The Child–Eater of Jhiri, Bhopal
The year was 2002; nothing was amiss or eerie about that usual hot summer Saturday till the late evening when I got a call from Jauwad, my dear friend and conservator of Bhopal forest circle.
He narrated to me how two days back, on the night of 10 May, a young boy was killed and eaten by a carnivore in Jhiri village some 40 kms from Bhopal and that the identity of the animal is yet not ascertained. He seemed worried because in last one month two similar incidents had already occurred within a radius of 3-4 Kms from Jhiri, in Anwalikhera and Kathautia villages.
The pattern of these kills suggested that the animal had become a confirmed man-eater and all attempts to capture it in trap-cages have failed. This repeated failure was apparently the cause of his consternation.
He requested me to accompany him next morning to the site of incident to identify the animal and to capture it. Jhiri is on the slope of the southern edge of a hill running north – south; Katauthia is on the eastern slope on the northern side and Awanlikhera on the western slope of the same hill. The three villages may be considered situated on the three tips of an equilateral triangle.
Next morning we reached the spot at around 10 AM. Jhiri was a quiet forest side village located along the main road to Kolar Dam, which usually has a sparse vehicular traffic. As we alighted from our vehicle, eager villagers gathered around us.
We were first guided to the spot where the wild animal had devoured the hapless child recently. It was a small open area surrounded by trees and close to a perennial nala. Blood and entrails were still strewed on the ground. I decided to first see the spot from where the child was lifted two days ago.
We took the footpath to the village; it was a hard compacted dirt track but with very little loose soil here and there. Only slightly farther up on the path I could discern faint pugmarks of an animal. On close scrutiny of these pugmarks there was no doubt in my mind that the culprit was a leopard.
After walking another 5 minutes we were at the house of the bereaved family. The distraught father showed us the flimsy machan (a raised platform made of wooden poles and bamboo), about 7 feet tall. On the night of the mishap, the elder child was sleeping on the outer edge away from the enclosed court yard while the younger child was sleeping on the other side towards the courtyard.
The leopard had jumped on the machan stealthily and surreptitiously and had carefully picked-up the younger child, which it could easily carry away. It was not a tiger, was evident from the careful selection of prey by the marauding animal and also from the fact that had it been a tiger the entire flimsy structure of the machan would have come crashing down under its weight.
It was necessary to gather all relevant information from the villagers about this leopard to carefully devise a plan and systematically execute it on the ground, so, I began talking to the villagers. Last night too, several of them had had a glimpse of it; the leopard had shown enough audacity as not to sneak away when people spotted it yester evening.
One of the villagers narrated how this animal made an audacious attempt to get into a house through the ventilator but withdrew when residents raised an alarm. This clearly showed the temerity as well as the desperation of this leopard of unbecoming conduct. He was not touching calves and numerous goats tethered outside each houses every night. It was now an inveterate man-eater, no doubt. Yet, I had this intuition that the rashness of this overconfident animal would prove to be its nemesis.
The lush miscellaneous forest, presence of a perennial nala and human beings (the favoured prey at that moment) made Jhiri village an ideal spot for the leopard to pitch its summer camp there. I told Jauwad that the animal will not go anywhere and our chances of capturing it that day was almost 90%. I could feel that the leopard, at that moment was lurking somewhere in the shrubbery along the nala and curiously watching our activities. Man eaters are overly cautious and it usually takes an extra amount of cunning on the part of the operator who wishes to outmaneuver the furtive animal and capture it.
Now was time to read the mind of our quarry and beat him in its own game of deception. It was quite obvious to us that this animal will not be attracted to any animal bait, I decided to use the blood and entrails scattered all over the spot of its last meal as a lure. In our team there was Mr. Ramchnadran, the superintendent of Ratapani sanctuary, an officer trained at Wildlife Institute of India. I made him in-charge of the cage setting task.
Two cages were deployed, one at the site where the leopard had eaten the poor child and another under the mango tree by the side of the footpath leading to the village. We decided to put goats as the bait but I asked Mr. Ramchandran to procure a piece of washed cloth (preferably white) and smear the ground soil soaked in blood and put a few pieces of entrails into the cloth and then wrap it around several times to make a small bundle and place it behind the trap lever platform of the cage deployed near the spot of the last kill.
