There are many cases of strange creatures throughout history, some more bizarre than others. Perhaps ranking among the more curious of such accounts is that of actual werewolves, shape-changing creatures of lore that seem to surely be the realm of pure myth and legend. Yet, there have been many incidents in time during which the name of werewolves has been invoked, and ranking among these is a series of several spates of wolf attacks in the country of India, which not only held the populace in a state of terror, but also gave rise to much talk of supernatural creatures.
The earliest known spate of wolf attacks in India that caused great hysteria and talk of the paranormal in its time occurred in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in northern India. In the year of 1878 there was an unprecedented series of bold attacks made by wolves on humans throughout the rural areas of Uttar Predesh. Over the course of the year, British officials recorded more than 600 killed in daring daytime attacks carried out by the rampaging wolves in a matter of months, primarily targeting infants, young children or women, and it was shocking in the sheer frequency and fearless ferocity of the attacks. The Indian wolf, Canis lupus pallipes, a subspecies of grey wolf, had been known to attack livestock from time to time and rarely humans, but they were typically shy and avoided humans, making the sheer intensity of these attacks quite anomalous, indeed.
It is perhaps partly because of the breathtaking frequency and fearlessness of these attacks that rumors began to spread that these were no normal wolves, but rather supernatural werewolves. At the time, sightings began to come in of people claiming to have seen half-man and half-wolf creatures lurking about and running off with children, with there even being reports from witnesses saying they had seen men transform into wolves to go about their grisly work. Such rumors became so rampant that officials actually had to go through villages trying to convince people that these were just normal wolves, who had turned to man-eating through starvation or disease, but the strange stories persisted. The attacks eventually tapered off when an aggressive bounty system was enforced, leading to the killing of around 2,500 animals, and although there would be sporadic wolf attacks throughout India after this, the 1878 attacks remain the worst on record.
This would not be the end of talk of werewolves on the loose in India, but while there continued to be scattered attacks there would be nothing seen on the scale of the 1878 attacks until the 1990s, when stories of werewolves would also begin to make the rounds again. Beginning in April of 1996, the area of Uttar Predesh was once again held under siege by a marauding wolf pack that seemed to have a hunger for human flesh. Once again young children and infants were being dragged off by the vicious predators, often in broad daylight and right under villager’s noses within human settlements, sometime even from their own homes, the wolves always managing to evade hunters. One typical report of the harrowing carnage was given in one newspaper as follows:
The wolf pounced while Urmila Devi and three of her eight children were in a grassy clearing at the edge of the village, using the open ground for a toilet. The animal, about 100 pounds of coiled sinew and muscle, seized the smallest child, a 4-year-old boy named Anand Kumar, and carried him by the neck into the luxuriant stands of corn and elephant grass that stretch to a nearby riverbank. When a police search party found the boy three days later, half a mile away, all that remained was his head. From the claw and tooth marks, pathologists confirmed he had been killed by a wolf — probably one of a pack that conservationists believe has been roaming this area, driven to killing small children by hunger or by something else that has upset the natural instinct of wolves to avoid humans, like thrill-seeking villagers stealing cubs from a lair.
Before long, dozens of people had fallen victim to the wolves, and rumors of supernatural creatures began doing the rounds once again. There were reports of seeing the wolves running about on two legs, or of half-human, half-wolf monstrosities impervious to physical injury and with glowing eyes, and before long there was widespread panic that werewolves were on the loose. People were cowering within their locked dwellings, and the reports of werewolves kept coming in. One villager, a girl named Sita Devi, claimed to have seen one of the beasts when it came for and killed her brother, and she would say of it:
It came across the grass on all four paws, like this. As it grabbed Anand, it rose onto two legs until it was tall as a man. Then it threw him over its shoulder. It was wearing a black coat, and a helmet and goggles. As long as officials pressure us to say it was a wolf, we’ll say it was a wolf. But we have seen this thing with our own eyes. It is not a wolf; it is a human being.
Another report came from a villager who claims he came across a wolf dragging a child into the forest, but when it realized that it had been seen it dropped its victim, stood up, and ran off on two feet. Yet another rumor was from a young boy who claimed that a wolf had tried to snatch him from his bed at night, yet when he had screamed, its face had turned to that of a man with wild eyes. During my search for details on this case, I was fortunate to personally get an account from a reader who says that his cousin was there at the time and had a first-hand sighting. He says:
My cousin was there at the time and saw one of these things. There had been a child dragged off at dusk, and he went out with his rifle to find the wolf, following a trail of blood through the brush. In a clearing, he came across a human shaped figure in the murk, holding the body of the missing child. He fired upon this person, but nothing happened. It just stared at him with glinting eyes like a cat, after which it fell onto all fours and crept off into the brush, leaving the mangled body of the dead child behind. The authorities insist this was just wolf attacks, but what you don’t read in the news is that there were many people reporting werewolf-like creatures, something neither wolf nor human. People were scared.
