In the low mountain areas of Nepal, villagers live side-by-side with leopards, the smallest member of the "big cat" family that includes lions, tigers and jaguars.
Normally these cats go unseen, causing problems only when they prey on the occasional livestock. However, one man-eating leopard is now threatening the lives of people in the country's Baitadi district, which lies about 373 miles west of Kathmandu. The creature has killed 15 people in the last 15 months, officials believe.
The most recent victim was a 4-year-old boy who the leopard dragged into the jungle to eat. Teams were sent out to search for the child, but they were too late. The boy’s head was found in the forest a kilometer from his home Saturday morning, said Kamal Prasad Kharel, the police chief of the Baitadi district.
While it is very unusual for a leopard to eat a human, once they do, the animal's preferences change.
"Since human blood has more salt than animal blood, once wild animals get the taste of salty blood they do not like other animals like deer," said Maheshwor Dhakal, an ecologist at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in Kathmandu in an interview with CNN.
According to Kharel, the numbers of deaths could actually be higher than 15, as leopard attacks reported in the neighboring Uttarkhand state in northern India could be by the same animal.
All of the victims to date lived in villages that border the dense forest. Two-thirds were children younger than 10, while the others were older children and one 29-year-old woman who went into the forest to collect fodder for domestic animals.
A veterinary doctor will be sent to the district to try to better understand the situation. And, although it is normally illegal to hunt wild animals, the chief district administrator is making an exception.
"There is no alternative but to kill the leopard,” Dhakal told CNN.
The district administration is offering a Rs. 25,000 (about $300) award to anyone who catches or kills the leopard, and hunters have mobilized to track it. In addition, authorities are trying to raise public awareness of the dangers of going into the forests alone.