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A LEOPARD ON THE PROWL

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By: Ganesh Saili

A few weeks ago, driving down the four-lane highway from my village, I almost missed Gulab Rai, perched above the confluence of the Alaknanda and the Mandakini rivers  on the road leading to the shrines of Badri-Kedar. Forgotten here lie the tales of a pillaging leopard.

Dear Reader! Be warned that Mussoorie’s connection with the shikari-author Jim Corbett is non-existent. Unless one includes his father, Christopher Corbett who was in the army and later became the Postmaster of the hill station in the 1850s. At St. Paul Church, he married Mary Janet Doyle on 13th  October 1859. She too was widowed having had a lucky escape from Agra fort along with her three little children. On Corbett’s transfer to Nainital, that is where the family settled down.

One day, their son Jim was destined to grow up and earn a reputation as the slayer of man-eating leopards and marauding tigers; the Rudraprayag man-eating leopard had showed exceptional cunning in managing to evade traps, poisoned baits and the bullets of other shikaris and bounty hunters. Its depredations got so out-of-hand that it perhaps became the only animal to find special mention in the British Parliament. Locals came to believe that the animal was possessed by an evil spirit, as it continued to terrorise 350 square miles of Northern India for eight long years, during which it killed over 125 men, women and children. Folklore has it turning up for the first time in Garhwal where a woman awoke, cowering, for she had seen the wily cat back slowly out of her hut. By the time she and her husband lit a lamp, their seven-year-old boy had gone missing.

In sheer desperation, the Government swung into action. They picked sixteen shikaris – expert trackers and hunters – whom they paid to go after the leopard, with the promise of an extra bounty if they shot the animal. For a month, Jim Corbett and A. W. Ibbotson, Deputy Commissioner of Garhwal, stalked the elusive leopard. Both of them had come close to sharing the belief held by the locals that it was possessed with a human spirit because of the way he adroitly avoided gun-traps, gin-traps, and poison. The more he was hunted, the more wary he seemed to have become.

Corbett’s tale is essentially about his last ditch campaign against the animal – where he sat at up Gulab Rai – a place where pilgrims sheltered from the elements. For ten nights he waited patiently on a machaan, with a goat tethered below with a bell round its neck. Nothing happened for ten nights, but on a hunch, he decided to stay on one extra night. At nightfall, he heard something rush down the road. As the goat bell tinkled, he aimed his rifle at the blur by torchlight – drawing a bead on the leopard bounding away, he pressed the trigger. The animal lurched away. In the moonlight it was impossible to see whether or not he had scored a hit. Daybreak revealed the tell-tale blood tracks leading to a hole where the dead leopard lay. When measured from tail to snout, it was an exceptional seven feet ten inches.

This book was written at the age of seventy-two, twenty-one years after the event in which Corbett recalled his skirmishes with a leopard gone berserk. Though what surfaces through the writing is his love for the jungle, and on another level, it becomes an ode to the resilience of the people of Uttarakhand. Of course, one credits the crisp writing to Roy Hawkins or ‘Hawks’, the General Manager of OUP (the Oxford University Press) who had pared down Corbett’s  Jungle Stories into The Man-Eaters of Kumaon. It sold half a million copies worldwide.

A jarring new structure, ostensibly built to commemorate Corbett, now blocks the view of the tree from which he fired that single lucky shot. Should you  ever happen to be in the area, please don’t miss the bust of the great hunter-conservationist that stands on the eastern side of the building. Though I wonder what he would have thought about the glitz of our times.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.