Probin and a goat survives a leopard attack
Probin Chetia was a very brave person and I count myself indeed fortunate to have known him. He was an avid hunter and we were kindred souls in our love of this sport and used to go out together a lot when he was posted at a tea garden called Burigong as a Senior Assistant Manager. In the winter months, we used to enter the forest adjoining this garden from a road that led to a forest office about 8 kms inside called Dikhalmukh. A small river called the Dikhal joined up with the Burigong River here and it was a great place to catch fishes like trouts and broker fish, which I did in the day time before our shoots. Probin did not have the patience to fish and he lazed around in the camp but we both relished the fried fish over our drinks later at night after the hunts. Beyond this forest office were the logging camps which had elephants that we used at times to enter deep into the jungle when hunting the sambar deer.
There was a Nishi village inside the forest where I had made some friends. As was the norm, we had to take a guide along every time we went inside, especially on foot. Tirok was my main guide here. During one such expedition we decided that we would try for some Imperial pigeons early in the morning in a part of the forest where one had to walk a short distance off the road on foot. As planned, we reached the site before six in the morning and saw a number of birds on the trees and more of them flying in. But just as I was taking aim I saw one person get up from under the tree signalling me to stop. Tirok then spoke to him quietly by which time two other men also got up and walked towards us. These men had come to catch the pigeons on the branches which they had covered with the gum of a native gum tree to snare the birds alive by getting them stuck to the branches and some also getting the gum all over their feathers making them unable to fly thereby falling to the ground. The hunters were hiding soundlessly in the under growth and only got up to request me not to shoot. It was a new hunting technique I was about to see live and it was indeed a great spectacle seeing one man climb up the tree to catch the birds stuck in the gum and the other birds being frightened that they could not fly and so, falling down below. They must have collected around fifteen/sixteen birds and they were all alive. Tirok told me that this group of hunters specialised in catching birds to keep in stock in the village and some even went on to lay eggs which, after hatching, became a steady source of meat for them in the lean hunting months during the heavy rains. They very generously gave us four birds to take home as our share. It was indeed a great spectacle to witness which we were very lucky to experience.
For a couple of years that Probin was posted at Burigong we visited Dikhalmukh about six times in the winter months and enjoyed the hunting conditions there in the company of our guide and my friend Tirok. Then one day, around the month of July, I got the news from his manager that Probin was badly mauled by a leopard while supervising a tea section being plucked. The animal had been hiding inside the particular tea block when it must have felt cornered by the pluckers who had been deployed from all sides to complete the area quickly and go off to another section. Normally, whenever we do the plucking, the workers are given the tea bushes to be plucked in straight rows – a move that allows any wild animal to slip off quietly from the approaching humans. This simple matter was very important especially for a garden which was near a forest area like Burigong. Unfortunately this was not followed and as luck would have it Probin who was in the midst of the pluckers was the first person to be attacked by the leopard. It jumped up and tried to bite him in the head and grip his body with its sharp claws raking the skin off his back. He fell down and somehow managed to push the animal away. The leopard then tried to grab a nearby woman plucker who defended herself with her plucking basket which saved her life. After attacking the two humans the frightened animal ran off in the commotion. Probin was rushed off to Tezpur and later flown to Kolkata where he had to spend three months in the Woodland’s Hospital for a full recovery. He was indeed very lucky to have survived but was left with some deep scars on his left cheek and head by which one could make out the tell tale signs of the attack. He became a sort of celebrity as a man who had to wrestle with a leopard but psychologically he was never able to hunt again and I lost a good companion in my expeditions inside Dikhalmukh.
In the meantime, the workers at Probin’s garden were living in terror of the leopard that was staying in close proximity to humans. It was later found that the animal had been impaired after getting injured in a trap and had lost three of the claws of its left front leg, including the dew claw. So being unable to hunt its natural prey it was living close to the labour lines as it was feeding off the livestock for survival. The manager requested me to come and help him and his staff for a solution. I attended this meeting at his office by which time the local forest officer had suggested to call in the services of a hunter called Shiraj Hussain. This person was a resident of Bharulumukh in Guwahati and was making a name as a trapper of wild leopards mainly with steel traps. It was around 1977 that the government was looking into cage trapping to contain the tiger and leopard conflicts in tea and areas where such incidents occurred. At that time he was trying to capture a big leopard in a village close to the Arunachal Pradesh border near the town of Dhekiajuli. However he came after a few days and I also went to meet him. Shiraj Hussain was a tall and lean person around 45 years old and had very large feet. This I noticed when we were tracking the roads near the garden leading into the forest as he had to take care not to erase the leopard tracks. He was good at his job and quickly opined that this animal was injured as revealed by its paw prints. But tracking a wild animal was not easy and we had to rely on the leopard making a kill so we could place the trap accordingly. He had two traps, one larger which was deployed at the Dhekiajuli village and the smaller one had arrived to be used for this animal. But it was a wild goose chase as after about two weeks Shiraj had to leave to check on the village where his trap was set up.
The workers of the tea garden and the adjoining village had to face the brunt of the killing of their domestic animals by the impaired leopard but no one actually sighted such kills. The cat was an expert at camouflage and it spread out its attacks over a large area and this killing spree continued till the month of November. Probin was also back at work by then and I used to drop in to see him frequently, also taking the chance to keep abreast of the leopard story which I found very interesting. Shiraj returned around mid-November and took the full reports from his two assistants he had left behind. He was a bit disheartened as the other job he had taken up in the Dhekiajuli village was a failure as some angry villagers had managed to poison and kill the leopard there. I presumed that his work contract with the forest department was such that he would receive an amount for his attempt to trap the animals and if successful he got a good extra bonus. So now he was going to fully concentrate here to see if he could catch this leopard. Within a day or two he got the information that the leopard had killed a pig in a worker’s house which was at a distance of around two hundred feet from the forest cover. Immediately he had his trap set up by putting a small goat inside and there was a mechanism lever on the wooden floor which would make the trap door fall down when touched, entrapping the animal inside with the goat also inside a small enclosure in one corner. In most instances the trapped animal would get so enraged at being caught that it’s fierce growling and roaring would have killed the poor goat out of sheer fright.
That evening and night I also kept him company inside the worker’s house but I brought along my gun in case of any eventuality; Shiraj too had his gun with him. Around ten o’ clock, when everything became very quiet, we heard the goat bleating shrilly. The leopard must have come and we waited for the trap to be sprung the sound of which, we heard, as a loud clang. Further confirmation was received as we heard the angry growls of the trapped beast. Shiraj and I went out quickly and shone the torches on the trap and saw the leopard inside. The few men we had taken along also came and as word spread a huge crowd gathered. It was good that we all were there as a lot of animals can be maimed or even killed by an angry crowd who had suffered from the killings. Next morning, the leopard had calmed down out of exhaustion and the forest staff took over.
Shiraj was correct as we could make out that this leopard was badly maimed in its left front leg as we had seen from its tracks. Somehow, the goat had survived but it was a pitiable sight to see the poor thing sitting down absolutely shrivelled up. The bigger trap had arrived and after a day the leopard was transferred there and only then could the goat be set free as well. I was not witness to this but I was told that the goat moved away very slowly hardly being able to walk from the torture it had undergone. But in due time this goat also became a hero like Probin - both survivors from the same leopard.