Hunters are tracking a man-eating tigress that has killed at least nine people during a 150-mile rampage from a national park in northern India to villages in the Himalayan foothills.
According to forestry officials, the tigress may have killed and eaten a tenth victim on Sunday, a 50-year-old farmer who was mauled as he collected firewood in Kalgarh village, along the border of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Uttarakhand. The big cat was chased away by villagers who discovered her eating her victim.
Forestry officials and tiger experts now fear that it will not stop killing humans until it is "removed" - either captured or killed.
The tigress strayed from Corbett National Park and began its six-week killing spree on 29 December when it pounced on a 21-year-old man who had wandered into sugarcane fields in Moradabad district for his morning ablutions. A week later, on 5 January, it claimed its second victim. Two days after that, a teenage girl was mauled to death.
Until then, the tigress had not eaten its victims. But over the following days, it killed another two villagers, in both cases consuming body parts and apparently developing a taste for human flesh. It then disappeared back into the national park, but emerged 16 days later to kill again.
Officials said the tiger had crossed several major national highways, a river and moved through villages on the prowl.
Belinda Wright, one of India's leading tiger conservationists, said officials had told her the first nine victims had been confirmed as those of a single, breeding tigress which may be wounded or injured: the pawprints were identical but uneven, which suggested it may have a limp. Officials said it was possible the tenth victim may have been killed by a different tiger.
Wright said the man-eater's nine or 10 victims made it one of the most prolific in recent years, although some of those pursued by Jim Corbett, the legendary tiger hunter turned conservationist after whom the national park is named, were said to have killed and eaten more than 400 people.
She blamed the worsening "human-animal conflict" in India for the latest killings and said the spread of mobile phones has been a factor. After one of the killings a crowd of thousands of local people arrived to track down the tigress and disturbed its retreat back into the forest. "Initially we had a man-killer, maybe that can be put down to these crowds," she said. "And then she started eating people, and unfortunately when that happens there is no alternative but to remove it. It can no longer be a wild tiger."
Wright and local officials hope the tigress, believed to be four years old, can be captured rather than killed. "There are so few breeding tigresses that every one is precious," she said. "They can survive with the loss of a few young or male tigers, but not feeding females. It's a tragedy."
Kamlesh Kumar, the conservator of forest in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, said: "It has strayed from Jim Corbett Park and travelled 120 kilometres to rural Moradabad. We are trying to understand why it went unnoticed all the way, as the sighting happened only after it killed while returning to Jim Corbett. We have been following it since then. Our understanding is that the animal has panicked and attacked humans."