The Man-Eater of Dhari
Dorothy M. Leslie
Chronicle, Adelaide, SA
Thursday the 12th of October, 1933
ABOUT five years ago a man-eating tiger appeared in the vicinity of Dhari in the Kumaon Hills of India and speedily became the terror of the district. It killed no fewer than ninety people and the Government offered a reward of a thousand rupees for its hide.
The efforts of the various shikaris who went after it, however, met with no success. One man, it is true, got a shot at the brute after sitting up all night over the body of a woman it had murdered but ‘Stripes’ escaped, and thereafter the task of other hunters became more difficult, for the tiger grew very wary, seldom returning to his ‘kills.’
About this time I arrived at my house in Bhim Tal seven miles from Kathgodam railway station, to spend the hot weather there. Hearing about the man-eater I decided to have a shot at earning the reward. I had already bagged leopard and bear, and was keen to get my first tiger— particularly such a notorious beast as this.
I had been out camping ‘on my own’ on several occasions, but it is always nicer to have companions, so I asked an I.C.S. man, one Collins, who was holidaying in Bhim Tal with his sister if they would care to join me. He said that they would both love It, whereupon I arranged for tents, coolies and stores.
The very day before that fixed for the start, however, Collins cried off; his sister, I believe, got ‘cold feet’ when she heard how dangerous the tiger was. I was very disappointed, but wired to my husband, down in the plains, asking him to get a week’s leave in order to accompany me on the trip, everything was already fixed up, I told him. That evening I received his reply: — ‘Leave impossible. You must cancel plans. On no account go after man-eater alone.’
I was annoyed, and it didn’t help matters when the postmaster who handed me the wire remarked blandly: ‘Now. I suppose, Memsahib will have to give up trying for the tiger?’
‘On the contrary, Babu,’ I replied, firmly, ‘I shall go out tomorrow as arranged.’
I had received news that the man-eater had killed about a week previously at the village of Ratikhet between Dhari and Mornaula. Next morning, therefore, I set out by myself, riding a sturdy hill-pony, with the coolies and my shikari and bearer trudging behind. My first objective was Dhari, which is about ten miles away from Bhim TaL
May is not a very pleasant month in Bhim Tal, which lies only five thousand feet above sea level, so I was quite glad to get out of the valley and climb the steeply-rising road to Dhari, eight thousand feet up. It was a wonderful morning, and on either side of the mountain road the pine trees, stirred by the fresh, cool breeze, nodded and whispered to each other.
At Dhari we halted for tiffin and a rest. Finally, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, we arrived at Ratikhet. I found the little village in a state of great commotion. The people were scurrying about round its score or so of miserable huts, some collecting their few belongings, others rounding up the cows and buffaloes ready for departure. I learnt that the dreaded man-eater had killed yet again, barely three quarters of an hour before I arrived!
Five or six women who had gone out to cut grass in the jungle had come rushing back screaming. The tiger had sprung on one of their number as she was working breaking her neck and killing her instantly. It had not succeeded in carrying away the body however, for the other women had run up shouting and very bravely driven the beast off with their haswas, or hand-slckles.
This was the second visit that the evil brute had paid to Ratikhet within eight days, and altogether it had accounted for five people in that one small village. Now the people’s nerve had gone — and small wonder! They declared that they dared not spend another night in their jungle surrounded homes, but were moving en masse to the larger village of Dhari, which was in more open country. There, they said, they would remain until the tiger was killed or had left the district.
They were already starting to move off in the direction of Dhari, except for a small party of men— mostly friends or relations of the dead girl— who were setting out with a charpoy to bring back her body. I decided to accompany this party to inspect the spot where the tiger had killed and to judge if there was any chance of its return.
When we arrived at the grassy glade in the jungle where the poor girl had met her death, however, I found that my luck was out. A couple of white hunters, summoned to the scene by a passing herd boy, had arrived before me.
