A man-eating tiger was on the prowl when I arrived in Pilibhit one rainy evening in September. It had killed three people in four days in August, then escaped into a sugar-cane field in nearby Himkarpur where – a month later – it was presumably still holed up. A forest department team armed with tranquilliser guns was camped out on the fringes of the field, but the rumour was the big cat had given them the slip.
Tigers had killed nineteen people in ten months in Pilibhit, a largely rural district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Each passing death had led to increasingly violent confrontations between the grieving villagers and the hapless district administration.
The forest department was inundated with so many phone calls reporting tiger sightings that they had taken to maintaining an afwah – Urdu for ‘rumour’ – register. In one instance, a ranger told me, a senior administration official reported tiger pugmarks outside his residence: on closer examination, these turned out to be the paw prints of a pet dog. Everyone was afraid.
Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, an inept saffron-swaddled priest named Yogi Adityanath, had flown down to Pilibhit for a day to hand out cheques for 500,000 rupees to the families of the most recent victims and to assuage fears that the district was overrun by rampaging maneaters. In a meeting with the press, Adityanath said he had directed the forest department to set up an electrified fence around the nearby forest – but declined to mention who would pay for the fence, or pick up the monthly electricity bill.
Cheques delivered, Adityanath flew back to his fortified residence in the state capital of Lucknow, but the maneater remained – venturing out at night to slay the occasional buffalo and drag it back to his hideout in the tall fields of sugar cane.
I first heard of this spate of tiger-related killings in Pilibhit in the Times of India. for compensation, elderly sent to forests as tiger prey, ran one startling headline. The accompanying news report claimed that villagers were sending older members of their families into the forest as tiger prey in order to collect the sorts of cheques Adityanath had been handing out.
The elders ‘were willing participants in the whole affair’, the article claimed, sacrificing themselves for their children to exploit the government scheme offering compensation to those killed outside Pilibhit’s newly created tiger sanctuary. Those killed inside the forest were ineligible for compensation, the article noted, so the bodies needed to be relocated once the tiger had done the needful.
As evidence, the reporter offered the case of a 55-year-old woman whose adult children claimed she was ambushed by a tiger as she transplanted paddy seedlings in her fields. Her bloodstained clothes were found a kilometre and a half inside the forest.
The story was short, sensational and resonant with the cadences of Indic folklore that juxtaposed the selflessness of the aged with the grasping greed of their good-for-nothing children, along with a particular modern anxiety, as the dearth of employment has forced many Indians to live off the dwindling pensions of their parents.
‘This is so pathetic! We used to hear fairy tales in our childhood days, one member of the family being sent to be eaten by the lion every day’, an aggrieved reader wrote to the comments section of the Times website. ‘Now this has come as reality. We can imagine how cruel the conditions are for the poor families, that they sacrifice their elders for feeding.’
In Pilibhit, the man tasked with keeping the press abreast of the quest to capture the maneater was a portly, bespectacled forest ranger named Satyendra Chaudhary. I found Chaudhary at the district forest office, seated behind a bare wooden desk and under a photoshopped image of Abdul Kalam – the former president and ‘father’ of India’s nuclear weapons programme – smiling beatifically as he watered an unnaturally tall sapling.
The public works department was building a railway overbridge right through the district forest office. Rangers and clerks went on with their daily business of signing files, preparing reports and planning how to protect the forests from destruction, while around them labourers felled trees, masons demolished walls, welders sprayed luminous showers of incandescent sparks and a massive hydraulic drill dug deep holes into which massive concrete pylons would eventually be planted, its dull thudding sound regularly interrupting our conversation.
As I walked in, Chaudhary’s phone buzzed with news of a fresh tiger attack. He waved me to a seat as he noted down the details on the back of an envelope: the victim was injured but not fatally, and was recovering in the district hospital. It was not clear if the offending animal was a tiger or a leopard.
‘The forest is the tiger’s bedroom,’ said Chaudhary, tut-tutting to himself as he hung up. ‘What if you walked into my bedroom without prior warning? I’d grab your collar, maybe I’d slap you. It’s the same with the tiger. But if he slaps you, it will end very badly for you, Mr Aman.’
The tiger was not the problem, Chaudhary said, the people were. Years of government largesse, he claimed, had fostered a culture of dependency.
