The 22-Day Hunt for a Man-Eater

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The 22-Day Hunt for a Man-Eater

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

I

t started, as always, with a call from a frantic forest official. A man-eating leopard was terrorising tribal settlements near Gujarat’s Kanjeta forest. Could Robin come right away?

Robin left for Kanjeta with his 30.6 Sturm Ruger. Thousands of villagers and bounty hunters had gathered at the edge of the forest on the government’s promise of a reward for the leopard. Some were even carrying picnic hampers and beer.

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The first thing Robin did was ensure the crowds were pushed back. Hunting leopards was no picnic. What he had to do made him sick. Killing an animal, one as beautiful as a leopard, was something that would give him nightmares for days to come. He put down his bags at the forest rest house and got down to work.

For the next 22 days, Robin combed the forest, on foot and on a jeep, with eight government Gypsies behind him, fanning out on his call. Everywhere Robin went, terrified villagers told him how the beast was unlike any other. It could enter houses through vents, open latched doors, and sweep over sleeping families to reach for the babies. It would disappear without the family even stirring from its sleep. The leopard had developed a taste for babies.

Everywhere Robin went, he saw bodies of half-eaten babies in the laps of grief-crazed mothers. In 22 days, he witnessed eight miniature cremations, tiny bodies, wrapped tightly in white cloth, being lowered into a hole in the ground, sprinkled with flowers, streaked with vermillion.

The forest rest house to which Robin would retire every night, exhausted and broken after yet another futile hunt, steamed in the September heat of Gujarat. The air-conditioner above his bed mocked him, as he lay awake every night. It had no wiring. His stomach rumbled after yet another meal of sarso ni sabji and makaii ni roti. It had been his breakfast, lunch, and dinner for each day. He could no longer eat another bite. The mosquitoes buzzed loudly in the silence of the forest. When sleep came, it was fitful.

When Robin woke up on the morning of October 4, 2004, two things happened. His breakfast of sarso ki sabji came with a side helping of gajar, and outside, the rain came down. When he set out toward Dhanpur where the last baby had been taken, the wet soil and cool breeze filled him with renewed hope. Today felt like the day.

On the way, he came across a well-built adivasi man, walking unsteadily on the side of the trail. His back was ripped apart, blood mixed with rainwater running down his bare legs. The leopard had graduated to a bigger target.

“Get in,” Robin told the villager, as he stopped the car. The man turned toward the marksman. His right eye was out of the socket and resting precariously on his bloody cheek. “Get in,” Robin repeated, his stomach churning at the sight of that mauled face.

“That side,” the man said, as he continued walking toward the village. “He went that side,” he said in a daze, pointing to a narrow path on the right. Robin had to make a fast decision. He could either take the man to the hospital or follow the leopard’s fresh trail. The man, as if sensing his dilemma, said, “I will make it. You go get the leopard.” Robin called for a back-up Gypsy on his walkie-talkie and drove off. He hoped that the Gypsy would reach the poor man before his eye hit the ground.

“These animals that I kill are the most magnificent creatures God has ever made. We’ve taken their homes, their food, and then we wonder why they attack us.”

Robin Mistri

The narrow path led him to a very large mahua tree. Robin told the driver to drop him off and disappear. The driver, a fair, tubby chap by the name of Salim, looked uncertain. Salim had seen Robin’s mounting desperation and thought he was being reckless, but he turned back anyway.

Once the car was out of sight, the 45-year-old Robin climbed up the tree with some effort, holding his trusted Sturm Ruger in one hand and the trunk in the other. There he sat on a wet branch, perfectly camouflaged in the dark afternoon, and waited. As the afternoon drew on, his back muscles began to throb, but the day still held on to its promise. Today had to be the day he would succeed.

Time passed. A flock of parrots came to sit on the tree. They didn’t notice the new inhabitant. Just as Robin felt his legs cramp, the parrots suddenly took flight, setting the evening aflutter with their collective wings.