They were a Major Hutchins and a Captain Cunningham, and were on the same quest as myself, but had approached from Muktesar, in the opposite direction. They seemed rather surprised to find a woman going out alone after the man-eater, but I ‘put it over them’ by confessing modestly to having hunted in these hills for several years, during which time I had accounted for more than one leopard, and a host of smaller game, whereas they owned that this was their first experience of big game hunting.
We inspected the body together, taking care not to touch it. The tiger had apparently had no time to do anything to the corpse, and it seemed to me that if the ‘kill’ was not disturbed there was quite a good chance of the brute returning. The difficulty was to get the villagers to agree to leave the body there all night. Here my knowledge of the hill dialect came to the aid of the soldiers’ halting Hindustani.
The relatives, as I had expected, were anxious to take the corpse away at once in order to burn It. The girl was a high caste Rajputni, and they said that if the tiger returned and carried away the body, so that it could not be cremated, her dispossessed spirit would become a bhut (ghost) and haunt the mountain.
We pointed out. however, that the only way of getting rid once and for ever of the dreadful beast which had killed so many of their friends was to give the shikaris a chance of sitting up all night over the body. Furthermore, the soldiers promised that if the tiger returned they would not let it carry the girl away; if it was possible for them to see the brute, they added, they would certainly kill it.
The villagers evidently had faith in the Sahib log, tor the father and brother of the dead girl, who were the chief members of the burial-party, eventually agreed to leave the corpse where it was till the next day, without even touching It. Then the sad little procession went off down the hill, having arranged to return, the following morning.
I had no wish to butt into the soldiers’ sport, and naturally recognized their prior claim to ‘sit up’ over the ‘kill’. So, after having seen them start building their machan (platform) in a fair-sized oak about 15 yards from where the dead girl lay, at the foot of a deodar tree, I wished them luck and went off to make my own arrangements for the night.
By this time, it was about 5 o’clock, and nearly dusk. I retraced my steps to the now deserted village of Ratikhet, a mile away. Here my bearer, and the shikari suggested that I should sleep, barricaded into one of the strongest of the houses, where they said I should be safe. But I declined this; I have no love for the smells of an Indian village. They then hinted that perhaps I should like to return to Dhari, where there was a comfortable dak bungalow, but I have had unfortunate experiences in dak bungalows.
Finally, overruling their objections, I made them pitch the two tents, one for me and one for them, in a small clearing a few hundred yards above the village. Then I sent my pony and the coolies up to Dhari to wait for me on the morrow.
The place where I had decided to camp was a newly-cleared space in the jungle. The trees and brushwood had been cut down, and some of the wood already burnt for charcoal. The next step, I supposed, would be to plant potatoes to break up the soil; but at the present moment I could not have found a more ideal site. The ground was well cleared and fairly level. Nearby ran a small stream— a mere trickle but quite sufficient to supply me with water.
Very soon my servant had performed the usual Indian miracle of producing a marvelously tasty three-course meal over three stones and a fire of brushwood. I ate my dinner by the dusky light of the rising moon, while the jungle rose dark and forbidding all round. Then, being pleasantly tired after the day’s journey, I turned in, telling the bearer and the shikari— who were now, I noticed, looking rather nervous — to wake me at the first signs of dawn. Their pal (tent) was only about 15 yards from my own, and there were hurricane-lanterns for both,
I woke with a start, hearing something stumbling into one of the tent ropes. The flimsy poles creaked and swayed, and a shiver ran over the canvas as if some weighty body had brushed against it. By the light of the dimly-burning lantern I looked at my watch. Three o’clock— much too early for my bearer to be waking me. Yet there was surely something or somebody at the flap of the tent.
‘Diljonah!’ I called out. ‘Is that you?’
There was no answer, but the movement outside ceased. I sat up in bed, intending to reach out and jerk open the tent-flap to see who was outside. Just then, however, a cold terror seized me and chilled my blood, for through the thin tent walls there was wafted a pungent, unmistakable smell, curiously reminiscent of a menagerie tiger!
