How I Became A Man-eater
This is heart-wrenching narrative through the eyes of a young tiger is based on a story that was published in the Indian Express in the 1960s. It has been modified to fit in the present day context of poaching and human incursion into tiger habitat.
The trail, heavily littered with signs of animal presence, was shrouded in morning mist. I walked along with my mother, in one of the intact forests of the Himalayan foothills, past tracks and dung of elephant, sambar, chital, barking deer and wild pig. There were signs of the Sloth bear, Himalayan black bear and leopard too.
Overpowering the smell of all these animals was the odor of my race. There were old and new pugmarks, each about the size of a small turtle, droppings and claw-marks at a height of about two meters on the boles of large trees with soft bark. Many overhanging bushes in the path also carried a strong whiff of my clan. It was a clear sign that this was an ideal home for me, a young 10-month-old tiger, to grow as an adult under the protective care of my mother who had inherited this piece of jungle, rich in biodiversity and life, from her mother. Generations of my mother’s ancestors have lived in this forest defending territory, hunting and raising families.
When I was younger, I had a brother and a sister; my brother was trampled on by an elephant and my sister, bitten by a large snake. After their deaths, my affectionate mother zealously guarded me from all possible danger. Once every four to six days, she would kill some prey, usually a deer or a pig, which provided enough food and strength to keep us going.
That day, after unsuccessful attempts the night before, she was keen to hunt. It surprised me that killing a prey, even in a forest rich with animals, was difficult for her, despite the fact that she could move through the forest silently, almost like a ghost. On this day, she was padding along the trail silently, occasionally stopping, listening and looking around to locate a suitable meal. Fortunately, there were no monkeys, neither the langurs nor the macaques, up in the canopy or they’d have alerted the entire jungle to our presence. I was following her at a distance slowly and silently. All of a sudden, my mother stopped abruptly as her left forefoot got caught in a metal device which resembled a clamp with two halves, each with a row of long and sharp, powerful teeth-like structures. It had buried deeply into her paw.
My mother didn’t scream but jumped around to try and pull her leg away from the clutches of the device but this only made it sink in deeper, the metal cutting her skin, muscles and blood vessels. Blood started oozing from the wound, and soon, moaning in pain, she lay on the ground panting and subdued. I walked around her, licked her face and the wound and nudged her to get up. Soon, we heard the sound of four men approaching, talking in hushed tones: one had a heavy stick, another, a long spear and the other two carried knives and gunny bags. My mother made one final attempt to free herself from the device but as her pain escalated, she sat down on her belly, as if resigned to her fate. When the men came closer, she gave her last warning growl, a signal for me to run away.
I ran up a nearby densely-wooded, rocky hill slope, some 100m from where she sat trapped. Crouching among the rocks, I watched the horrors she suffered… the men beat her on the head with the stick and pierced her throat through her mouth till she fell silent. They swiftly skinned her – and the skin, with the head and the paws, was put in the gunny bag. Then they removed the flesh from the body, the dismembered bones were put into another gunny bag and the rest – the stomach, intestine and the flesh – were thrown into the nearby bush. Even from that distance, I could see their faces smeared in sweat and blood. My mother’s blood. Their faces became etched in my memory. I took a vow right then that when I grew up, I would kill all of them one by one if they dared enter the forest again.
At that young age, survival was difficult for me. I remembered some early training I had received from my mother for stalking smaller prey like peafowl, fawns and female deer. She had warned me against frontal attacks on deer or wild boar to avoid being impaled by their antlers or tusks. But before she died, I’d never killed on my own. With no one to protect me, I wandered through the forest, that once felt like a safe haven, with fear and care, avoiding elephants and the Himalayan black bear. I was also careful to avoid the large male tiger in the near by territory that my mother never really liked much. I didn’t know much about my father. Possibly, he was also killed by people. My mother used to tell me that he was so brave, swift and powerful that no animal in the forest could ever kill him.
By the third day, I was about to faint from hunger. I came upon a peacock feeding on fallen fruits of an Indian plum tree under a thorn bush. Fortunately, the cock was only a few meters away and though it tried to fly off when I rushed towards it, its longtail feathers got entangled in the thorn bush and that made the difference between life and death for it. Biting and clawing, with difficulty, I removed the feathers and ate the still-alive juicy, warm flesh. A few days later, hunger drove me to hunt again. I saw a group of wild pigs feeding in a clearing, with many piglets in their group. I rushed at them and while the pigs initially ran away, they regrouped at a distance, clustered together and advanced towards me aggressively. In the melee, one fat piglet fell into a ditch. The group stood around threatening me for some time, and then ran away, leaving the screaming piglet in the ditch. After I was sure there was no danger to me from the pigs, I got into the ditch, killed the piglet, carried it into a dense cover and ate it peacefully.
