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THE KILLER LEOPARD OF DANPUR
James Shepherd
March 02, 1970
One of the sleekest and smartest of the big cats and now an endangered species, the Indian leopard occasionally becomes a hunter of men. This one has terrorized a remote community for two years
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March 02, 1970

The Killer Leopard Of Danpur

One of the sleekest and smartest of the big cats and now an endangered species, the Indian leopard occasionally becomes a hunter of men. This one has terrorized a remote community for two years

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In the Almora District of India's Uttar Pradesh, the natives are offering 2,000 rupees to anyone who will kill their man-eating leopard. That's only $266, but it is the largest reward anyone can remember for a man-eating leopard. And the reason is that in three decades no leopard has killed so many people. To date he is credited with at least 25.

The fearful populace of the Danpur area of Almora, where the killer has concentrated his efforts, are well aware that leopards are even more dangerous and cunning than tigers. As the Danpur leopard has done, they will enter a house for human prey. On July 14, 1968 the Danpur man-eater entered a hut in the village of Liti and killed a 10-year-old boy. Five weeks ago, a young girl stepped out of her house to answer a call of nature, and the leopard pounced and dragged her away. Now when darkness falls in Danpur all doors are locked; no one moves abroad before daylight.

Danpur lies in Kipling country, in the shadows of the Himalayas, 82 miles northeast of the district headquarters of Almora. The last 16 miles from Almora must be covered by foot over steep trails and through jungle brush. The jungle is a bogland, thick and laced with an unending series of wild streams. The men of Danpur either stay at home to scratch out a living cultivating tiny terraced fields carved out of the hills, or they go off to join the Indian Army's Kumaon regiment, a mountain warfare unit. No more than 4,500 to 5,000 people live in the Danpur region, all in scattered settlements of 45 to 50 each. The leopard can cover the 20-mile-square area of Danpur in one night and, when bored, sometimes crosses the Kali River for a kill in neighboring Pithoragorh. But he always returns.

Just to the west is the district of Garhwal where, between 1918 and 1926, the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag took 125 lives. It was killed by Jim Corbett, the celebrated hunter of man-eaters, after more than two months of tracking. And then the end came only after Corbett spent 11 straight nights in a small tree waiting, with a goat tethered in the middle of a road, for the leopard to come. He put a single bullet into it but did not dare climb down and track the wounded animal until daylight. He found it some distance away, dead of the one shot. As Corbett had guessed, it was an old animal with several healed bullet wounds and a broken tooth, and had lost part of a toe and one claw.

Nobody knows why leopards become man-eaters, but there are educated guesses. There is little natural prey in the oak jungles of Danpur. The other wildlife consists of wildfowl—pheasants and hill partridge—and Himalayan bear and wild boar. The last two are too large and too savage for the leopard to attack safely. Like African lions or Indian tigers, leopards may be driven by age or injury to look for human victims. Or they may come across a half-buried corpse that has not been completely cremated. Many Indians believe that once a leopard has fed on a human flesh, it wants nothing else.

"In some ways," says Rao Naidu, a professional hunter of the big cats, "old leopards who have lost their agility find humans easy to pick off. Sometimes a leopard will mistakenly jump a man in the forest. Seeing movement, he will think that the man is an animal and, once making the mistake, will eat the man. From that time on he will hunt almost exclusively for humans. Leopards that have been wounded and recover also will become hunters of man; weakened, they discover man easy to pull down." Naidu adds some less-provable folklore; "We all dread the female leopard man-eater. She will train her cubs to eat nothing but humans. This can be a terribly vicious circle." So far, all the victims of the Danpur leopard have been children or young women. It has never attacked a male adult, and the record indicates that it limits itself to one kill a month. In addition, unlike other killers, it has not hesitated to attack in daylight. Several times, after kills, local hunters have sat over the corpse waiting for the beast to return. Only once has that occurred, and several shots were fired at it before it vanished into the jungle. In November 1968, a 24-year-old woman was killed, and the leopard dragged the body half a kilometer before abandoning it. The hunters sat up all night, with no luck. One month later, a 12-year-old boy was dragged away from the village of Lahur. Trackers were assembled and a hunt staged. Hours later, only the hair of the boy was found. Two months later, possibly maddened by hunger, the leopard charged a group of 10 women and five men gathering leaves near the village of Barmati. Terror-stricken, they fled to the village.

Last January the man-eater attacked an old woman and her 14-year-old grandson who were in the jungle searching for strayed cattle. Without a sound, the leopard dragged the boy away, and a search party could find no trail to follow. Just 20 days later the little girl stepped out of her hut and was lost. Her father persuaded neighbors to join in a search, but they were stalled by a heavy snowfall. They set off again the next morning, but the child has never been found.

Estimates of the size of the Danpur man-eater cannot be considered accurate, because all have been made by people in the shock of fright. The consensus is that it is eight feet long, but it is probably somewhat smaller. The last two suspected man-eaters killed in Danpur have measured, respectively, seven feet three inches, and seven feet. Both were females. Among those who have guessed at the leopard's size are several people who were attacked and escaped with scalp wounds, or limbs badly clawed or even chewed.

Jim Corbett was a professional hunter, and so far the people of Danpur have been unable to attract anyone in his class to search for their killer. But soon the snow will begin its retreat up the sides of the Himalayas, and perhaps—only perhaps—someone will come then. The deputy commissioner of Almora is now in contact with 10 hunters from different parts of India; none will even consider the job until the weather improves. The fact is that the era of the Jim Corbetts is over in the Kumaon hills. Corbett owned estates which comfortably supported him and he could spend all his days in the jungles hunting man-eaters if he chose. Today, no matter how much he might want to shoot a man-killing animal, neither a professional hunter nor a well-to-do amateur can afford the expenditure of time involved. Fewer still want to do it the hard way. Many Indian hunters do their shooting only from the comfort and safety of a jeep equipped with blinding spotlights to dazzle and confuse their quarry. Hunting the man-eater of Danpur requires a Jim Corbett type who knows the jungles inside out by day and night and is prepared for the extremely rugged country. Three men who fancied themselves as killers of the Danpur man-eater recently turned up in Almora to obtain details about the case. Before officials could brief them, the three decided to return to the plains. Almora, which has electricity, schools and a well-stocked bazaar, was too Godforsaken, remote and primitive for them. Finally, while the 2,000-rupee reward might appear princely to a village hunter, it might not even cover the expenses of someone coming up from the plains in quest of the leopard. And the bounty is not paid immediately. The authorities have to be convinced by an absence of attacks over several months that the predator is indeed dead.

Thapa Prasad, the deputy commissioner, believes a village hunter will eventually kill the Danpur man-eater. Getting the leopard has become a blood feud the local hunters have to avenge. If one does end the marauding career, it might be with a flintlock, with which many still hunt. In fact, after the announcement of the reward, one native popped off a leopard and brought it to Almora as the man-eater. But Prasad and his officials doubted it was the beast because it was only four or five years old, was in good condition and had no visible marks of previous injuries. The moral seems to be that leopards which are innocent often have to pay for the sins of man-eaters when ambitious hunters are about.

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