Hunt on in India for leopard that killed meditating monk

MUMBAI (REUTERS, AFP) - Indian forest rangers have launched a hunt for a leopard that killed a monk meditating under a tree deep in a jungle.

The monk, Rahul Walke Bodhi, had been meditating in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in the western state of Maharashtra for the last month, and was attacked while offering morning prayers on Tuesday, a forest official said.

Two other monks who were on their way to give him food said they witnessed the attack but Walke was dead by the time they reached him, according to a second forest official.

"I would like to tell everyone not to go into the forest," Gajendra Narwane, deputy director of the reserve, told the BBC Marathi-language service.

Forest rangers have set up two cages and a camera trap to try to capture the animal. It was not clear what they would do with it if they caught it.

The forest, about 825km east of the city of Mumbai, is in a reserve for big cats where four other fatal attacks have occurred in the last few weeks, according to media.

Forest officials have cordoned off the area where the monk was killed and are restricting the timing of visitor access to a Buddhist temple there.

The attack followed a separate fatal incident on Monday, when shopkeeper Sandeep Arjun was killed outside his stall in the outskirts of the forest.

It was unclear whether the same leopard was responsible for both attacks.

Three more deaths attributed to leopards and tigers have been reported around the reserve in the past month, officials say.

Official estimates suggest there are between 12,000 and 14,000 leopards in India.

Urban expansion has reduced their numbers as forest habitats shrink, bringing them into closer contact - and conflict - with humans.

An estimated 431 leopards were killed in 2017, according to government figures.

Most were killed by poachers for their hides and body parts. There are no figures on the number of humans killed by leopards, but experts say there are hundreds of deaths each year.