In 2005, a strange demon haunted the scenic Galiyat regions in Pakistan’s north. It was bold enough to prey on humans even during the day time. And so, children were prohibited from wandering off too far into the woods and had to stay mostly indoors. But men and women still had to venture out to perform their daily chores.
The killer’s main target, it appeared, were women, as it ignored the men who ventured into the woods and attacked the ‘weaker’ females only. Finding a prey was easy for men in this part of Pakistan would often travel to other towns for a living while women would be left behind to carry out chores such as rounding up the family’s cattle or collecting fodder and firewood in the forests.
One by one, it killed off six women in a span of only 10 days. The bodies found were often mauled with parts missing, and the wounds appeared to be inflicted by sharp canines. Traps were set to capture or kill this beast and bounties were announced. But the killer was either incredibly smart or unbelievably lucky to avoid most of the traps and ambushes designed to catch it. It appeared from the foliage, killed its targets and went back into the jungle as if it was the forest itself that came to life and claimed its prey.
Shortly after the deaths of the women, a task team was formed that included skilled hunters and trackers. To those who were involved in the project of eliminating this menace, description of its modus operandi was reminiscent of the alien Predators from the 1980s’ Schwarzenegger movie! The man-eater from the Galiyat was so notorious and elusive that it was nicknamed “the Ghost of the Galiyats.” After many frustratingly futile attempts, they finally managed to trap the beast.
The cat, shrouded in mystery and wrapped in myths, was not a Lion or a Tiger, but a relatively smaller member of their family — the common leopard. Lions and tigers kill mostly during the day or often announce their presence with loud roars. But this enigmatic cat leads a mysterious life due to its nocturnal hunting habits, shy nature and secretive lifestyle. It uses a variety of vocalisations, including grunts, growls, meows, ‘sawing’ sounds and of course the occasional roar!
The common leopard blends in with its surroundings, knows how to choose its prey, has learnt to conduct its kills silently and escape without a clue. Such is its terror and mystique that it is often referred to as the “Ghost of the Jungle.” On the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar where, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), they are likely extinct, but they still thrive in myths which portray them as ghosts kept by shamans with supernatural powers to hunt and terrorise villagers.
The beast in the Galiyat was so ferocious in its demeanour that even when trapped it managed to scare the living daylights out of its captors. It is said that out of fear, a group of Punjab Police officials killed the caged beast by firing at it from point-blank range. A post-mortem was carried out later, but no human traces were found in the leopard’s digestive tract!
Although, the killings stopped after the incident, some believe that the “ghost” lives on and has only left the Ayubia National Park for greener pastures. The ghost lived up to its name even in death. Each new episode of killings by Common Leopards evokes memories of the ghost for those who lived through its time and many late evening conversations around bonfires in chilling temperatures revolve around questions like “Could it be that the ghost is back from the dead? Or perhaps it never was killed in the first place?”
The cat is now found out of the woods and in populated areas. Deforestation and human encroachment of the forests is slowly resulting in loss of leopard habitat while bringing the animal in close interaction with man. People in the Galiyat and Azad Jammu and Kashmir are increasingly using new tools, such as all-terrain-vehicles (quad bikes), to hunt animals such as deer, pheasants and rabbits that are a leopard’s prey. With shrinking habitat and diminishing food, the leopard often preys on scavenging dogs and monkeys that loiter around garbage dumps near human settlements.
Sometimes, leopards attack cattle which are easier to hunt than their natural prey. An old or injured leopard may find it easy to prey on weaker humans and end up developing a taste for human flesh. In the Kumaon district of northern India in the early 20th century, a leopard is said to have been wounded by a poacher such that the animal was unable to hunt its natural prey. The leopard then turned into a man-eater and is said to have devoured up to 400 people before acclaimed British hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett killed it in 1910.
Luckier leopards are caught alive, fed on government funding and sometimes serve a lifetime jail term in zoos. One such case is the Abbottabad leopard which killed nine-year-old Sohail on November 12, 2011, and 12-year-old Tahira on November 18, 2011, and was trapped while chasing a dog on November 26, 2011.
Humans have turned on these leopards so ferociously that they have almost become an endangered species. In Tibet, for instance, Chuba, a long coat made from leopard and tiger skin, is in vogue and considered a symbol of prosperity. A figure no less than the highest Tibetan priest, the Dalai Lama himself, had to issue a religious decree against wearing tiger and leopard skin to save the poor cats.
In Galiyat and Azad Kashmir, dozens of leopards are being killed for either attacking cattle or humans. Leopard skin is also a treasured item which is used as a gift of honour and a token of respect in this region.
In Sindh, I came across an old gentleman, crooked with age, by the name of Haji Bachal. In the Karchat area of Kirthar Range, he is something of a celebrity for he saved the local livestock by killing off all the “cheetahs” (actually common leopards) of the area.
Most recently, in February, the Rawalpindi district coordination officer (DCO) had to impose Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in his jurisdiction (areas around Murree) in order to save leopards from being hunted down by humans during tourist season.
The Rawalpindi DCO and the Dalai Lama’s initiatives are commendable but they may end in vain, unless humans learn to coexist peacefully with the environment. Garbage dumps, deforestation and irresponsible behaviour are pushing humans and Common Leopards on a collision course. Only one will be able to survive.
In the short run, local do-gooders like Haji Bachal will be hailed as heroes but history books will remember them as exterminators of a beautiful and graceful animal which only wanted to live peacefully and shyly in the environment where nature had placed it.
An indication of our indifferent attitude towards the environment is the fact that amusingly, but no less unfortunately, the animal’s extermination is used as a joke by men given that its apparent prey were women. When I visited the Ayubia National Forest in 2008 with my wife, we went for a walk on the famous ‘Pipeline Track,’ which offers four kilometres of some of the most breathtaking views in the Galiyat region. The track ends at Dunga Gali, where the wildlife department has constructed a small office and a museum. As we stood there looking at a stuffed ‘Suleman Markhor,’ we saw another couple observing the stuffed “Ghost of the Galiyats” besides a sign that read, “This leopard killed six women in (the) Galiyat tract between June 28 and July 7, 2005. It was ultimately shot dead on July 11, 2005, under public pressure.” The wife seemed least interested in wildlife and probably wanted to go shopping in Murree. Irritated by her constant nagging, the husband patted the head of the stuffed “ghost” and sarcastically muttered: “Jaldi mar gaya!” The lady’s ominous reply was: “You can join him on the podium if you’re that sensitive!”
Each year, several common leopards are killed in the Ayubia National Forest. Killings in Azad Kashmir are said to be higher. Measures beyond conferences and awareness campaigns need to be taken promptly, lest all these wonderful creatures become “ghosts of the past.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 2nd, 2012.
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