BIJNOR DISTRICT, India — Nazim Khan scans the vast fields before him, thick with sugarcane stalks that stand taller than his 6-foot-2 frame. Somewhere out there is a man-eating tiger on the prowl.
A massive hunt has been launched in this part of northern India to catch the killer cat. At this point, two months into the Royal Bengal’s deadly spree, Khan sees no good ending.
The young wildlife conservationist knows the animal will either lose its own life or, at best, be captured and sent off to a zoo. It’s either the death penalty or life imprisonment for the Queen of the Jungle.
Either way, it will be wretched for both the cat and the conservationist after years of efforts to save India’s tigers from the brink of extinction. But frightened villagers and the families of victims want a swift end to the tiger’s reign of terror.
The tiger in question, believed to be a 4-year-old female, is thought to have killed 10 people, some mauled beyond recognition. Since late December, she has painted a trail of blood over an 80-mile swath of India’s Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand states, where villagers are left with a kind of pervasive fear they have never before known.
The tiger’s last victim, a 50-year-old man, was killed February 10. She is past due for another kill. Nobody knows where she might strike.
Still, Khan is hopeful that he and a team of conservationists from the Wildlife Trust of India can get to the predator before anyone else does.
On this day, conservationists and hunters have gathered to comb through territory not far from Jim Corbett National Park, India’s oldest wildlife park and one of several government-funded reserves set up to help conserve tigers.
At the start of the 20th century, nearly 40,000 tigers roamed freely in what was then British India. But the cats fell victim to hunters, poachers and development, and now their number has dwindled to 1,706, according to the last census conducted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Even with that low number, India remains home to the largest tiger population in the world.
Khan finds himself in a bizarre situation working in tandem with furious villagers who, understandably, show no sympathy for the feline and hunters armed with .357 Magnum rifles, eager to lodge a bullet in her heart.
“Their anger is justified,” Khan says.
He gets off an elephant at a remote outpost being used by both wildlife officials hoping to tranquilize and capture the tiger and a group of sharpshooters out to kill her.
The hunters use open four-wheel drive vehicles. Khan and his colleagues have been tracking the tiger atop well-trained elephants.
Each elephant stands up to 13 feet tall and can plod through the roughest terrains. It’s the safest and best way to track a tiger, Khan says, though it can still be risky. Tigers can leap high — a 2008 tiger attack on a man on an elephant was documented in a video that went viral on YouTube.
Khan says he views himself as sort of a firewall between hunter and hunted.
At the outpost, he puts down his tranquilizer gun and walks over to the hunters on their lunch break. He smiles and talks with the tiger’s enemies as he shares a lunch of puris (fried bread) and sabzi (vegetables) with them. But he keeps mum on tracking information. He always erases fresh paw prints he finds to throw the hunters off.
It’s a matter of who can get to the tiger first. But that is far from simple.
Like a serial killer
The rogue tiger wandered off Corbett and began stalking human beings for prey, though no one can be sure why. Her first kill was on December 29.
Since then, the big cat has traveled from village to village, like a serial killer on the prowl. She has crossed train tracks and highways and taken advantage of uncut sugarcane fields and dense lantana growth on forest floors as camouflage.
“Usually tigers that have roamed off follow the same path back home to the park,” Khan says. “But this tiger is roaming all over the place. Clearly, she is looking for something.”
She can smell prey from two kilometers away and is known to patiently lie in wait for vulnerable victims, all men and women from villages on the fringes of forest lands that form one of India’s last wild tiger habitats.
People have been attacked from behind while tending to crops or collecting firewood or taking cattle out to graze. Some were mauled in during the day. Others were taken at night and devoured, only to have their remains discovered many hours later. Sometimes the only clues to a grisly attack were a headscarf or a pair of shoes left behind and drying blood.
It takes an adult tiger a mere 30 seconds to a minute to kill a person, says Khan, with the reverence for the animals that he’s developed from childhood.
“A tiger is a perfect killing machine.”
Shoot to kill
Tigers have always been a part of Khan’s life. He was, after all, born and raised in Sherpur, which means tiger town in Hindi and was so named for the prevalence of the animals in these parts of Uttar Pradesh.
He grew up with sightings of tigers that roamed from forested lands into territory taken over by humans. He decided to dedicate his life to conservation when, as a child, he came across tiger cubs he thought cute.
He’d always known tigers to keep away from human beings; he’d certainly never seen them hunger for human flesh — until now.
Some media reports suggested the rogue tiger was separated from her cubs and was on a bloody quest to find them. A more plausible explanation for Khan is that the tiger was hurt in some form — perhaps a canine tooth injury — that prevented her from attacking stronger beasts.
After the first few kills, the tiger may have realized how much easier it was to seek human prey. Very few tigers that turn man-eaters revert back to their natural ways.
Officials in Uttar Pradesh have issued a shoot-to-kill order and licensed gunmen to hunt the tiger down. One of them, Rajendra Singh Raju, is convinced the animal injured her left hind foot. He insists he has seen paw prints that indicate the tiger is twisting her foot when walking. This, he says, would also explain why paw prints have been seen in ravines and soft sand, where it’s easier to walk.