Down below, the leopard had come into the clearing. His opponent, Robin had to admit, was stunning. His six-foot body was sinewy and even though it was summer, he had a thick, yellow winter coat. His mouth was red with fresh blood.

Robin took aim, balancing himself carefully. It would be a single-shot kill. As he put his finger on the trigger, the forest around him imploded with the sound of bombs. He’d forgotten that that very day the forest department had equipped all the villages with loud bombs to be set off every evening, to scare off the feline. It worked. The leopard, who’d been strolling at a leisurely pace, now took a quick run around the tree and disappeared into the forest once again. Robin scrambled to summon Salim on the walkie-talkie and in doing so, lost his grip on the trunk, slithering down 12 feet, scraping his face and hands along the way. Salim was aghast at the sight of the bleeding Robin and wanted to head back to the rest house, but Robin would not hear of it. He had to finish what he had started.

They followed the leopard’s trail to a tiny, one-house hamlet named Jabhu. The pukka house stood against the incoming darkness, the firmly clasped latch chain gleaming in the light of the lantern. Once again, the protesting Salim was banished. He went and parked himself a 100 yards away with the rest of the convoy, convinced that Robin had lost his mind.

Robin, meanwhile, was trying to find a place to conceal himself. The only option was a large potted tulsi plant. As he sat on his haunches, trying to find the perfect position between camouflaging himself and finding a good angle, through the leaves of the tulsi, he saw that his nemesis had already arrived. The leopard walked up to the door of the hut, and propping itself on its hind legs, began hitting the latch aggressively with its immense paw. The beast had lost all fear of humans.

Before Robin could take aim, the leopard turned to look behind. Its yellow eyes took in the crouching figure and it snarled in fury. Robin didn’t know then, but that he would see that massive face and those marble eyes in his dreams for many years to come. As the leopard leaped into the air, Robin acted on reflex. He lifted the Ruger and took a single shot. The 180-grain cartridge moved at the speed of 3,000 feet per second and hit the leopard right between the eyes. The animal dropped mid-air and lay still on the forest ground, its blood seeping into the moist earth, as the eight Gypsies rushed back in.

***

When I meet Robin Mistri, he is lovingly polishing his library chair. A customer is coming to pick up this teakwood-and-cane chair and Robin wants to make sure it is perfect. His spectacles and kusti make him look like your favourite eccentric Parsi uncle, the one who talks endlessly about his dukkar Fiat and loves his dhansak. He doesn’t look anything like a man who’s taken down 14 man-eating big cats with single shots.

I ask him to regale me with tales of his bravery, but Robin is reluctant. He shakes his head. “What bravery? What chance does the poor beast stand with a half-decent marksman holding a Sturm & Ruger? The odds are horribly unfair. Take him in an open fight and see how he shreds you to bits,” he says, opening the library chair to show me how it converts into a stepping ladder.

The man in front of me is the most sought-after marksman by the forest department. He has seen death in the face, has been so terrified that he has rued the day his mother gave birth to him, and yet, he is derisive of his life’s work, choosing instead to be known as a quiet furniture dealer in Vadodara.

“These animals that I kill are the most magnificent creatures God has ever made. They’re desperate because they’ve been driven out of their homes by our greed. We’ve taken their homes, their food, and then we wonder why they attack us. It’s unfortunate that it falls upon me to kill these beautiful creatures. It hurts so badly that I find it difficult to talk, difficult to eat, difficult to breathe.”

For this relentless agony, the government grants Robin a cheque of ₹100 for every big cat he has shot. They lie undeposited in his old hunting box near unused bullets and licenses. Robin has been called a cruel, trigger-happy, poacher by animal activists. His response is always the same: “I ask them to spend one night in a village hut with their small children when a man-eater is on the loose and then I will hand over my guns.”

Nobody has still taken him up on his offer.

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