Man-Eating Leopard of Punanai: Full Story
Back in the 1920s, a bold leopard routinely attacked and killed around 20 people in a small village called Punanai on the east coast of Sri Lanka. Till 1924, the leopard wreaked havoc in the village, striking fear into the hearts of people. It wasn’t until Captain Shelton Agar – a planter and hunter from the hill country came along and killed the leopard that the killings stopped. The stuffed carcass of the very same leopard can still be seen at the National Museum in Colombo.
Most of the people who were involved in this unprecedented incident are long gone. Even if you go to the village of Punanai, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows about the incident. The only reliable account about this man-eating leopard is by Shelton Agar himself, who hunted the leopard during a span of six months in 1924. The full account is available in Douglas Ranasinghe’s book “The Man-Eating Leopard of Punanai” (2009) by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka.
Sir Christopher Ondaatje also wrote his famous book “The Man-Eater of Punanai” back in the 1980s, but in all honesty, it’s more of a personal travelogue and contains only scant information about the actual man-eater, which is limited to a few pages.
Since the event happened nearly a century ago, it’s natural that certain facts maybe misplaced and embellished. According to Shelton Agar’s account, when he shot the man-eating leopard, the only person with him was his driver. Agar was on a ‘machan’ [a wooden platform built on a tree to hunt tigers and leopards] with his driver, overlooking the carcass of the latest victim of the leopard (they were hoping for the leopard to return, which it did). When the leopard returned, Agar shot and killed the leopard, ending its reign of terror.
But according to the Railway Inspector at the time – A. H. Altendorf – he was also present during the shooting. This was written in an article he wrote to the ‘Daily News’ in 1966 (several years after the incident happened). It could be that his memory failed him after all these years, but then again – how can one forget such an incident? But there’s no way to discredit Altendorf either – he was a reputable man and was actually the person who summoned Agar to Punanai to kill the leopard. At the time, there was 100 Rupee bounty on the leopard.
Did the leopard target Tamil people?
This again is more of a hypothesis than fact, but smoke doesn’t come without fire. In Douglas Ranasinghe’s book, he includes a section by the late Christine Wilson (daughter of Dr. R. L. Spittel) where a man named ‘Podisingho’ (who claims to have accompanied Agar during his hunt for the leopard) states that the man-eating leopard “never ate a Sinhalese” and “after his [the leopard’s] first taste, he seemed to prefer Tamils and Moors”. This seems very far-fetched and discriminatory, but the man-eating leopard’s first victim was actually a small moor boy. Also, his last victim was a mail-runner named ‘Manikan’ – a Tamil. Fact or fiction? It’s really hard to tell.
Finally, it’s also interesting – with a growing population and urbanization – that a man-eater of this caliber never operated in Sri Lanka ever again. Although there have been a few incidents where leopards killed humans, none garnered the infamy of the Punanai man-eater, who left a string of unmatched killings in its wake.
You can watch a short documentary about the Punanai man-eater at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAL7UpetgXo&t=35s