Koose Muniswamy Veerappan

Poacher and smuggler with a reputation as an Indian Robin Hood

Sending his victims to sleep with the fishes was not enough for Koose Munisamy Veerappan. He liked to cut them up and serve them as fish food. India's most notorious criminal was gunned down in the southern state of Tamil Nadu on Monday, bringing an end to almost 50 years of jungle terror, smuggling and elephant extermination. There is no doubting the brutality he dished out, yet the brigand gained the aura of a freedom fighter.

Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, poacher and smuggler: born Gopinatham, India 1945; married (two daughters); died Paparapatti, India 18 October 2004.

Sending his victims to sleep with the fishes was not enough for Koose Munisamy Veerappan. He liked to cut them up and serve them as fish food. India's most notorious criminal was gunned down in the southern state of Tamil Nadu on Monday, bringing an end to almost 50 years of jungle terror, smuggling and elephant extermination. There is no doubting the brutality he dished out, yet the brigand gained the aura of a freedom fighter.

Sporting a long, luxurious moustache, Veerappan attained cult status across India and further afield as he repeatedly evaded capture and mounted daring raids from the forests. His fame reaching a climax with the abduction of India's celebrated film star Rajkumar, in July 2000. The actor was released unharmed three months later.

To the police who stalked him, Veerappan was known as the Cobra - a man of poison who could strike quickly with lethal force, before swiftly vanishing into his woodland habitat. To supporters he was a modern-day Robin Hood, sticking up for the rights of those left behind by India's economic and electronic boom. Yet the reality of Veerappan's emergence is much more mundane. Quite simply, he was a poacher.

In 1955 the child who would become India's most wanted bandit was a short wiry 10-year-old scurrying through the jungle. He had been born into a poor Tamil-speaking family and brought up in the village of Gopinatham on the border between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. His childhood backyard of mountains and forests proved the perfect terrain for nurturing a budding rural guerrilla. And there was plenty of lucrative target practice. Soon he proved a deadly shot. He is said to have downed his first elephant at the age of 10. By 1980, he had felled 300. But by then Veerappan had amassed a sophisticated rustic crime operation; the slaying had moved on from elephants, and humans were now in the firing line.

In the 1980s forestry workers, rival gang members and police were being gunned down as Veerappan strove to protect his empire - which had diversified into sandalwood smuggling after the 1986 ban on ivory. Whatever got in his way was wiped out. The gangster's toll included 120 people and 2,000 elephants - he smuggled more than 88,000lb of ivory.

Yet many regarded Veerappan as a hero. Despite his increasing attempts in the 1990s to link his criminal enterprise to the plight of the Tamils in India and Sri Lanka, the sympathy he fostered probably had much more to do with the withering attempts of local forces to snare him. Police officials boasted that they had killed hundreds of his supporters. Often, though, they had simply killed hundreds of innocent villagers.

The Indian journalist R.R. Gopal, who interviewed Veerappan in his jungle lair, recalls a man with a Tarzan-like relationship with nature: he was at one with it, describing the migratory patterns of birds and telling jokes about the life he had forged in the forests.

Stephen Khan

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