While tigers are the most well-known Indian species with the potential to become a man-eater, there have also been numerous incidents of predation on humans by leopards in the subcontinent. Despite ranging from sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia, leopard attacks on humans have only ever been regularly reported in India and neighbouring Nepal. One of the most prolific man-eating leopards was known as the Leopard of Rudraprayag, named for the town in Uttarakahand Province, northern India around which the attacks took place.
In total, the animal was responsible for at least 125 deaths, before being tracked and shot by the famed hunter and author Jim Corbett. Corbett himself gained a reputation as a killer of man-eating big cats, putting down numerous tigers and leopards including the Champawat Tiger, the most prolific man-eater of any species in recorded history.
While the Rudraprayag leopard was found to be in reasonably good health when it was finally killed, it was an elderly specimen, and when killed was found to have badly receded gums and a number of healed gunshot wounds caused by unsuccessful hunters. Usually injuries, particularly to the teeth or legs, are responsible for an animal resorting to attacking humans due to no longer being able to successful catch their usual prey, which may have been the case here.
However Corbett himself put forward a different theory; that the animal initially gained a taste for human flesh after feeding on the numerous corpses that resulted from the Spanish Flu pandemic, which swept through India in 1918. When this plentiful new food supply was cut off after the disease petered out, the leopard switched to attacking live humans. Another prolific man-eating leopard killed by Corbett, the Leopard of Panar, appears to have begun attacks in similar circumstances after a bout of cholera killed large numbers of people in Northern India.
The first recorded death attributed to the Rudraprayag leopard was in 1918, when it took a villager from the small village of Benji. Unlike tigers that frequently prey on a victim that has entered the forest surrounding villages to tend animals or gather firewood, leopard attacks are bolder, venturing into villages at night to carry away victims. Several stories arose illustrating the stealthy, frightening nature of the leopard’s frequent attacks. In one instance when two men were sharing a hookah pipe inside a hut, the leopard silently killed and dragged away one of the men in the time it took his companion to look away to retrieve a dropped object from the floor.
The animal, a large male, was capable of carrying victims up to 100m away to devour in safety. As fear grew and people increasingly refused to venture out at night, the attacks would involve the leopard jumping through windows or clawing down mud walls to get at victims. Many villagers began to believe that the leopard was in truth an evil spirit, or a man that could assume the form of the creature at night.
In total, 125 deaths were officially attributed to the Leopard of Rudraprayag, although patchy records at the time means that the true total is likely to be higher. As the death toll mounted a reward offered for ending the threat from the British government mounted, eventually reaching 20,000 rupees. Large numbers of private hunters travelled to the area, staking out villages at night with rifles or laying down powerful traps or poison, but the leopard evaded them all. A large contingent of British soldiers, including formidable Nepalese Gurkhas, fared little better.
After the killing spree extended to eight years, famed big cat hunter Jim Corbett finally arrived in Uttarakahand Province to track down the animal. An expert hunter and tracker with over 20 years’ experience dealing with Indian man-eaters, Corbett had little luck at first, including shooting one leopard that was found not to be the culprit. Returning to his quarters late at night after unsuccessfully laying up over a recent victim to try and catch out the leopard, Corbett found the next morning that tracks showed the leopard had followed him closely on his walk back.
Ultimately, Corbett set up a rope seat in a tree along a track the leopard frequented, below which he staked a live goat. After more than a week spending long nights waiting in his perch, the leopard finally appeared and attacked the goat, upon which Corbett shot it dead.
As I noted in my Champawat Tiger article, Corbett ultimately renounced hunting, using the tracking skills he had learned to become a successful wildlife photographer. He was also an avid conservationist in later life, campaigning for the protection of all Indian wildlife. He would eventually establish the first national park in India, 150 miles south from where he had hunted and killed the Leopard of Rudraprayag.