How One Man Went From Pass-Ing Under Leopards To Hunt-Ing Them.
At age 14, my uncle, Binod, shot his first leopard. “The sun had come out after a period of rain,” he remembers. “Some shepherds came to our house and said they had seen a leopard. My father took me to the sighting place, and asked me to shoot at the leopard, which was in a tree.” Binod justifi ed the faith placed in him with an accurate shot. For Binod, as a budding hunter, a leopard at 14 must have been like graduation; for his fa-ther, a re-enactment of his childhood. On that day the 12-bore’s report must have had undertones of happiness for the audacious father; the same sound that had announced to his relations and neighbors the arrival of his son into this world and had assured him of his son’s passage into adulthood. With the kill – the fi rst four-leggedof his life – Binod had crossed over, although sub-consciously, into the en-viable world of a shikari, or hunter.
Binod grew up in the hill-town of Dadeldhura, in the district of the same name, in west Nepal. He remembers the Dadeldhura of his childhood as a hunters’ town, where a man’s most precious possessions were not a pair of sturdy oxen, or a piece of land, but a gun and a dog. My great grandfather’s desire to provide his sons with the best in education took them to Almora in northern India, a nine-day trek from Dadeldhura. The journey of nine days was a short one. At the end of it lay the grandeur of British schools. Returning to school after holidays, my grandfather and his brothers’ retinue always had goats as traveler’s checks. Once in India, these tell-tale possessions of their back-wardness were sold. The Indian cur-rency thus obtained comprised their pocket money. The years of schooling in India would change not only these brothers, but their hometown itself, and the one thing that its inhabitants loved most — hunting.
The British way of life was as ap-pealing as their schools, and usually a veneer of the Sahibs’ lifestyle settled on the lives of those who witnessed it’s luster. Hunting wasn’t new to the Bisht brothers, but the high quality firearms of the British were. The siblings were equally impressed by the feats of the English hunting dogs. They spent a great deal of money to acquire the paraphernalia of the Sa-hibs. Soon the forests of Dadeldhura resounded with reports of Manlich-ers, Remingtons, Winchesters, and the excited barks of Labradors, Cocker spaniels, Rampur hounds (an Indian breed), chasing quarry. Every man invested in a gun and raised a dog of a hunting pedigree. The town’s inhabitants were reared for civiliza-tion, but equipped for the wilderness. A strong predilection for hunting fl owed within the community, making it more a permanent hunter’s camp than a town.
Firing guns was a mode of expres-sion in Dadeldhura. A gunshot from a house that had a laboring woman inside meant a son had been born. My grandfather once ordered a gun to be fi red after a daughter had been born in his house. Those who had heard the report came excitedly to his house, each carrying a gun, which they fi red after saying, “Didn’t I tell you it would be a boy.”
There were special days when the sons of the town could exhibit their marksmanship. It was tradition for the town folks to gather on a nearby hillock after lunch on the day of the festival of Dasain. This was tara hanne din, ‘target shooting day’. The target was put up at a distance of 150 meters across a ravine. The only reward for an accurate shot was the applause of the crowd. Target-shooting on the day of the Dasain was Dadeldhura’s way of commemorating the victory of Good over Evil. “In those days,” Uncle Binod explains, “gunfi re was the sound of hap-piness in Dadeldhura.”
The Big Patron
The Bada Hakim, the direct representa-tive of the king to the district, resided in Dadeldhura. The town’s prominence was in part due to it being the seat of the local government. The Bada Hakim of Dadeldhura, no matter who the incum-bent, was a hunt enthusiast. In those days hunting was an indulgence of the wealthy and powerful. “Every man of the upper castes was a born hunter,” Uncle Binod says. The right to hunt was not limited to individuals with a high social stand-ing, however. Members of the low castes hunted too, although not as much as the elites. This meant that almost everyone in the town was a hunter, a fact true of most towns in Nepal and, according to my uncle, the cause of Nepal’s depletion of wildlife.