The second cage under the mango tree was to hold only a goat as the bait. As preparation would have taken about an hour or two Jauwad and I decided to visit the other two villages that had suffered the man-eating incidents and talk to the villagers to gather more information about the animals.
Taking a long detour from the main road around the narrow ridge we reached Awanlikhera, the village where the 2nd child –lifting case had occurred about two weeks ago. The villagers told us that the incident didn’t occur within the village but at the foothill of the hillock some half a km away. When we reached the described location, there was this small shanty belonging to a poor casual labor, who lived there with his wife and newborn child.
The man was away on days work while the wife had gone out of the hut after the daily chores. And during her brief absence, the crafty leopard had struck and lifted the infant from the improvised hammock, which the mother had tied between two wooden poles, and swiftly disappeared into the tickets that covered the hillside. Nobody saw it happening. When the mother returned and found her child missing she raised an alarm and search parties were dispatched in all directions.
The bones and skull of the hapless child was found over the hill the next day. Nobody had any idea which animal was the marauder. We returned to Jhiri at about 5 PM to find to our dismay that Mr. Ramchandran was still struggling with the preparations and in fact he had very expertly crafted a scarecrow type of device to be placed inside the cage. The size of the scarecrow was so huge that by no means could it have ever fitted inside the cage.
I was appalled and amused at the same time. Mr. Ramchandran obviously had misunderstood my instructions and had tried his best to create something that resembled a human figure to act as a lure to the leopard.
The entire instructions were repeated and then a small bundle of white cloth, the size of an infant, was made and before wrapping it into a bundle the soil from the spot of the last kill, containing blood and entrails, was smeared on to it.
This warped around bundle of cloth was placed behind the lever- platform of the cage. From outside it was visible clearly and I was sure that the site of the cloth and smell of human blood would trick the leopard into entering the cage. After being satisfied of the orderly progress of work, we hurried off to Kathautia.
In Kathautia, too, the child was lifted from outside a house that occupied a secluded spot at the foothill of the same ridge on the northern side. Some of the villagers claimed to have seen the animal around the village a few times, but the description that they gave resembled an animal that could have been anything – a lion, a tiger, a hyena or a leopard.
For some they had seen an animal with a long mane, for some others it was a huge animal with black stripes. This is how, in most such cases the animal is described by the laymen and women. After being convinced that no further insight could be had from the villagers about the size and shape and behavior of the animal, I suggested that we now proceed towards Bhopal. I had a strong gut feeling which prompted me to assure Jauwad that by the time our vehicle takes a turn towards Bhopal city, we would get the news of the incarceration of our quarry – the child lifter.
As these prophetic words were being uttered, the wireless came alive and on the other end was Mr. A.K Nagar, Assistant director, Van Vihar, who had reached there just after our departure, reporting from Jhiri that the furtive animal was secured in the trap cage at the spot where he had taken his last meal. Jauwad was jubilant and in a fit of happiness he promised me a treat at Jahanumah Palace. …….. I am still waiting for that day—-
This story wouldn’t end properly unless I recount the details of the happenings at Jhiri after our departure. As we left Jhiri, Mr. Nagar arrived on the scene. This gentleman is a fine officer of adequate training and foresight. After reaching Jhiri, Mr. Nagar’s first move was to ascertain whether the lever of the trap-cage was working properly. To test this he threw a heavy stone on the lever-platform. The stone landed at the right spot but nothing happened.
The leopard would have had an easy escape with this kind of a non-functional capturing device. Mr. Nagar soon discovered that a small piece of wood was lodged between the wood panel and the iron bar that moved the lever, he removed it and the lever became functional again.
Satisfied, he left the cage and along with his team retired to a nearby house; tea was served as they braced themselves for a long night. But, only after 10 minutes, alerted by a shattering clang of metal falling on metal, they had to rush out to investigate. Outside they met the Child-lifter of Jhiri in person, very angry and agitated and struggling inside the cage.
The cage was immediately covered with a tarpaulin to calm him, but before doing that the terrified but still intact goat was immediately retrieved from behind the cage’s interior partition.
In the late evening the leopard was transported to Van Vihar national park’s quarantine pen and after a few days into an enclosure of his own. He still resides there along with other well-behaved leopards peacefully and happily but survives on buffalo meat alone.