MANIWALA, India – She lies in wait while her victims are collecting firewood, or taking cattle to graze, or working in the fields. She has grabbed people in broad daylight, carrying them away silently into the forests or the sugarcane fields. By the time the victims are found, often little is left but a pair of shoes, unspeakable gore and a ring of drying blood.
Over seven weeks she has traveled, almost completely unseen, for more than 120 miles. She has crossed villages, small towns and at least one highway.
A killer is stalking the villages of north India. She has killed at least nine people, all of them poor villagers living on the fringes of one of the world's last wild tiger habitats. They are people who cannot afford a day off work, people who have no indoor plumbing and must use the fields as their toilets. They are people who know little about India's recent successes in tiger conservation.
But with the sudden appearance of one tiger, they look at an animal so beloved to outsiders and see only a monster.
"She has turned into a man-eater," said Vijay Pal Singh, whose neighbor, a 22-year-old farm laborer named Shiv Kumar Singh, was killed as he worked at the edge of a sugarcane field in January. In an area where nearly everyone works outside, this means life has been completely upended. "People are afraid to go into the fields," said Singh. "Everything has changed."
While hunters are brought in to kill man-eating tigers every year or so in India, it has been decades since a tiger killed as many people as this one, or stayed on the run so long.
"She won't stop now. She'll keep killing," said Samar Jeet Singh, a hunter with an aristocratic pedigree, a curled-up moustache and a high-powered heirloom rifle. For almost a month he has been tracking the female tiger, most recently through the forests and dried riverbeds near where she made her last kill, cutting down an elderly buffalo herder last week. Searchers found just part of one arm and one leg. The tiger left the buffalos unharmed.
When he finds her, he said, he will shoot her dead.
"The time for tranquilizing is over, the time for caging is over," he said. "Now she must be killed."
For generations, few in these villages even thought about tigers. The encroachment of towns, widespread poaching and incompetent wildlife programs had devastated India's tiger populations, forcing them into ever-smaller enclaves. Corbett National Park, one of India's premier tiger reserves, is barely 25 miles away, but while the villagers around here are used to living with wildlife — the forests and fields shelter leopards, monkeys, foxes, bears and wild boars — tigers were extremely rare.
The last decade, though, has seen improvements in tiger conservation and growth in the tiger populations. If that is good news in many ways, it has also increased the chances of encounters between tigers and people.
"This area is so rich in wildlife," said Vijay Singh, a top regional forestry official in the nearby town of Bijnor (and who, like so many people in this region has the last name Singh). "That is the problem."
The problem is magnified by the choice of crops. Sugarcane is the backbone of the local economy, and thousands of cane fields, with their dense stands of 10-foot-tall plants, offer ideal hiding places.
Wildlife experts know little about the tiger they are hunting. They know it is a female because of the shape of its paw prints, and many believe it is somehow injured, which could explain why it overcame its natural fear of humans. While most tigers flee at any sign of people, humans are also much easier prey: slower than deer, weaker than buffalo and with soft skin that is easy to bite through.
Some believe the tiger now prefers to eat human flesh. "It is because of taste that she is killing now — because of taste only," said Singh, the forestry official.
Others, though, doubt tigers develop a taste for people. The hunters, for instance, believe she probably has a problem with her mouth, perhaps an infected tooth, and has an easier time eating human flesh.
It is also unclear how many kills she has made. Ten people have been killed by tigers in western Uttar Pradesh state since Dec. 29. But most forestry officials and hunters believe the female is not responsible for the last death, when a day laborer was attacked Feb. 9 on the edges of Corbett park.
While this part of India has grown somewhat wealthier in recent years, with mud homes being torn down and replaced with brick buildings, it remains deeply poor. Traffic is limited to bullock carts or clunky Atlas bicycles in most villages, and motorcycles are status symbols. Most villagers have only a rough idea about the tiger conservation movement, which has become an important issue in middle-class India and a major part of the country's tourism campaigns.
"Only the government knows why the government is saving the tiger," said Govind Singh, a farmer working in his fields on Thursday evening.
The hunters, though, are from a different world.
Indian wildlife agencies have few trained hunters, and normally rely on volunteers when they need to track and kill man-eating animals. Those volunteers often come from India's former royal families, with their long histories of big-game hunting and plenty of time on their hands.
"We are financially well-off," said Samar Jeet Singh, the mustachioed hunter. He is from the royal family of Kuchesar, which has turned their palace into a hotel.
These days, farm laborers normally work in groups when they have to go into the fields. Some bring cheap homemade guns along, or carry a hathauri — a "hammer" — a metal pipe where gunpowder is loaded to create a loud noise.
Still, they are afraid.
Mahipal Singh was working with a group of a half-dozen men in early January when Shiv Kumar Singh was killed just outside Maniawala. The men were trimming trees at the edge of a sugar cane field, and realized Shiv was missing when they broke for lunch.
There heard no growling, no cry for help. "There was nothing," said Singh, still clearly shaken by what had happened. By the time a group of villagers made their way into the cane field about 20 minutes later, they found nothing but the young man's partially eaten corpse.