Gradually, my hunting skills improved – I killed and ate regularly and steadily grew into a large adult male tiger. But I often remembered the faces of the four men – and the thought of avenging my mother’s death gave me more and more strength to become more powerful.
One late winter afternoon, I was basking on the rock slope from where I’d seen my mother getting skinned. All of a sudden, there was a huge commotion in the jungle – I heard village dogs barking and men shouting. I saw a sambar stag in hard antlers running through the bushes followed by trained hunting dogs and several men. The stag was making for a pool in the forest where it could protect itself inside the water. Had it not been for the men, it would possibly have been successful. By the time they arrived, the stag was already in the water, on its hind legs as it would do do when threatened and started hitting out with its strong forelegs. The dogs stayed back, fearing the branch-like antlers and the powerful hits with its forelegs.
The man with the spear approached the deer closer and threw the weapon at the stag with all his might. It found its mark deep on the stag’s side, a little behind its shoulder blade, where it stayed, sticking out of the animal. The stones came next, hitting him hard on the face, neck and even at its wound. Slowly, the stag sank to the ground, while the men rushed at it, screaming and shouting, and holding its tail, antlers and legs, dragged it out of the water. They started cutting it to pieces right there, with knives and axes, wrapped the large pieces dripping with blood in tall grass cut from the nearby green patch and carried away their booty. The dogs stayed around for some time, licking the blood on the ground and eating the scattered meat fragments, before sauntering off after the men.
I am now almost 10, and over the last five years, I’ve mated with several females and fathered many cubs. Most of them,particularly my sons, disappeared from my territory as they grew up. But in the last few years, I have seen worrying changes in my forest. I understand that our home, once continuous for hundreds of miles along the foothills of the great mountains, is now broken into several pieces by the greed and thoughtlessness of human beings. They did not realize that intact vast forests are, in fact, beneficial to them; after all, forests are the source of water, on which civilization and life depend upon. Actually, humans depend on the forest more than we do. They degrade the habitat, and despite their deliberations, don’t have either the vision or dedication to restore the broken forests. I hear more human voices in the jungle and often I find people camping in its interiors. Occasionally, I come across signs indicating that animals, including my own race, have been killed.
Rains have become less intense, less frequent and there are more cattle that come into the forest to graze, with the lack of food around the villages. Villagers set fire to the forest to get a flush of grass for their cattle. I don’t understand why humans and their cattle can’t manage their needs outside the forest where plenty of land is available to them anyway.
One fateful day, I was stalking a wild pig. The wind was blowing from the pig towards me. I used my long whiskers to detect the wind direction. The pig was facing away from me and rooting the ground. I was in an ideal situation to rush him from behind and kill him by biting through his nape. But at the last moment, a man came along the trail, frightening the pig, and it grunted and ran off into the forest. I was disappointed and as I got a clear look at the man, the day of my mother’s death flashed before my eyes. I realized that he was one among the four who had killed her.
Years had taken away much of my anger and I had no desire to kill him. But I did intend to threaten and frighten him, so I stood my ground and growled. The man, either brave or stupid, threw a stone at me. It hit me hard below my right eye and the pain aroused my dormant hatred. Blinded by anger, I growled and bounded towards him.
He was a coward – he tried to run but in just a few strides, I brought him down by the head and neck and crushed his skull like an egg shell. He quivered and died in seconds. It seemed unbelievable that humans could be so fragile. I lay down near his body for some time but the pleasant smell of the warm blood oozing from his nape attracted me. I licked the warm blood and ate the flesh around the neck. It was tasty. I didn’t realize it then, I was in the process of becoming a man-eater.
I hear that the skin and bones of my mother, and many of my kind, were carried by people beyond the big mountain, at the base of which I grew up, to countries where people use skins as dresses and the bones for medicine. I hear there is big money in this business.
Can’t the people beyond the mountains live without our skins and bones? They can easily make dresses out of materials like cloth and wool, and they can certainly get other medicines for their ailments. Only a change of heart – deciding to stop using our skins and bones – would ensure the survival of my friends and relatives in the forests on the southern slopes and the foothills of this great mountain. Without this change, men will continue to kill my kind – the valiant survivors who still roam the shrinking and degrading forests – and will send the last wild skins and bones across the mighty mountain… which will eventually exterminate my race.
The drawings in the story are by wildlife artist Maya, who is working for conservation awareness and education in the Indian subcontinent. Maya is based in Bangalore and is a keen student of natural history and conservation.
This article was originally published in May-June 2013 Saevus magazine