had been holding it since last evening.