‘The mentality of our people is: I will not take responsibility for my safety. I will place all my hopes in the government.’
Pilibhit’s tigers were not maneaters, Chaudhary said. Most of the killings had occurred when people chanced upon a tigress and her cubs, or a tiger eating his prey. The department had issued precautions, but people were not listening.
He walked me through them: ‘Number one. Do not plant sugar cane near the edges of the forest. Always farm in large groups. Stand upright so the tiger doesn’t mistake you for a four-legged beast. Make lots of noise. Sing if you feel like. Shout. Clap your hands.’
I had to admit that while driving through the countryside, I had encountered no large groups of singing, clapping, upright peasants. I had, on the other hand, seen large fields of sugar cane growing right up to the trees. These fields provide perfect cover for tigers. For tigresses, the fields offer a safe haven to raise their cubs.
‘A farmer will say, “It is my land, I will grow what I want.” ’ Chaudhary shook his head again. ‘Our mentality is such that we look at everything through entitlement, not through obligations.’
The tiger in Himkarpur, Chaudhary said, had spent twenty-two days moving through sugar-cane fields before he was finally spotted. There was so much cane, most of it eight feet tall, that he never had to break cover.
Tigers entered the Indian subcontinent 10,000 years ago, where they by all accounts thrived. That changed 700 years ago when the expansion of agriculture under the Mughal Empire first fragmented India’s forests and split the tigers into what was to become two genetically distinct groups. The next major change, according to a study by Sandeep Sharma for the Royal Society, occurred about 200 years ago, when the colonial thirst for timber and lands for agriculture led to extensive deforestation and tiger-hunting. Yet the severest decline occurred in the past century when there was a fifty-fold decline in the Indian tiger population.
According to India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority, in 2014 there were only 2,226 wild tigers left in India. Saving them from extinction has been a stated priority of the Indian government ever since the Project Tiger conservation programme was launched in 1973. Most of the tigers in India live in small pockets of land like the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve. These reserves are supposed to be linked to each other through what ecologists call ‘forest corridors’ – essentially wooded stretches of land that allow tigers to move from one sanctuary to another without straying into human territory – but these corridors have proved hard to protect from encroachment.
The sanctuary in Pilibhit, a horseshoe-shaped patch of forest about 700 square kilometres in area, was set up in 2014 in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Here 200 million people – roughly the population of Brazil – are crammed into an area the size of the United Kingdom.
The forest lies north-west of the Pilibhit district headquarters – a small town of about 150,000 residents, with narrow lanes choked with cars, motorcycles and electric rickshaws. There is a railway station, a crowded bazaar, a couple of hotels and an arterial avenue that leads from the bus stand past the district courts and the colonial-style bungalows of the district collector and superintendent of police into the tiger reserve. The surrounding land is flat and fertile, latticed with streams and canals built in the 1920s, and lush with paddy fields, sugar cane and a local variety of elephant grass.
The jungle in Pilibhit was managed as a commercial enterprise by the forest department for almost a century: tigers, leopards, deer, bears and monkeys shared the space with private contractors harvesting timber and bamboo, fish from the ponds and honey. The people living in the 300 villages on the periphery visited the forest several times a day to graze cattle, forage for firewood and gather a delicious wild mushroom called kattaruvah. Many of these villages were probably first settled by the district administration to provide a steady supply of labour for forestry work. One of the oldest settlements, for instance, is a village called Bankati – which literally means ‘forest-cutting’ in Hindi. When the forest was designated a tiger sanctuary in 2014, the local administration was tasked with transforming a bustling site of commerce into a wild, natural, self-regulating ecosystem sealed off from human interference. Villagers were forbidden from entering the jungle and promised jobs in tourism instead, along with cooking gas to compensate for the loss of firewood and toilets to save them the trouble of going into the forest each morning. In village meetings, forest officials promised to fence the tiger reserve to protect villagers and their cattle. None of this materialised. The villagers kept using the forest as they always had, and the new forest guards took to demanding bribes from anyone they caught. One thing did change, however: the villagers slipping into the forest no longer moved in large groups as they once did, but in ones and twos to avoid the guards. This made them vulnerable to tiger attacks.
