One man-eater hunted last week; Villagers claim no help from forest department
Several villages in Uttrakhand’s Pauri district are turning into ‘ghost villages’ after being abandoned by their residents. Many villagers are migrating to more urban parts of the district after increased sightings and attacks by leopards.
The residents of two Uttarakhand villages have abandoned their houses within a week. The lone family living in Pauri district’s Bharatpur village has also migrated.
Godibari village in Kotdwar is also completely vacated, as the last four families living there also left their ancestral homes to move to rented homes in urban areas.
Frequent leopard attacks are the primary reason for mass migrations. More villages are likely to be uninhabited as well, said locals.
October 2021, this reporter visited Bharatpur village. Rows of deserted houses had locks on the doors. The cowsheds were in ruins and thorny bushes had overtaken all empty spaces, making it difficult to enter the homes. The village had been uninhabited for a long time.
Just one family had been living in the village for the last 3-4 years, which used to have a population of around 90 people earlier. However, Yashoda Devi’s family also left their house August 2022, unable to cope with the constant fear of leopard attacks.
Devi worked as a cook for 15 years and was living all by herself for a while in the village. Both her sons worked in Delhi and Gurgaon. One of her sons, his wife and two children returned home after the COVID-19-induced lockdown. The daughter-in-law and Devi started farming in the village.
Yashoda Devi's family was the last one living in Bharatpur. They left their home in August, 2022. Photo: Varsha Singh
“I had installed several powerful lights around the house,” Devi recalled cheerfully. “We would turn them on at night to keep the leopards away.” But the wild cats would circle around their house every night.
“There were three leopards — one mother and two children,” she said. “We worship these creatures because they may be reincarnations of our ancestors or even a demigod. We would pray to them to leave us alone.”
Devi complained several times to the forest department for help. “The department officials would tell us to chop all bushes, keep the village clean, etc. But how would we manage that all by ourselves? The creature ate a calf and we were afraid my grandchildren would be next,” she said further.
The leopard endangered our lives and wild boars and monkeys attacked our farms in the village, she said. “We were able to drive away monkeys during the day but couldn’t do anything about the boars at night,” Devi said.
The family was also worried about the children’s education, as the nearest school was several kilometres away. They would also be afraid while dropping off or picking up the children. Devi’s family also decided to leave, making Bharatpurr another ‘ghost village’.
A leopard near Pauri’s Barait village, Thalisain tehsil was hunted down September 1, 2022. The wild cat had eaten a 5-year-old child on July 28, 2022 and was declared as a ‘man-eater’ by the forest department.
Most migrations from villages happened because the residents were afraid of attacks by wild animals, said the hunter Joy Hukil. “There is no development model for villages, so they decided to migrate?” he said.
Uttarakhand Forest Department has been trying to prevent leopard attacks with schemes like ‘Living with Leopard’.
But Hukil says the villagers can live with leopards, but not man-eaters. “People of the mountains have lived with leopards for generations. But now, we don’t know their condition or even their numbers in our forests,” he said.
The 2018 report called Status of Leopards in India said there were 839 leopards in Uttarakhand. But Hukil said the numbers are incorrect.
“I travel across the state to hunt man-eating leopards. There are at least 5,000 wild cats in Uttarakhand,” he said. The forest department officials also agree, estimating around 4,000 leopards in the state.
People keep coming to my village and leaving in droves, said Nirmala Sundriyal of Kuin village, Chaubattakhal tehsil. “Around 30 families live here right now. The risk of attack is less here as more humans live here. Villages with less population are more vulnerable,” she said.
Chief Minister Migration Prevention Scheme was brought in Uttarakhand in the year 2020 under the Rural Development and Migration Commission to stop migrations. This scheme aimed to generate livelihood and increase basic facilities in revenue villages where half or more population has migrated. Under this scheme, 474 villages were identified.
Pauri District Magistrate Vijay Kumar Jogdande said efforts are on to increase livelihood opportunities in 100 villages of the district, including agriculture and animal husbandry.
Villages are also being patrolled to protect them from wild animals, he claimed. “The positive results would hopefully be seen soon,” the DM added.
However, many villagers claimed they hadn’t even heard of the scheme. “We have never seen any village being surrounded by wildlife for protection. Last year in our village, a leopard killed a woman,” said Sudhir Sundriyal, a resident of Dabra village of Mazgaon Gram Sabha of Chaubattakhal tehsil.
Sundriyal is a farmer who is trying to reverse migration in the area. “Leopards are very active in the area. We are demanding village security fencing from the administration but to no avail,” he said.
The social activist suspects three villages in Mazgaon Gram Sabha will be deserted in the next two to three years as well. “There were eight families in my village Dabra. Three fled this year. Another is leaving this month,” he said.
Now, only four families will be left. “Naunyun village had just four families, but two of them migrated this year,” he said.
Fear of leopard attacks is the driving reason behind the migration, not unemployment, claimed the farmer. “If someone sends their child to school, they can’t work in the fields that day. The child can't go to school if the farmer has to be in the fields. Situations like these are not sustainable,” he said.
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