For eight years in the early 20th century, a particularly powerful and elusive man-eating leopard haunted the northern Indian village of Rudraprayag at the base of the Himalayas. It developed a taste for humans after eating corpses during the 1918 flu outbreak, in which sheer volume prevented the tradition of cremation from disposing of every dead body; once the disease subsided and the animal could no longer find dead bodies, it took to live humans instead. The leopard found the area around Rudraprayag, with a population of roughly 50,000 people and its position on a major pilgrimage route through the mountains. In a period of almost eight years from its first attack on June 9, 1918 until its last on April 14, 1926, it officially killed roughly 125 people, though the actual number was probably much higher. News of the attacks and the ensuing panic spread as far as London.
This leopard, although being past its prime years for hunting, exhibited phenomenal strength and prowess. It lifted and carried one woman uphill for about 100 yards, and another time, when it came upon two men sitting inside smoking a hookah, it quietly killed and dragged away one man when his friend, who was sitting within arm's reach, looked away only long enough to pick something up off of the floor.
Local hunters attempted to trap or kill it without success; at various times, it pulled its leg free from a steel spring trap, dug its way out under a falling-box trap, and through speed and elusiveness escaped from a rope bridge over a ravine while armed riflemen waited on both sides. Yet another time, after hunters trapped it within a cave, the leopard waited motionless for five days until the hunters removed the blockade at the cave mouth; the leopard then sprang out, spread panic as it charged into the 500 observers, and made good its escape. The leopard ate several types of poison with no ill effect; one village official stated the the animal seemed to thrive on it. Over the years, it evaded all sorts of methods used to kill it, up to and including snares, firearms, and grenades planted inside its victims. The government levied a 10,000 rupee award on the capture of the beast, but the leopard successfully evaded an estimated 20,000 villagers, hunters, and soldiers from near and far.
In 1925, big game hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett, a veteran of the hunting of man-eating animals for nearly twenty years, arrived to put an end to the leopard's menace. He studied the predator's habits, and made several attempts on the animal's life without success; once, another leopard chased it away, and another time the animal he shot turned out to not be the culprit. Local superstition interfered as well, with many natives believing the killings to be the work of a were-leopard; in one instance, locals captured a local holy man with the intentions of lynching him until the Deputy Commissioner of the area intervened.
Corbett's relationship with the Leopard was not strictly one-sided; one night, Corbett laid a trap for the beast, but had no luck with it. Finally, he gave up and returned to his bungalow. In the morning, he saw his own footprints in the mud, with leopard tracks set perfectly within each of his own boot impressions. Corbett, tracking back to the source of the prints, realized with a chill that the Leopard of Rudraprayag had followed him every step of the way from where the trap was laid all the way back to his own front door.
Eventually, Corbett determined that the Leopard frequented a particular stretch of road between Rudraprayag and the neighboring village of Golobrai. He constructed a tree stand in a mango tree, and tied a goat with a bell necklace to a stake near the road within sight. After ten days of sitting in the tree, the leopard finally took the bait; Corbett fired, hit the animal, and in the morning tracked it to where it finally expired. The leopard measured to be about 7'6" long.
The Leopard of Rudraprayag was not the first, nor the last, man-eating predatory cat from India. Facing a shrinking habitat and scarcer-by-the-day food sources, leopards and tigers resort to eating humans, most often children. The problem does not seem to be abating, either: one village in the West Bengal area reportedly lost 14 people to tiger attacks in 2010 alone.
Links and Sources:
"Man-Eating Elephants in India?" by Jeremy Hubbard, Natasha Singh, and Lauren Effron, on ABC News, February 16, 2011, retrieved April 2, 2012.
Death in the Silent Places, by Peter Capstick, Macmillan, 1989.
Man-Eaters, by Michael Bright, Macmillan, 2002.
"The Leopard of Rudraprayag" © 2015 by James Husband.