The tigers, in the meantime, thrived in their new sanctuary. Their numbers almost doubled from about twenty-eight in 2014 to fifty in 2016, an official told me. The reserve was now teeming with tigers.
An increase in tiger attacks followed and whenever a villager was killed in the forest, panicked relatives would bring out the body to avoid prosecution for trespassing, and to perform their last rites. Government compensation was an afterthought. This ferrying around of corpses provided the fodder for the story I had read in the Times.
On 1 July 2017, at a little past noon, Nanki Devi brought lunch to the fields where her sons Daya Shankar Prasad, Somprakash and Dharmendar were transplanting paddy on their half-acre plot of land. The field is a rectangular wedge that juts into the eastern flank of the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve. A solitary strand of metal wire strung through three waist-high poles marks the boundary between the ordered furrows of paddy and the unruly forest beyond.
That fateful day, Prasad and his brothers were fanned out across their field when a tigress sauntered from the trees, grabbed their mother by the throat and dragged her into the forest. The men jumped onto an idling tractor and gave chase. A kilometre into the forest, they found Nanki Devi stretched out on the loamy soil, the tigress and two cubs feasting on her right leg. The men shouted. The tigers fled, though one cub tore off her leg before leaving, running away with the limb clamped between its jaws. The men retrieved Nanki Devi’s corpse, laid her out in a clearing by their fields and sat waiting for the officers of the forest department. But when the officers arrived, they were quick to note that rags from Nanki’s bloodied clothes were still in the forest. No compensation was paid.
A few days later, a reporter from the Times of India visited Nanki Devi’s home, asked a few innocuous questions and spun the now notorious tale of the old people and the forest. When I arrived at Prasad’s door three months later, he was still seething. The article had portrayed him as a heartless monster, he said. The local press had camped outside his home for days after it was published. ‘I told the reporters, if you think I would kill my mother for compensation, I will give you double the amount,’ Prasad said. ‘Let me throttle your parents. Will you accept it?’
Prasad said the forest department had deliberately planted the story to deflect attention away from their inability to manage the tigers in their reserve. His mother hadn’t died in a chance encounter with a wild beast, Prasad insisted. The tigers of Pilibhit had taken to hunting humans.
There isn’t much academic work on why tigers become maneaters, but accepted wisdom suggests such tigers are either injured or too old to hunt. Prasad, however, had a theory of his own. ‘There are two types of tigers in this forest,’ he told me. ‘The old ones that have always lived here and never harmed anyone, and the new tigers that kill humans. My mother was killed by a new tiger brought here by the government.’
The new tigers, Prasad said, were imported from zoos to populate the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve. ‘A zoo is like a prison. These are prison tigers. You know what prison is like? You go in for one crime, and the government puts another ten crimes on you. An innocent man becomes a murderer in prison; that is what has happened to these tigers – they’ve become murderers, maneaters.’
Why would the government do that?
‘Because once they made the tiger reserve they had to have enough tigers, no?’
But why would they make a tiger reserve if they didn’t have enough tigers in the first place?
‘For money. In this country, there is money behind every decision. You are in the press – you should investigate this.’
I did. Numerous government officials told me that no new tigers had been introduced into Pilibhit. ‘We have the opposite problem, there are too many tigers in Pilibhit,’ said Dr Utkarsh Shukla, deputy director of the Lucknow Zoo, who had spent ten fruitless days tracking the maneater in Himkarpur.
The reserve, he said, was a victim of its own success. A full-grown male Bengal tiger can command a territory of one hundred square kilometres, while a breeding female tiger needs thirty. Pilibhit Tiger Reserve is only 730 square kilometres. The forest was bursting with big cats.
‘Sixteen cubs were born in Pilibhit between 2014 and 2016,’ Shukla said. Tigresses usually nurse their cubs for at least two years, so this was the moment when some of these subadults would separate from their mother and compete with older tigers for prey and territory. Some would carve out their own piece of the jungle, others would slip into the sugar-cane fields surrounding the forests and bide their time. These were probably the animals the villagers described as ‘zoo tigers’.
‘In my experience, tiger attacks come in waves as a batch of cubs mature and are pushed out into fields where they encounter humans,’ Dr Shukla said. ‘We are in the middle of one such wave.’
