Child-snatching wolves terrorise rural India

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Balls of heat lightning flicker overhead as evening gathers in Chilbila village, and mothers shoo youngsters indoors, warning "Doro doro. Pukro, pukro." ("Run, run. It's going to get you.")

An ancient terror has returned to Chilbila and other settlements among the river banks and wooded ravines of this region, south-east of Lucknow. Wolves have snatched a girl from her grandmother's lap, and caught other children by the throat while they slept. They drop their mutilated victims, nearly all children under six, in nearby cornfields and riverbeds; throats are pierced, stomachs ripped open, limbs gnawed. One teenager was attacked in broad daylight by a rabid wolf a fortnight ago in the district. He and his brothers beat it to death with sticks.

Vijay Yadav, 5, calls himself lucky. He was seized while he slept last August, but was left bleeding on the ground, still alive. "It was like a bad dream, but with pain," he said. The deep scars where fangs tore into his head are almost healed, but he still shies away from the local dogs in Chilbila village. Officials who examined his wounds concluded that a powerful animal closed its jaws on his scalp, then punctured his back and chest with its long claws as it tried to drag him away.

Vijay's mother Kamlesh, 35, slept right next to him that night. "It was sticky, so we pulled the beds outside for some breeze. I woke up suddenly when I sensed the boy was missing. I kept shouting until we found him, bawling, around one in the morning." Unable to carry Vijay's 30lb weight, the wolf had dropped him near a tree and bounded off across the fields.

The local police constable, Munir Ahmed, later traced the paw prints to a second house, where just seven minutes later, Achay Kumar was pulled from his cot and devoured. The village dogs failed to bark a warning, and this time the wolf gripped the toddler's throat with his teeth, killing him before he could cry out.

Scrawny yet ferocious, the Indian grey wolf resembles an Alsatian dog, only its longer legs enable it to leap much higher. It can travel 30 miles in a day, and, until harvest season clears the fields, can hide easily near settlements. Unlike tigers and leopards, wolves rarely return to a kill, craving fresh meat. They literally wolf down their prey - normally hares, rabbits and rodents - then leave the rest for hyenas and jackals.

Nearly a century and a half ago in the same district, a she-wolf was spotted leaving her lair in the rushes along the Gomti River, followed by three cubs and a little boy. An account of this comes from Sir William Sleeman, an adventurer and raconteur: "The boy went on all fours and seemed on the best possible terms with the old dam and the three young whelps, and the mother seemed to guard all four with equal care." Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli in The Jungle Book was based on a real wolf-boy who was captured, but never tamed, in northern India.

Just before Kipling began work on Lucknow's famous Pioneer newspaper, some 624 children had been eaten by predators in a matter of months, leading the authorities to embark on a bounty campaign which bagged more than 2,500 wolves in 1878 alone. Today the wolf is a protected species which Hindus consider sacred, but in Pratapgarh and three neighbouring districts there have been 81 attacks in the past year on village children, of whom 50 were killed and partly eaten.

After killing 14 wolves, forestry officials in Pratapgarh declared prematurely in January that the menace was over, only for the attacks to resume in neighbouring Rai Bareilly district last month, after hot nights drove the villagers to risk sleeping in the open again. So far, five deaths and seven injuries from a new pack of killer wolves have been reported. K L Srivasta, a forestry official, speculates that after one wolf accidentally killed a child, it taught the rest of the pack about such easy prey.

"We don't want to kill innocent animals, just the childlifters," said another forester. "For 20 years, wolves have been an endangered species - these man-eaters are an aberration. What happens is that their territory is encroached upon, and our two species are fighting for space."