Nothing affected the Bada Hakim’s residence, which was also his office, like the news of a leopard sighting. It was the duty of the town folk to report sightings of the wily feline, applying the utmost care not to spook it. The big cats were usually spotted some distance from town, so the hunting party set off early. A bugle was blown to call the hunters to join in the hunt and, like harbingers of their masters’ participation, the hunting dogs would arrive at the Bada Hakim’s residence within minutes of the bugle call. The dogs, like their masters, were eager to prove their worth.
After all the hunters had assembled, a plan was drawn up. The area in which the leopard had been seen and where the hunt would be carried out changed each time, but the technique used was always the same. Refl ecting on the area’s geography (any self-respecting hunter could conjure the map of the jungle from memory) the surest route of es-cape for the leopard was predicted. The gunmen would then go in that direction, making a detour to avoid spooking the leopard. An expert dog-handler, with a posse of dogs at his command, would head towards the area where the quarry had been seen.
As soon as a dog caught the leopard’s scent it would break out into a bark, and soon the other dogs would lend their voices, barking excitedly, boosted by each other’s company. Discovered and outnumbered, the leopard had to escape the dogs, and they in turn would chase the quarry downhill, where the gunmen waited. In its efforts to escape the dogs’ jaws, the leopard ran right into those of death. On being asked why the animal always fl ed downhill, my uncle explains that all animals fl ee in the most convenient direction when threatened or injured. In the hilly forests of Dadeld-hura retreating down a slope was always the most convenient.
The dog handler also had another responsibility--identifying the fi rst gun-man to hit the leopard was up to him. In the rules of the hunt the credit for the kill went to the fi rst man to hit the quarry. To identify that man the dog handler had to know when the leopard was hit. “When a leopard is hit it emits a cry,” explains Uncle Binod. That was the dog-handler’s cue to assume the responsibility of adju-dicator. “Who was that?”, the dog-handler would ask on hearing the sound of the leopard’s doom. “Me,” someone would shout, claiming the kill. That ‘me’ was identifi ed and the kill conferred upon him, uncontested — a show of chivalry and faith at the end of a day of savagery. Some gunmen were lured in more by fame than merely by the spirit of sport: some hunters paid the dog-handler to hear a cry that was never made.
Uncle Binod was privy to one former dog handler’s confession of having ac-cepted 14 packs of cigarettes from a man in the twilight of his hunting career, who desired a leopard on his résumé. In such an arrangement, ‘me’ became the bullet, and the speaker the successful hunter.
To these hunters of the earlier gen-eration, the last day of the leopard’s life was the hunter’s best; and it wasn’t just his ability in the forest. It included the response in town that made it a memorable one. In town, the successful hunter was adorned with the traditional trappings of the leopard slayer: a pagadi, or turban wound around the head, and fl ower garlands around the neck. Then he went on the customary parade through town, led by the town’s fi nest musicians playing in his honor. The shikari walked in the wake of musical pomp, accompa-nied and looked at by dozens, with his kill carried slung on a wooden pole, or spread eagled on a platform. Children were told to pass under the leopard, a ritual the locals believed protected the children from evil spirits. Some chil-dren, like Binod, had to be forced. “We were scared of the leopard,” he says. To celebrate his success, the leopard slayer then threw a party. Not every hunter got the opportunity to host such a party, but they all dreamt of having the honor and privilege of doing so.
Although hunting wasn’t restricted to any particular caste, the hunters of Dadeldhura were predominantly Chhetris, the erstwhile ‘warrior caste’. In Dadeldhura it mattered little whether a leopard was killing cattle or not; the leopard’s predilection for domestic ani-mals was an established fact. The leopard was an ever-present threat to a cow, the holiest animal in anyone’s stable. For a Hindu, slaying a leopard bore religious signifi cance; a leopard killed was, poten-tially, a cow saved. For a Chhetri, a mem-ber of the caste that was also ordained by religion to protect the Brahmins and sacred cows, killing a leopard was carry-ing out a divine duty. Every inhabitant of Dadeldhura had a special interest in killing a leopard, for not just earthly, but also heavenly patronage.