Yet the idea of the government introducing tigers into a forest isn’t as crazy as it sounds, particularly because it has been done in the past. When the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan lost all its tigers to poaching and encroachments in 2004, for instance, the government responded by reintroducing three male and three female tigers from a nearby reserve in Ranthambore. No tigers had been relocated to Pilibhit, but perhaps the news of the Sariska relocation had found its way to Nanki Devi’s village on the fringes of the forest and led villagers to distinguish between the wild tigers of the forest who kept to themselves and the apocryphal zoo tigers who had learned the murderous ways of men.
The image of the zoo tiger has stayed with me long after leaving Pilibhit. Is the myth a consequence of an inability to understand the autonomy of a creature untamed by the law? Is this what is meant by the term ‘wild’: to be free in a way we once cherished and have now surrendered? Perhaps the only way to survive a psychic encounter with such raw wildness is to imagine its antithesis: the zoo tiger.
On 15 July, two weeks after Nanki Devi’s death, a young male tiger walked out of the forest not far from Prasad’s fields, strolled through the neighbouring village of Mewatpur, terrifying all in his path, and disappeared into a large copse of sugar cane.
‘It was one of the new tigers – the zoo tigers,’ said Sushil Kumar, who lives along Mewatpur’s main road. ‘The man-eating ones.’ It was slowly becoming clear to me that Kumar and Prasad spoke of the zoo tiger in much the way one would speak of a neighbour with political connections who, with a change of government, had gone from an equal to someone with the state machinery at his beck and call. The mythical zoo tiger possessed the state’s most prized power – to kill without the fear of reprisal.
A few hours after the tiger was spotted in Mewatpur, the police appeared with two elephants and a forest department team followed, armed with tranquilliser guns. A unit from the Provincial Armed Constabulary showed up as well to keep the gathering crowd at bay. ‘They spent a few hours roaming around the fields, but the tiger was nowhere to be seen,’ said Kumar. Meanwhile, the crowd had grown to about 5,000 increasingly restive villagers.
Mewatpur’s residents were of course out in full force: in February, a tiger had killed a middle-aged woman in her fields and dragged her into the forest in much the same circumstances as Nanki Devi. Here too, no compensation was paid. Villagers from nearby Shivpuriya and Rampura were there as well – they had lost three people. The crowd was furious with the government officials for denying them any compensation, for not stopping the killings, for not building the electrified fence around the sanctuary they had been promised, but most of all, they were angry because they could not believe that a department that exercised so much power over their daily lives could have no power over a wild animal.
‘The forest department said: “The tiger’s our national animal,” ’ one man recalled. ‘We said, “Then give the tigers the right to vote; let them form the government.” If they love the tiger so much, they should keep it in their homes. Why is it in our village?’
Tensions were high. A few months previously, a tiger had killed a teenage boy in Rampura. When grieving residents had demonstrated against the government, a forest ranger fired his weapon into the air to disperse the crowd, who attacked in retaliation. The police thrashed the people with batons, and the district administration filed criminal charges against the protesters. The locals were incensed. ‘Their tiger killed our man. Their ranger fired at us, their police thrashed us and finally they filed a case against our people,’ Kumar said.
That day in Mewatpur, the afternoon turned to evening with the tiger still in hiding. The crowd and the police prepared for yet another confrontation. ‘Everyone wanted the tiger caught,’ Kumar said, ‘but when the forest department did nothing, everyone started getting angry.’
The police and the crowd exchanged blows until darkness fell and the search was called off. The tiger was momentarily forgotten as the two groups clashed.
A day after the tiger appeared in Mewatpur, trackers from the forest department found his pugmarks four kilometres west, in the village of Tahapauta. A week later he killed and ate a nilgai antelope in Tandola. Three days later, the Times reported that the tiger was spotted less than 250 yards from the Pilibhit courthouse, prompting the district judge to take serious cognisance of the matter and direct the forest department to ‘ensure tigers do not come near the court in the future’. Department records show that he killed five more animals over the next ten days.
Twenty days after he left the forest, he was finally cornered again in Pinjara village, about twenty kilometres as the crow flies from Mewatpur. Once more a large crowd gathered on the edges of the field, but the animal stayed put. The search was called off at dusk and everyone was instructed to go home as it was too dangerous to be around a cornered, frightened tiger in the dark.