I reached out for my rifle and pumped a round into the breech. Then I heard the animal pawing at the flap, but— thank heaven— I had laced it tight across. The brute next moved round to the back of the tent, and for a moment I saw part of its outline pressed against the canvas as it sneaked under the tent ropes. I thought of trying a shot, but the servants’ tent was directly behind. I might hit one of them, or, if I only wounded the tiger. It might charge my tent and topple it over, when I should be as helpless as a pig in a net.
So I waited, sitting bolt upright in bed, my rifle at full cock, following the animal’s movements. My heart was pounding so furiously that It seemed the tiger must hear it! Presently the beast padded round to the front again, and sniffed at a point where there was a small space between the bottom of the tent and the ground. An instant later a great paw was thrust in! My heart missed a beat, for I fully expected to see the canvas ripped up. But the paw was withdrawn and the tiger circled to the back once more, stepping on a tent-rope as it passed and sending another shiver through the canvas.
For fully three minutes— each an eternity of terror for me –the animal padded softly round the tent. I was afraid to make any movement, save to turn my head and swing my rifle to cover where I thought the tiger was. Finally it must have decided that the tent was something outside its ken, and not so easy to break into as a grass-thatched hut. Anyway, the padding ceased, and I heard a twig crack, as the animal moved off into the jungle.
I waited for ten minutes, to make sure that it had gone; then, cautiously opening the front flap of the tent, I peered out. All I could see was the moonlit clearing and the gloomy surrounding Jungle. I called for my servant and the shikari, but the only answer was the echo thrown back by the dark wall of trees. I called more loudly, again and again, but the forest continued to mock my anxiety.
Then a dreadful thought struck me. Had the tiger visited the servants’ tent before it came to me? Hurriedly I threw a coat over my pyjamas and scrambled out, carrying on electric torch, and my rifle. Anxiously I flashed the light into the servants’ tent. It was empty, and. There was no sign of their bedding. I realized that the two cowards must have quietly slipped off to the safety of some village, leaving me all alone in the clearing.
Returning to my tent, I laced down the flap as tightly as possible. Sleep was out of the question, so I sat with my rifle across my lap until, about on hour later, I heard the koklass (hill pheasants) calling as they fluttered from tree to tree. Looking out, I discovered that the sky was already grey with the dawn. Never have I welcomed the rising sun with more relief than I did that morning!
An hour later my bearer and the shikari turned up, looking decidedly sheepish, but I hadn’t the strength to be angry with them for their treachery. I was feeling very ill, and realised that I had a fever coming on. I was not even interested when they told me they had heard that the tiger had mauled one of the Sahibs who had sat up for it.
As soon as I could I packed up, sent all my things back to Bhim Tal, and hurried into Naini Tal, giddy with fever. There the doctor diagnosed my trouble as enteric, and for the next month I lay in a hot delirium, my dreams haunted by the padding of the man-eater’s feet round my tent.
In the next ward to me at the hospital was Major Hutchins, recovering from being mauled by the same tiger and when I was convalescing I heard from him another chapter in the moving story of the Dhari man-eater.
It appeared that Major Hutchins and Captain Cunningham had been out after the tiger for a week before I met them. It was not by sheer chance that they happened to be near Ratikhet when the beast made his latest ‘kill’ there. They had been studying its movements, and had discovered the one weak spot in its armor of cunning. The man-eater had a regular beat!
They had carefully marked out on the map the times and places of the ‘kills,’ and came to the conclusion that for the last two months at least the tiger had been following a circuit in the vicinity of the villages of Dhari, Mornaula, and Muktesar. It travelled this round in, roughly speaking, seven days, sometimes killing in one of the small hamlets on the way, but more often snatching a woman who had gone out to cut grass in the jungle or a child that had strayed.
The two soldiers had therefore planned their camps so as to be, every day, at just about the same place where the tiger had killed on his circuit the week before. This explains their nearness to Ratikhet on the day I met them.
