Beginning in 1857, a man-eating leopard wreaked havoc in the Seoni district of India. As the number of its human victims rose—it eventually passed 200—people changed their way of living. They shut themselves indoors at dusk. At night one member of each household stayed awake to keep watch. These sentinels called to their friends on the hour, helping each other stay awake.
Such were the conditions a certain civil servant found when he passed through the area on business. He stopped for the night in the village of Kahani. He was welcomed into the house of a local official. Though he gladly accepted the hospitality, he scoffed at the villagers’ fear of the leopard. Leopards rarely attack people, and he was confident he could kill this one with his sword if it troubled him. When others shut themselves in for the night, he stayed on the veranda. His hosts heard him walking about and striking an occasional match for his pipe until midnight.
The next sound they heard from him happened at two in the morning. It was the scream he uttered the moment before he died. The leopard closed off that sound with a bite. They rushed out to help the man; the leopard fled at their noise; no one really saw it. But they saw its tracks and the killing wounds on his corpse.
It was a custom in that area for farmers to build a platform called a machan in the middle of a field. From the machan, the farmer could keep watch all night, protecting his ripening crops from wild boars and deer. It was important to do this, because the crop might provide both food for the family and its only source of income for the year. During the day, every member of the family might help guard the crops—even small children. The leopard changed all that for many families. Several times, it snatched a child in broad daylight, leaving a traumatized sibling to tell the parents what had happened. Adults on machans weren’t safe either. The leopard climbed or leaped onto several of them, killing the guardian farmers. Soon, people were abandoning their fields to the pigs and deer, even though they knew they’d face hunger and perhaps starvation in the coming months.
One young couple decided to build a hut in the middle of their field. They had a four-year-old child to provide for and debts to pay. They would protect themselves by keeping campfires burning at the entrance to the hut. One morning the woman heard rustling in the bushes near their hut. She roused her husband to tell him she suspected it was the man-eater, but he scoffed at the notion and went back to sleep. Suddenly the leopard rushed past the fire and into the hut. It seized the man by the throat and dragged him out through the fire. Probably it meant to drag him into the wilderness beyond the range of human interference and eat him in peace. The woman, however, took hold of her husband’s legs. A bizarre tug-of-war took place. The cat certainly would have overpowered the woman if the contest had gone on; leopards are strong enough to cache their kills in trees, carrying weights of 200 pounds straight up the trunk if necessary. But the woman screamed loud enough to bring help, and the sound startled the leopard. In an instant it was gone. The man lay dead, four deep punctures marking his throat where the cat’s fangs had seized him. He’d never made a sound.
He was its third victim that night.
As the leopard’s man-eating career carried on, it seemed to give up on other prey altogether. Sometimes, when it killed several people in one night, it didn’t bother to eat the corpses. English hunters in the area thought it was merely drinking the blood of its kills. (It probably wasn’t; cats often flense the hair from their prey with their rasp-like tongues before eating it, and that action can look like drinking.) Some people offered superstitious explanations for its vast appetite. In one story, for example, it was said to be a sorcerer who had turned into a leopard to more easily hunt the robust nilgai antelope, then found himself unable to change back. In his rage, he began killing every human he met.
In truth, this was merely a case of surplus killing. Like lions and many other members of the order Carnivora, leopards may kill more than they need in order to store some of it for later. They may do this because it allows them to eat abundantly of the choicest parts of the prey, such as the energy-rich brains, and leave the less-appealing parts alone. (In 2012, a leopard killed a man in India’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park and ate only his genitals.) They may kill in excess simply for practice; possibly they enjoy it, though it’s hard for us to know the emotions of other animals. In the case of this leopard, being driven away from some of its kills probably encouraged it to take new victims right away.
The Indian government put a bounty on the head of the leopard. At least two well-armed English parties tried and failed to collect. The one who finally succeeded was a local hunter armed only with a primitive matchlock rifle. Like the farmers, hunters had found their occupation suddenly dangerous in those days of the man-eater. However, hunger trumped caution for Kurria Gond one night. He dug a foxhole and crouched hidden in it, hoping to shoot a wild boar. Once the moon went down, he knew it was too dark for him to shoot accurately, so he headed home.
His path took him past a bean-field and then a stand of trees. In their shelter he saw a shadow moving among other shadows. It could have been an animal suitable for eating—or an animal interested in eating him. In either case, shooting seemed the wisest move. He fired.
The roar of a leopard answered his shot.
He knew he had hit his mark, and the leopard sounded badly hurt. The usual response of a leopard when wounded is to kill its attacker, or die trying. Kurria Gond ran for shelter. The next day, he returned with friends—and a herd of water buffalo. Although individual buffalo often fall prey to leopards and tigers, the predators flee from the mighty hoofed animals when they approach in a group. People sometimes think of “herd behavior” as a sign of stupidity, but it’s an immensely effective deterrent to predation. In some cases, groups of buffalo have even rescued humans from tigers.
Following a wounded leopard into high grass and trees is possibly the most dangerous thing a hunter can do, but the buffalo made it safer. Soon one of the bull buffs bellowed with alarm. It had found something. If the leopard had been able to move, it would have fled. No leopard appeared. The people crept forward. They found the man-eater dead in the grass. Kurria Gond’s shot had struck its heart.