Two days later, at seven in the morning, the tiger killed Tasleem Ahmed as he was hunched over in his field in the village of Adauli. Villagers were still agog with excitement when I visited a month later. ‘An incredible scene. Ten thousand people gathered,’ Margu Hussain Salmani recounted at a tea shop just outside the village. ‘People were getting off buses, running straight towards the village, saying, “Where’s the tiger? Where’s the tiger?” ’
In Adauli, the presence of the tiger provoked both terror and exhilaration. Onlookers would cast a cursory, respectful glance at Tasleem’s corpse, but it was the tiger they really wanted to see. ‘Everyone had seen a dead body, but none of us had ever seen a tiger before.’
When a team from the forest department was finally allowed through the crowd, they found the tiger perched on the low boughs of a mango tree. Dusk was nigh. A veterinarian from the forest department aimed his tranquilliser gun, fired a dart and struck the tiger on its rump. The startled tiger leapt off the tree, bolted into the nearest sugar-cane field and vanished from sight. ‘The tranquilliser didn’t work,’ said Salmani. ‘I don’t think it even hit the tiger. Few departments are as useless as our forest department.’
‘The howling crowd ran straight at the tiger,’ said forest ranger Anil Shah, who was there when it happened. ‘All these people know how to do is howl.’
A tranquilliser usually takes between ten and fifteen minutes to act, Dr Shukla later told me, but it can take longer if the animal is stressed and feels it is in immediate danger. The tiger in Adauli would have been stressed, the crowd howling and chasing after it. It must have crashed deliriously through the twilit cane fields, finally buckling under the powerful sedative and falling over senseless.
The next morning it woke up and killed Shamsur Rehman as he weeded his fields in the neighbouring village, eating most of his body from the waist down. It slipped away again when Rehman’s friends came looking for him. ‘I can still see the expression on his face,’ said Mohammed Shamshad, Rehman’s brother-in-law. ‘His face was frozen in fear. It was a fear like I have never seen before.’
The crowds formed again in protest. This time, they won a minor victory against the local government. They held district officials hostage until they all signed an undertaking hastily scrawled on a sheet of paper torn from a child’s notebook:
Today, on 8/8/17, at 11.00 a.m., village Serenda Patti, resident Shamsur Rehman, son of Abdul Rehman, was preyed on by a tiger. His corpse was found in his fields. On account of this misfortune, he will receive Rs 30,000 from the district administration, Rs 5 lac from life insurance, and Rs 5 lac from the forest department.
The forest department paid Rehman his compensation, but a relative told me they were still figuring out if he had any life insurance at all. ‘The officials were terrified that the crowd would thrash them, so they just wrote something to keep the crowd calm,’ said Shamshad.
The tiger struck again two days later in Himkarpur, snapping Kunvar Singh’s neck with a quick blow to the throat. The tiger was dragging Singh away when his sons grabbed their father’s corpse’s legs and pulled him back. With three deaths in four days, the forest department finally got its act together. They were going on the hunt.
Hunting tigers is a long-established way for rulers to impress their subjects; a way to illustrate the expanse of their authority by directing it against a beast that in its essence is fearsome and ungovernable. In the cane fields of Pilibhit, I wondered what the forest department’s hapless quest to tranquillise the maneater could tell us about the modern Indian state and its subjects. As ever, I turned to Chaudhary, the ranger.
‘Think of the tiger as a dacoit, a bandit, Mr Aman,’ Chaudhary told me over the phone. ‘It is easy to shoot a dacoit, much harder to capture him alive, and hardest to turn the dacoit into a saint.’
Once tranquillised, the tiger would most likely be sent to serve out a life sentence at the Lucknow Zoo, Chaudhary said. ‘There is a very small chance he could be sent back to the jungle.’ The modern state does not take lives unless pushed to do so. Rather it expends much energy to survey, enumerate, incarcerate, compensate and, if possible, rehabilitate its subjects.