The night after I left them Major Hutchins end Captain Cunningham, as arranged, sat up together in their machan in the oak-tree; their shikari was in another machan nearby. The pair took it in turns to watch. It was very cold, and there was a pale half-moon, by whose misty beams they could just see the white, huddled shape of the dead girl. It was eerie work keeping their eyes fixed on that dread example of the man-eater’s handiwork.
Nothing whatever happened all night, and about four-thirty a.m. Hutchins suggested giving up and getting down for at least ten minutes to restore the circulation to their numb limbs. Cunningham, however, persuaded his companion to ‘stick it’ until the sun had actually risen.
Just in that weird half-hour when the grey light of dawn supplants the paling moon and the tired stars, Cunningham saw a long, sinewy shape appear in the circle of cut grass where the girl’s body lay. The tiger materialized out of the shadows without a sound or even a movement of the bushes. Cunningham touched his companion, and very slowly, as they had been advised to do, the pair raised their rifles to their shoulders.
‘Stripes,’ however, must have heard some light sound from the machan, for Hutchins said that as they lifted their weapons the brute looked straight up at them. Cunningham fired first, followed immediately by Hutchins. Both aimed at the shoulder, but in the deceptive light of early dawn they cannot have seen very clearly, and probably they took too full a sight. The tiger gave a roar of pain and rolled over into the bushes, but the next moment it recovered itself and went crashing away through the undergrowth.
Cunningham was sure he’d hit it; Hutchins also thought his shot had found a billet. From subsequent examination, however, it was discovered that only one bullet had got home -through the near fore-leg. At the moment the officers believed the tiger must be very badly, if not mortally wounded, so they got down from their machan to hold a consultation with their shikari as to what was the best thing to do.
The shikari suggested that they had better wait until the villagers could collect a heard of buffaloes to be driven along the track of the wounded beast. But this would have meant waiting for at least two hours, and the soldiers were impatient. By that time, they said, the brute might have limped down to the thicker jungle of the lower valley, where not even buffaloes could follow It. There it might lick its wounds and eventually recover, to be twice as ferocious and cunning as before.
Moreover, they had promised the villagers to do all in then- power to destroy the man-eater, and they were eager to follow it at once and finish it off.
The shikari urged them not to go; the risk was too great. But the soldiers were determined. This was their first experience with big-game, and to let ‘Stripes’ get away so easily would be a great disappointment. Finally they did what every hunter is tempted to do, and what even an experienced shikari, in the circumstances, might not have been able to resist doing—they set off after the tiger on foot.
Hutchins went first, with his .450 rifle in his hand. Cunningham followed with an army .303; and both men had their service revolvers. The trail was easy to follow, for the wounded animal seemed to have crashed forward blindly and the bloodstains were large and frequent. As they went on the blood-spoor became more frequent, as if the tiger had slowed down, and at one place there was a large pool of blood, apparently indicating that it had stopped to lick its wounds. Hutchins turned round to his companion.
‘Looks as if he’s badly hit,’ he remarked. ‘We may find him dead any minute now, so we had better – ‘
Just at that moment the man-eater gave a mighty roar and sprang straight at the major from some low bushes to the rights. Hutchins was in the act of swinging his rifle up to his shoulder when the impetus of the brute’s spring knocked the weapon out of his hands, and he fell backwards with the tiger on top of him. As the great beast stood over him, about to go for his throat, Hutchins aimed a blow at its nose with his right first. The tiger snapped at his hand, and directly its mouth opened the major forced his hand as far down its throat as he could and tried to twist his fingers round the base of the tongue.
This almost-instinctive action saved Hutchins’ life; for a few seconds the startled tiger could not close its mouth. By this time Cunningham, who was close behind, had whipped out his revolver. He dare not use his rifle, for his friend was’ lying directly under the man-eater and he was afraid of hitting him.
Cunningham fired twice at the tiger’s hindquarters, which were clear of Hutchins’ body. Both bullets grazed its left flank without entering the body, but they had the effect of driving the beast off. Wrenching its head free from Hutchins’ hand, it turned and sprang away. Cunningham fired twice more at its retreating form, but missed.