“I don’t know how she was injured,” he says. “It could be she tried to kill a porcupine.”
The day before, Raju walked the trail of the tiger all day long. He has to be careful. His tracking information tells him there could be six tigers in the area. One way to make sure he has the right tiger is to compare paw prints to a cast made of the man-eater’s prints.
“We were very close,” he says. “She moves two or three kilometers, then sits. She doesn’t have the stamina.
“She’s gotten used to killing people. This is easy prey for her. She’s going to kill again.”
The people who’ve lived here for generations know that, too. Suddenly, the days that passed with the drudgery of routine and backbreaking work are tinged with uncertainty and fear. Their nights in small brick huts without secure windows and doors are spent without sleep.
“I wasn’t scared ever before,” says Mithilesh, a resident of Tanda Sahuwala village, where an elderly man, Lal Singh, was mauled February 7.
Mithilesh says she and other women who grow and harvest sugarcane, mustard and wheat now go to work in groups of 15 or 20. Others have stopped going to work in the fields altogether.
“We will starve if this situation persists,” Mithilesh says.
Lal Singh’s nephew, Moti Singh, says it’s not hard to understand the fear.
Lal Singh had taken his cattle out to graze in an opening in land thick with sal and sissoo trees. At darkness, the animals returned to the village. But not Lal Singh.
At 8 in the morning the next day, the search party made a chilling discovery. Only Lal Singh’s torso was left intact. Moti Singh takes out photos to show what remained of his uncle.
“It can’t be explained in words,” says Moti Singh. “This tiger has become a man-eater. It should be killed.”
Man vs. beast
In Tanda Sahuwala, Singh and other men from the village have taken things into their own hands. They’ve tied a calf to a tree in the very spot where the tiger killed Lal Singh. It’s bait.
They believe the tiger will return to the place where she was successful in her hunt. They believe the calf will lure her when she is hungry and tired. And when she is back, the villagers will be ready. A man sits on a bamboo perch in a nearby tree. He is armed with a gun.
It is midafternoon and silence falls in the middle of this jungle. The only sounds are the sporadic rustle of branches in the light breeze and the chained calf’s losing struggle to free itself. The sight of the stressed animal makes everyone uneasy.
“I think it’s time for us to go,” Khan says. “We have been here way too long.”
When a tiger turns into a man-eater, it becomes faster and shrewder, Khan says. A normal tiger would change its course at the hint of people nearby and lose itself in the jungle. A man-eater does the opposite: It uses its uncanny sense of smell and sight to move toward people.
Suddenly, the trek back to the car, only about a third of a mile, seems unending, all eyes focused on the thick vegetation on both sides of the dirt path.
On the car ride back to the outpost, where the elephants are groomed, it becomes evident how tigers have become so threatened.
The sugarcane fields are perhaps the most blatant sign of human encroachment into tiger territory. As people have cleared forest lands to grow crops, tigers have run out of natural habitats and resources, says D.S. Chauhan, project leader for the Wildlife Trust of India.
In India, tigers have only 11% of their original habitats left. They are dependent now on conservation, according to the international wildlife charity Born Free. It’s on the reserves where they find needed contiguous forests with access to prey and water and undisturbed areas for breeding.
In natural habitats like this part of Uttar Pradesh, preserving lands for tigers is up against the needs of desperately poor people, who are spilling onto more and more land for farming and livestock and depleting tiger territory of land and prey.
“It’s all about hunger,” Khan explains. “People encroached on grasslands forcing small animals to move into the fields near villages. That forces tigers to pursue them.”
Queen of the jungle
Tarabati, a woman in the village of Maniawala, does not understand the problems posed by human encroachment. She just wants the tiger dead.
On January 10, her 22-year-old son Shiv Kumar was coming down a poplar tree he was pruning when the tiger leaped from an adjacent sugarcane field and snapped his neck from behind. The tiger then dragged his body several hundred feet. There might have been nothing left of Shiv Kumar except that villagers arrived on the scene and scared the tiger away.
Tarabati says she fainted when she saw her son’s body before the cremation.
She pulls out a passport-size color snapshot of her son that she keeps tucked in her blouse, as though to make sure everyone knows what he looked like before the mauling. He was so handsome, she says. He was the breadwinner for the family. Her daughter Pushpa will have to wait now to get married. The family has no money. Will no one compensate them for their loss?
“A tiger’s life is worth so much,” she says. “But human beings? We get nothing.”
Khan listens to the grieving mother. There is nothing he can say to appease the immense hatred she feels toward the one animal he has dedicated his life to save.
As a conservationist, this is the most difficult challenge he’s had to face so far. With each day, he grows more anxious about the ending to this story. But he refuses to give up.
So when the sun rises again, he will put on his ankle-high boots and safari hat, climb on top of an elephant and again go deep into the bowels of a north Indian forest, looking for a queen.