To capture the maneater of Pilibhit, the forest department erected three tall watchtowers, or machchans, at the corners of a five-square-kilometre patch of sugar cane on the banks of the Deva River. They strung up twenty-two nets and installed twenty cameras. They placed meat in three cages, booby-trapped to swing shut when the tiger entered. A fourth covered cage was kept ready to transfer the captured tiger from the village to the district headquarters. They flew five drones, including one with a thermal camera, over the field. And in a distinctly Mughal touch, four trained elephants – Gangakali, Pawankali, Gajraj and Batalik – stood by to get vets as close to the tiger as possible. Finally, a live buffalo calf was tethered just outside the fields as a lure.
‘You localise the animal. Then, offer it prey to keep it from eating more humans,’ Dr Shukla told me, explaining their strategy. ‘Then, you wait for it to relax and show itself and you tranquillise it.’
Guidelines published by the National Tiger Conservation Authority distinguish between tigers that have killed humans by accident and those that actively stalk and hunt humans as prey. Once a tiger has been positively identified as a maneater, the NTCA guidelines state that all attempts should be made to capture the tiger and relocate it to a zoo, failing which it should be killed in accordance with a rigorous protocol to avoid killing the wrong animal by accident.
The guidelines mandate that a tiger can only be tranquillised between dawn and dusk, so Dr Shukla spent two weeks waiting for the tiger to approach the live bait during the day, but the tiger only struck at night. ‘Darting has to be in the daytime,’ Dr Shukla said. ‘The last thing you want is a half-drugged tiger stumbling into the river at night and drowning.’
The villagers I spoke with noted that the sensitivity shown to the tiger by the administration was completely absent in their interactions with its victims. ‘At night, a guard can see the tiger killing the buffalo, but he can’t dart it,’ said Nirmal Lal Maurya, the headman of Pinjara village. ‘When we ask the guard, he says, “If the tiger drowns I’ll lose my job.” But if the tiger kills another man, no one will lose their job.’
From 10 August, the day of its last human kill, until 11 September, the tiger ate five buffalo and two sheep. ‘The sixth buffalo was a bit skittish,’ said a forest tracker. ‘One night she broke her rope and ran off towards the river. The tiger ran after her.’
The next day the buffalo was found tied up in a shed in Pinjara village. The tiger, in the meantime, was nowhere to be found. ‘The tiger has left Himkarpur,’ ranger Chaudhary told me. ‘We haven’t seen any pugmarks since 11 September, our cameras haven’t captured any photos.’
But no one in Himkarpur believed his department. ‘They’ve fed the tiger so much, why would it ever leave?’ said Nirmal Lal Maurya. ‘Now they’ve stopped feeding him. He’s going to kill someone soon.’
Shortly before I left Pilibhit, I stopped by the home of Shamsur Rehman, the second person the tiger killed and partially ate. At his modest mud-and-brick house, Shamshad, his brother-in-law, offered to take me to the spot where they found Rehman’s corpse. We jumped onto a motorcycle and rode as far into the fields as the bike would go, after which we proceeded on foot through mango orchards, knee-high paddy and the omnipresent sugar cane, haunted by wild tigers and the spirits of those they had eaten.
Twilight was upon us and the shadows grew longer; the boundaries between field, orchard and forest blurred. I noticed that Shamshad was breathing in long gasps that grew more laboured as we spotted a broken pair of green rubber slippers, a pair of torn black pants and a ripped cotton undershirt. ‘These are his, these are his’, Shamshad said. He was sobbing now. ‘Why are they still here, why are they still here? I can still see him. There was just his torso, everything else was eaten away. I can still see his frozen face. Never have I seen a fear like that.’
‘Would it have felt different if he had fallen off a motorcycle?’ I asked.
Shamshad was quiet for a long time. ‘It ate him,’ he said. ‘That’s what I can’t unsee. It ate him.’
The wind picked up, the cane rustled. A monkey screamed in a mango tree.
I realised that Shamshad and I were out by ourselves at night with a maneater on the prowl. Was it a kinship of species that Shamshad and I shared then: two humans on the edge of a forest contemplating a lurking predator? Did a part of Shamshad secretly wish that the tiger would continue to elude the forest department and quietly live out his life in the forest, like I did? Could some deaths be mourned, but not avenged?
As we made our way back to the village I remembered Ranger Chaudhary’s precautions: I clapped my hands and Shamshad made a loud ‘ha-ha-ha’ sound that carried across the lonely fields.
Artwork courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum, Tiger Mask, 1972