Meanwhile the major was in a pretty bad state. As the tiger freed its mouth from, his grip its fangs ripped up the back of his hand: His chest and shoulders had also been mauled by the brute’s claws, but luckily for him they were partly protected by his thick cardigan.
With the help of the shikari and Cunningham, Hutchins managed to stagger back to the clearing where the machan was; and there he collapsed. Cunningham rendered first-aid with a strong solution of permanganate; then the Ratikhet villagers— who arrived shortly afterwards — carried the injured man away to hospital on the charpoy which they had brought for the girl’s body.
The rest of the story of the man eater of Dhari I heard when I came out of hospital. There must be many people in the Naini Tal district who remember it. for it all happened only four years ago. Captain Cunningham was the hero of the tale; he performed what is surely one of the bravest deeds recorded in the annals of shikar.
The tiger apparently recovered from its wounds, for within ten days It was killing again in its old haunts. From the pug-marks it seemed to be lame in the near foreleg; otherwise it was just as vigorous, but twice as cunning and ferocious as before.
A real reign of terror ensued in the Dhari district. Several small hamlets were entirely deserted, and the women going to the jungles to cut grass never went out less than ten strong. Even then the man-eater continued to take its toll of them. It also carried away boys as they were driving the cattle home within half a mile of the village; it snatched men and women silently from the fields and clearings in which they worked.
Once, fully two hours before dusk, it seized a woman who was cutting grass in company with a dozen others without her companions being aware that she had disappeared until they found her sickle lying on the ground, and the marks where the beast had dragged her into the jungle. The tiger had learnt its lesson now; It never returned to its ‘kills,’ and Captain Cunningham— who had obtained special leave to go after the evil beast— abandoned sitting-up in machans as hopeless.
The man-eater had become a positive obsession with him. He had shot at it and wounded it twice, and he was determined to go on until, he had finished it off. The promise he had made to the Ratikhet Villagers— that he would kill the tiger if they would leave the girl’s body that night— weighed on his conscience. They had reluctantly yielded to his persuasion, and nothing had come of it; the brute’s depredations continued as before. Cunningham felt that he had ‘let down’ the people who trusted him.
Fortunately, however, the man-eater still kept to its regular habits; and the beast that contracts habits will sooner or later fall a victim to the enemy who studies those habits and has enough patience to wait.
On two successive weeks the tiger had killed at a lonely spot on a stretch of jungle road between Mornaula and the still-deserted- village of Ratikhet. The first victim was a villager who wet driving back a cow that had strayed into the jungle. Next week it had killed a bannia (merchant) riding his pony up to Dhari, where he was going to collect the interest due on loans made to the very-nearly-starving Ratikhet villagers.
The hapless moneylender’s body, half-eaten, was found by some people travelling along the road, armed with spears, who encountered the riderless pony. Cunningham sat over the body, but in accordance with its new rule the tiger did not come back. Then Cunningham decided on a very bold course. He realised that this particular stretch of road, with thick jungle on either side, was a favorite spot with the man-eater. It had already killed there twice, and almost In the same spot. So Cunningham decided to act as a bait himself!
Every day at dawn and dusk he strolled up and down that mile or so of lonely road. For the first six days he had no luck. The tiger seemed to be at the other end of its beat, near Muktesar, where it carried away a child from inside a hut in a village. On the seventh day, exactly a week after the brute had killed the money-lender on the same stretch of road, Cunningham was taking his usual evening stroll. He was keenly on the alert, for he expected his adversary any day now. However, he walked along as casually as he could, with Hutchins’s .450 rifle in his hands, and a blank spectacle frame on his nose.
This spectacle frame was an important part of his plan. He had bought it a week before in Naini Tal; he had also obtained a small mirror that could be slipped into either side as if it were a spectacle lens. Once this was in position he could see behind him without turning his head. It was a trick he had learnt at school, and be used it now because he realised that, if he was continually turning his head, the tiger would in all probability grow suspicious and decline to come out into the open.