In the forests, people wouldn’t leave leopards alone; and in the Terai jungles it was the leopard that didn’t want to be left out. Herdsmen from the hills often drove their cattle down into the forests where the Siwalik hills meet the Terai plains. The livestock herds were taken into the forests during the day and brought back to the goth (meaning stable or herder’s temporary settlement) in the evenings. The goth usually had half a dozen families living in huts. Each family with cattle sent only one or two of its members to live in the goth. These were the ones whose absence did not affect the work back home in the hill farms. A miniature community was thus created, with members of varying ages contribut-ing their experience, skills, and physical strength. It was this diversity that helped the members of a goth successfully rear their herds in the forest.
With its skill, experience, and physical strength the leopard could render any goth untenable. The leopard frequently made kills to satisfy its predilection for cattle. Once it made a kill, it would eat a portion of it, and then leave. The carcass was vis-ited sometime later for a second feed. The leopard returning to its kill is a cautious animal and always times its return at dusk, or, safer, in the dark of night. If the kill was left near the goth, someone with a gun would conceal himself nearby, up a tree, perhaps, to await the killer’s return.
When an animal was killed away from the goth, a trap known as dorjan was set up. But before a dorjan could be rigged some fundamental deductions had to be made. Crucial to the success of the trap was determining the direction from which the leopard would return to it’s kill. The answer had to be deciphered from the ge-ography of the kill site: leopards returning to their kills took great care not to be seen. The direction providing the most cover was the leopard’s fi rst choice.
It was also said of experienced hunters that they could tell the height of a feline by studying its pug marks. Knowledge of the killer’s height increased the chances of the desired result — to kill the killer.
The dorjan contraption consisted of two sturdy branches that forked to form a ‘V’ at the top. Their lower ends were driven into the ground, creating a cradle on which to fi x a loaded gun. The gun’s barrel was pointed in the anticipated direction of the leopard’s approach. To form a trip wire, one end of a thin string was tied around the trigger of the gun and the remaining length was strung across the anticipated path of the leopard. The gun was most effec-tive, of course, when resting against the shoulder of a hunter, not on forked branches. The dorjan had a low success rate; only four dorjans out of every ten worked out to plan. The reasons for its failure were many: sometimes hungry jackals set it off; sometimes it missed the target altogether; and, since the guns used were muzzle-loaders, misfi res were common; or worse, the leopard came in from a different direction.
Behind A Leopard’s Back
Sometimes a dorjan yielded unfortunate results: Once a bullet from a dorjan hit the sister of my uncle’s hunting mentor, Jetha Bajé (‘bajé ’ is an endearment used when referring to a Brahmin). It struck her on the leg, laming her for life. The dorjan also produced an unforgettable experience in Jetha Bajé’s life. Once, when he was staying in his family’s goth, a leopard killed one of his animals. The kill had been left beside a stream. Having set a dorjan, Jetha Bajé returned to his hut. During the night, the jungle’s stillness and Jetha Bajé’s sleep were broken by a gunshot, followed by the cries of a leop-ard. The dorjan had been successful.
As a rule the setter had to be fi rst to the site of the trap in the morning, for while other people were informed of the whereabouts of a trap, the area was out of bounds to them until the trap setter had taken a look. Arriving to ascertain his success, Jetha Bajé found the leop-ard resting on its belly on the stream bed, alive, but stationary. Its immobility made it apparent that the bullet had hit it somewhere on its spinal cord, paralyzing it. Slowly, people from the goth arrived on the scene, and began pelting the leopard with stones. Jetha Bajé told my uncle that the leopard would catch the stones being hurled at it with its front paws, and would then angrily chew them. A leopard was at hand. People who wanted to be amused were watching. Fortune, it seemed, was inviting the brave.
The leopard’s condition not only en-ticed bravado, but called for redefi ning bravery: only something extraordinary would pass for bravery. Jetha Bajé took it upon himself to perform that one act that adds vividness to an event forever after. For that he decided to blur the lines between bravery and stupidity: he would try to get hold of the leopard’s tail. Ask-ing the bystanders to hold the leopard’s attention, he stealthily made his way behind the leopard’s back. Soon, he had the snarling leopard’s tail in his hand, and the crowd reveling in his audacity.
“When A Man Is In Trouble, His Head Is The Heaviest Part Of His Body.”
