Increasing leopard attacks have become a common threat to villagers in Uttarakhand, the north Indian state closely connected to famous hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett.

Corbett, a British hunter, tracked and shot a number of leopards and tigers — most of them man-eaters — in Uttarakhand, home to a large number of tigers and leopards. He wrote the book ‘Man-Eaters of Kumaon’ detailing his experiences hunting the life-threatening animals in Uttarakhand early last century.

In his accounts, Corbett claimed the animals were responsible for the killing of more than 1,200 people. Notable among the “man-eaters” that Corbett shot was a notorious leopard of Panar in present-day Almora district, which allegedly killed over 400 people.

Corbett was also one of the foremost people in India to found a wildlife sanctuary in Uttarakhand, which was renamed as Jim Corbett National Park in his honor in 1957.

Seven decades on, the situation in the state hasn’t changed that much. According to statistics from Uttarakhand’s forest department, as many as 20 people were mauled to death by big cats on the prowl this year. The leopard population in Uttarakhand is 703, the highest of any state in the country.

In recent months leopards have allegedly killed six children in Uttarakhand’s Bageshwar district. This prompted forest officials, grappling with the challenge of managing the animals, to order the killing of three leopards in the district.

This comes hot on the heels of the controversial killing of Avni, a tigress declared a ‘man-eater’ by the Forest Department in Maharashtra state.

The department gave a shoot-to-kill order for the tigress for allegedly killing 13 people. The order was contested at various levels up to the Supreme Court, without any success. It sparked widespread discontent among animal rights and environmental activists. Even the President of India, Ramnath Kovind, was petitioned to spare her life. But ‘Avni’ was shot dead on November 2 in the forests of Maharashtra’s Yavatmal region.

But, with more than half of the world’s tigers – an endangered species – roaming in India’s forests, the country has a significant responsibility to protect them.

An environmental crisis

Wild animals do not turn into man-eaters out of the blue. Human intrusion into wild habitats always plays a major part. The leopard of Panar, Corbett wrote, turned into a man-eater because of the abundance of human bodies left unburied during epidemics.

Uttarakhand has just over 700 leopards, according to a census undertaken by the Wildlife Institute of India in 2015.

But environmentalists say development work like road construction through forest areas has reduced the prey that carnivorous cats such as leopards survive on.

“When a leopard finds it difficult to catch a prey in the jungle it turns towards human settlement for food,” Delhi-based social activist and environmentalist Ramesh Mumkshu, who hails from Uttarakhand, said.

So, a hunt for ‘man-eating’ leopards is on in Bageshwar. The district is 1,000 meters from sea level and has mainly pine-forests that don’t sustain biodiversity, Mumkshu said. “In the upper reaches of the area, leopard attacks are minimal as the forests are denser and sustain rich biodiversity, which provides ample prey-base for the feline,” he said.

Atmosphere of fear

To date, one leopard has been trapped in Bageshwar and sent to a zoo in Almora.

In June, after two kids were killed by leopards within a span of two months in Harinagri village, locals set eight hectares of forest on fire and prevented forest officials from dousing it.

“After the protests we immediately got the animal declared a ‘man-eater’ and subsequently deployed a hunter and got it killed,” RS Ramola, a ranger in the Garkhet forest said.

Despite the neutralization of such animals, the fear of a “man-eater”  attacking their children has led to many families moving out of their villages, Lakshman Ram Arya, the head of Harinagri village, said.

Persistent problem

Baldev Singh Sahi, a subdivisional forest officer in the Bageshwar range, said a new “scientific” census of the leopard population is due to be undertaken in the area. Without current information on numbers, officials are constrained from making any far-reaching policy decision such as relocating leopards or declaring an area as a reserve forest.

He feared that a rise in the number of leopards had caused the surge in attacks. “Around 160 leopards are believed to exist in Bageshwar. However, in the absence of a scientific census, we can’t really say the exact number of these felines. I suspect that the number is more than that,” Sahi said.

But despite Sahi’s claims, Uttarakhand recorded the highest number of leopard deaths in the first half of this year. A total of 162 leopards died in India in the same period.

Moreover, the forest department is heavily under-staffed. “There is an extreme resource crunch, which is hampering our work of patrolling and monitoring the activities of the leopards,” the forest ranger Ramola said.

A Wildlife Institute of India study has found that over 600 people have been killed and another 3,100 injured in leopard attacks since the formation of Uttarakhand state in 2000.

But critics say villagers will continue to be killed until the national government acknowledges the problem and comes up with a comprehensive solution that safeguards the interest of both humans and wild animals.