The sun had sunk over the brow of the hill; night was falling fast, and Cunningham had almost come to the end of his daily tramp. Peering into the looking glass in front of his left eye, he imagined he saw a movement in some long grass on, the hillside to his left— a movement rather too pronounced to be caused by the evening breeze. He walked steadily on without turning his head, staring fixedly into the little mirror. Thirty yards behind him, in a gap in the bushes, he presently observed a striped form sneaking along. He was being stalked!
He must have required every ounce of his nerve and courage not to turn round then and there, but he was not going to risk a blind shot into the bushes and allow the tiger to get away a second time. Accordingly he walked steadily on.
Fifteen yards ahead the track took a sharp turn to the left round a corner where there was an outcrop, of large, smooth boulders, known locally, from their massive shape, as the ‘Elephant Rocks,’ Cunningham had often noticed them on his daily stroll. If he could only reach them before the brute decided to spring, he thought, he might become the hunter instead of the hunted.
Fifteen yards is a terribly Ions way to walk with seeming nonchalance when a bloodthirsty man-eater is stalking you, but this gallant officer did it. In his tiny looking glass he again caught sight of the beast as it slunk between the sparser bushes on the rocky slope, and finally dropped silently down on to the track behind him. It was appreciably nearer, but Cunningham devoutly hoped it would not decide to charge just yet. It had killed the money-lender farther on, round the corner.
That casual stroll of fifteen yards, the captain, said afterwards, was the most nerve-racking thing in his life. Every instinct urged him to turn round and shoot or else run for the shelter of the rocks. It was with a sigh of intense relief that he eventually rounded the angle and sank on his knee, his rifle at his shoulder, behind the cover of the boulders.
There he waited, finger on trigger, every muscle tense. The man-eater came creeping round the corner. For a second it stood absolutely still. Just glaring at the man. Then, as it gathered itself for a spring Cunningham’s bullet crashed into its brain at point blank range. The tiger rolled over— stone dead!
The news of the killer’s death spread like wild-fire. That very night the hill-men flocked out from all the neighboring villages, waving torches and spears and beating their tom-toms. Cunningham became a hero— more, a demi-god. They crowded round shouting his praises and hurling insults at the now lifeless body of the tiger.
‘Take that for killing my sister!’
‘Roar now, slayer of my child!’
They kicked and beat the lifeless body, and some dug their spears into it: it was only with great difficulty that Cunningham prevented them from utterly ruining the skin. As it was, the pelt was badly damaged, and almost all the whiskers were pulled out by the superstitious hill-men to be used as charms.
The hide of the man-eater of Dhari, therefore, does not look very fine; but I think that Captain Cunningham has every reason to be proud of it!
The Tramp has been looking for some additional evidence for establishing the authenticity of the tale. The search for Dorothy M. Leslie who was born at Inverness, who had a summer bungalow at Bhimtal, who shot a leopard on a hill near Bhimtal and whose husband was employed ín the plains’at the United Provinces has not been very fruitful. No further information could be found about the valiant Captain Cunningham who shot the ‘Man-eater of Dhari’ on the road between Mornaula and Ratikhet sometime in 1929. Or of his colleague Major Hutchins who got mauled by the tiger at Ratikhet. Or Mr. Collins ICS and his sister who failed to join Mrs. D M Leslie for the hunt.
Dhari is the headquarter of a sub-division in Nainital District about 20 KM from Bhimtal. Mornaula lies some 35 KM from Dhari via the State Highway.
The online search revealed that a somewhat truncated version of the story was published in the Issue No. 13 of the Dutch Magazine on Cinema and Theatre – ‘Het Weekblad’ on 9th of April, 1938 under the title – ‘De Menscheneter Van Dhari’.
The story does not talk of the adventure that Dorothy M. Leslie had with the man-eater or the mauling of Hutchins. The form of the narrative is, however, largely identical and the story seems to have been written by the same writer.
Filed in: Shikar stories from Morni and elsewhere