The Terror Of Sunderkhal By Navin M Raheja

Friday 1st February 2013

While travelling from Ramnagar to Dhikala in Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, one  usually overlooks the part of the road beyond Garjia Temple, which in recent years has been made an accessible interface on the side of the road beside a gorge. Most of the vehicles travelling on the Ranikhet or Bhartrojkhan circuit stop at this temple and the pujari comes to you with an ‘aarti’ and ‘tilak’ plate. After you cross the noisy bridge on the gorge, immediately the road becomes steep and curvy. A kilometre beyond and the road turns into a flat terrain and then bifurcates. It is at this point that Sunderkhal starts.

Sunderkhal is a charming little village on the outskirts of Jim Corbett National Park.
Flanked by River Kosi on one side and the hills of Corbett on the other, it normally
gets overlooked by tourists zipping from Ramnagar to Dhangarhi - the main entry
point to the world-famous national park. Buteven those who stop here remain blissfully
unaware of Sunderkhal’s scary secret.

It was a winter evening on February 5, 1988, when I crossed Ramnagar and reached
Ringora, where I stopped to have tea at my old friend Bacchi Singh’s dhaba. It was well
past midnight. I honked and yelled but he did not open the door, so I parked my
Maruti van on the roadside in front of the dhaba and decided to spend the night on the
rear seat of the van.

The next morning I woke up to the  curious faces of villagers peering through the
car windows. I walked into Bacchi’s thatched roof dhaba for tea only to be told: “Saab! Do
not go to the jungle. There is a man-eater lurking around nowadays.” It is from here
that the story of the man eating tiger starts.

“You were lucky to have survived the night,” he added. “Only a few days ago, a
25-year-old young man riding a horse, was killed by a tiger. The tiger knocked down
both the horse and the rider. The man’s partly-eaten body was discovered a day
later.” I also heard the story of Laxmi Bai. Sometime ago her daughter in law was
killed by the tiger when she went to collect firewood across Kosi at Sunderkhal. Only her
clothes and slippers could be recovered.

Sunderkhal and the area around had always been the favorite hunting ground for
man-eaters. The man-eater was exterminated by Thakur Dutt, nicknamed ‘Mini Corbett,’
near Laxmi’s thatched hut. But like the mythical Hydra, another killer tiger emerges
on the scene after the last one is killed or captured. Jim Corbett, in his famous book,
The Maneaters of Kumaon, gives a vivid description of Mohan, the man-eater, which
operated in the same area at the turn of the last century.

Once again on a stopover to Corbett, I reached Ringoda in the dead of night. I again
stopped to call on my old friend Bacchi Singh. But the answer I got from behind the
door of his thatched hut was shocking: That Bacchi Singh had been untraceable for over
a year. I learnt later that Bachhi had gone into the forest and vanished without a trace.
His old wife now makes tea on the choolah, waiting for Bacchi to return.

The five months between September 2010 and February 2011 saw seven men
and women of the area falling victim to a particular man-eating tiger. Though
the animal was shot down by the forest authorities on the outskirts of Sunderkhal
in February itself, fear refuses to leave the village. Even a cheetal call would send
villagers running indoors. In fact, the villagers laid a virtual siege on the office
of Corbett authorities at Ramnagar several times during January 2011.

The pull of Corbett remains as intense as ever, but over the years my responsibilities
as the CMD of Raheja Developers kept my  visits to Corbett limited and I could not
really follow the Sunderkhal man-eaters for some time. But news of many human kills in
the area in the span of a few months shook me, and I picked up my Forester again in
January to follow the man-eater. Starting past 8 pm from New Delhi, I reached Sunderkhal
around 2.30 am and sat with the forest guards around a campfire – their guns with
safety latches down. Intermittently taking a round in my Forester, I tried to get a glimpse
of the maneater or any other evidence. For the rest of the night, I slept restlessly and
pondered the motives of the man-eater.

What drives healthy tigers to kill humans? I was told all the clues pointed to the fact that
the animal was a male.

The Sunderkhal tiger made its last kill in the afternoon of January 25, 2011. A youth,
Pooran Chand, parked his scooter beside the road to relieve himself and his piercing cry
is what people last heard. The forest officials shot the tiger while it was still beside the
partly-eaten body of Pooran Chand.

No tiger is born a man-eater but it is because of our own folly that it starts preying
on humans. Sunderkhal is an important wildlife corridor encroached by human
settlements. Tigers and elephants have to cross Sunderkhal to reach the other side of
the Kosi river and Ramnagar Forest Division. No doubt we require a holistic approach.
Something which would leave the tourists happy while providing enough breathing
space to the tiger. If only we look carefully at relocating the villages, with adequate
compensation to the villagers, and leaving the forest to its original residents.




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