Death in the wild: On trail of a spotted killer

Two Leopards in Chatbir Zoo, Punjab, (pix SShukla) (Representative image)
Two Leopards in Chatbir Zoo, Punjab, (pix SShukla) (Representative image)

A team of investigators is using forensic science and behavioural analysis to identify which of two leopards, now locked up at Van Vihar national park, killed three children in the latter half of March 2018 just beyond the outskirts of Bhopal, the state capital of Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (MP).

Samples of excreta and saliva of both leopards have been collected to match forensic evidence collected from the bodies of those killed on three consecutive nights in Obaidullahganj, some 35km from Bhopal.

Both leopards were captured within a radius of 50 metres in a span of 24 hours on March 23 and brought to Van Vihar. “Both of them are ferocious and it is difficult to make out which is the culprit,” investigating officer SDO Rajeev Shrivastava said.

Shrivastava and his team haven’t ruled out the possibility of a conspiracy — both leopards may be to blame. And the biggest hurdle for the jungle detectives is the same one that often dogs police: a messed-up crime scene.

Shrivastava said, “Due to destruction of evidence on the spot by villagers, our only hope are the samples of saliva and excreta of the two leopards. If these match those collected from the bodies and around the kills, we’ll know which leopard killed them.” The samples were sent to FSL Jabalpur on March 25.

The first kill took place on the intervening night of March 17-18 in which a 12-year-old boy was mauled to death by a leopard in Bagdihi. “Villagers were the first to reach the spot and carry away the body, thus destroying evidence,” said Shrivastava, adding that officials were looking for hair of the big cat, which might have been shed during the attack, but the entire area was trampled by villagers. The locals did it out of ignorance.

Barely 24 hours after the child’s death, the mangled body of an 18-year-old girl was found in Dagdaga village of Obaidullahganj, just 2km from the previous kill. The villagers chased the beast away which left teenager’s bleeding body. She died within seconds. A third attack was reported on March 19 in Khidki Ghati village.

The next day, forest officials trapped a leopard near the Bagdihi scene of crime. They thought their work was over until they chanced upon pugmarks of another leopard in the vicinity. A frantic search ensued. The area was cordoned off, and on March 22, the second leopard was caught. The first one was brought to Van Vihar on March 21, and the second one on March 23.

The forest department is also studying the behavioural pattern of both animals to see if they can identify any telltale signs. Dr Shrivastava, who has been closely observing the behaviour of the two leopards, said both are ferocious. “An analyst will be within sight of the leopards continuously for a minimum 20 days,” said an official, explaining that this will help graph the behavioural movement of the beasts. “If any of the leopards mellows during the course of study, he will be absolved from guilt. On the other hand, if a leopard remains ferocious all through, it may be an indication that he sees humans as prey,” the official said, adding that it is not foolproof deduction, and they are banking on DNA analysis.

The one found guilty will have to spend the rest of his life at Van Vihar. The other one will be freed in the wild. (Times of India)

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