Jetha Bajé had no intentions of letting go of the leopard’s tail, or the moment. Next, he decided to pull the leopard’s tail. His pull revived movement in the lifeless leopard, and it turned around and sprang at Jetha Bajé, catching one of his arms with its claw, etching a bloody line on it. Jetha Bajé’s tug had brought the dislocated bones of the spinal cord back into place. Instinctively, Jetha Bajé let go of the leopard’s tail to fl ee. As he did, the leopard’s severely damaged spinal cord collapsed, and the animal fell back to the ground, paralyzed once again. Jetha Baje kept running and stumbling. Even when the people called out to him that the leopard was again immobile, he wouldn’t stop. “When a man is in trouble, his head is the heaviest part of his body,” he later remarked to my uncle, summing up the incident. He came to this conclu-sion after trying to reason why he kept falling down when fl eeing the leopard; the weight of his head, he believed, kept pulling him down.
It was experiences such as these that endowed Jetha Bajé with the wisdom needed in identifying the limits of a hu-man in the jungle, which he later handed down to his trainee, my uncle Binod.
From Ladle To Pot
As a lad, Binod’s favorite toy was the cata-pult, and he spent most of his time bird hunting with friends. He still remembers his fi rst kill: “My mother was elated when I brought home my fi rst kill, a tiny bird. She asked our cook, a Brahmin, to cook the bird in a ladle, since it was too small for any other utensil. Imagine what her reaction would have been when I got a leopard.” Both his haunts and his toys changed as Binod grew up: the catapult was supplanted by the gun, birds by leopards, and the forests of Dadeldhura with the jungles of the Terai. In time, only the biggest pots in the household could hold the edible kills that he brought home. Hunting enclosed Binod on all sides: behind him was an encouraging father; around him a town full of hunters; ahead of him the richness of the forests.
Binod became aware of his love for hunting even more when he was at school in Kathmandu, hundreds of kilometers from his beloved forests, his “wild west”. For him, the gun was lovelier than the pen: “In school I was always thinking about our winter vacations, about being home, and the hunting trips I would have there. Films, mo-torcycles or other activities never held any charm for me. I was interested only in the wilderness.” He admired and craved the wisdom of the hunters, who “knew the animals as a mother knows her child”. For him, all that there was to achieve was in the jungles: “It was my dream to become like the experienced hunters. And, I wanted a tiger.”
Uncle Binod was introduced to hunting at an age when one’s heart grasps more than the mind, and feelings are not lost in reason. “I look back on the hunting I did with mixed feelings. The days spent in the jungles are the best of my life; I regret killing an animal, a beautiful creation, wantonly, for entertainment. We hunters were ignorant. We did not understand the damage we were doing.” Some, like Arjan Singh, an Indian sportsman-turned-conservationist did. It was while reading his book, Tiger Haven that Binod fi rst realized his erroneous ways. Shortly afterwards he gave up hunting. But quitting the gun, he believes is not enough. “Ex-hunters need to compensate,” he says. I ask him how he plans to do that. “My knowledge of the wild, which I formerly used in killing animals, I now want to utilize in saving and protecting them,” he says.
Like so many who have spent time in the wild, Binod, too, developed a fondness for the simple things in life. Into the sixth decade of his life he still considers his family’s winter trip from the hills to the Terai as one of the best experiences of his life. He closes his eyes to visualize the past, and a beatifi c smile gently starts spreading over his face. Then he says, as though speaking in a trance, “I cannot put into words the feeling that arose in me when I saw the fi rst parrot fl y overhead, the cart-track on the mud road, the mud houses and their thatched-roofs, and the smell of fresh wet mud with which the walls of our house would be coated for our arrival. These sights told me we were in the Terai. That trip, made year after year excited me in a way that not even my fi rst time on a jumbo jet could.”
Kapil Bisht is a freelance writer. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His uncle, Binod Bisht, a former shikari, is now a pro-wildlife conservationist, and can be contacted at email@example.com.
Wow!What pleasure. What luxury. And what relief, after a month trekkingrough on mountain trails in Solu District east of Kathmandu...