As the deaths and such rumors of werewolves went on, once again authorities tried to put the superstitious locals at ease and convince them that these were flesh and blood animals and not demonic creatures. As to why the wolves were rampaging through the region once again, one wildlife biologist would say:
In the eastern part of the wolf’s range there have been several reports of non-rabid wolf attacks on children. This severe form of conflict reached its peak in eastern Uttar-Pradesh in 1996 when a wolf was found to be responsible for attacks on 76 children (of which over 50 were fatal). Sporadic fatal attacks on children by wolves have been reported in 1997, 1998 and 1999 from other parts of Uttar Pradesh. Our study suggests that in areas where there is high human density (> 600 km2) of low economic status, with little wild prey, and with livestock populations that are heavily guarded, wolves could potentially attack children. Radio-telemetry data from three different regions in western India suggests that wolves come into contact with humans very often. It would be extremely easy for wolves to attack children in these areas. However, no authentic reports of wolf attacks on humans are available from these regions in spite of these areas having high wolf densities. Our data suggests that attacks on children are exceptionally rare in comparison to the opportunities for attacks available to wolves in India. Such attacks are an aberration of wolf behavior and should be viewed within their special ecological and socio-economic context.
In the meantime, the attacks continued, and it became a common occurrence to come across the twisted, mangled, half-eaten corpses of children in the wilderness, sometimes little more than a pile of splintered, bloodied bones. Between April of 1996 and the beginning of 1997, it is estimated that between 80 and 100 people were killed by the beasts in this one area, with dozens more mauled and seriously injured. The death toll, mixed with the rumors of werewolves, caused a mass hysteria in the region, with suspicion and paranoia running high, no one sure if someone around them was actually a werewolf. One report in the New York Times would say of the situation:
Villagers have turned against strangers, and sometimes against one another, in lynchings that have killed at least 20 people and prompted the authorities to arrest 150 people. ”It’s the worst wolf menace anywhere in the world in at least 100 years,” said Ram Lakhan Singh, the animal conservationist chosen to lead an effort to kill wolves suspected of attacking humans. The hunt involves thousands of villagers and police officers armed with bamboo staves and 12-gauge shotguns. But nobody can be sure that any of the wolves shot so far were part of the pack that Mr. Singh and other experts believe is responsible for the deaths. Fear is pervasive. Men stay awake all night, keeping vigil with antique rifles and staves. Mothers keep children from the fields, and infants are kept inside all day. In the dark interiors of stark brick homes made clammy by the monsoons, fantastical stories are told, sweeping aside all attempts by officials to convince villagers that the killers have been wolves. Nearly half of India’s 930 million people are illiterate, and the ratio is higher in villages like Banbirpur. Many men head off to Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta in search of menial jobs, but living in slums among others much like themselves, they learn little to allay the superstitions of village life. In the case of wolves, these are compounded by fairy tales told to children — Indian versions of ”Little Red Riding Hood” — in which wolves, and werewolves, are represented as among the most cunning and dangerous of all creatures.
The attacks would spur on a new bounty system, a bounty of 10,000 rupees (about $285), more than many families earn in a year, offered for every dead wolf brought in by villagers. It is unfortunate since the Indian wolf is an endangered, protected species with fewer than 2,000 individuals remaining in the wild, but it was seen as a situation in which there was no other option. One wildlife official would say of this:
Some Indian conservationists worry that a similar campaign this time — especially if it is repeated elsewhere across India, where isolated incidents of wolves killing children have occurred — could lead to wolves becoming extinct. Crime and punishment apply to every living thing, humans and animals. The wolves have to learn that they cannot live next to human beings and misbehave. If they do, they must be killed. Enough care has been taken for these animals. We simply cannot have carnivores roaming around densely populated areas anymore. If India is going to save the wolf, it is going to have to be in sanctuaries.
The panic would reach its height at the end of 1996, when rumors had gone from werewolves to even hyenas or Pakistani intruders wearing wolf costumes to spread terror, and the bounty system would in the meantime spell the doom of dozens of wolves. The attacks waned away as before, but the talk of werewolves continued to echo through the affected communities, marking it as not only a tragedy, but an unsolved mystery in India. The cases of the 1878 and 1996 wolf attacks continue to stir up discussion, with plenty of claims among the superstitious that werewolves were to blame, and no matter what the reason for these bloody killing sprees, they are certainly curious historical oddities at the very least.