***WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT***
From Manesh Shrestha, for CNN
KATHMANDU, Nepal (CNN) — A ferocious leopard may have killed 15 people in Nepal in a 15-month span, its latest victim a 4-year-old boy that the creature dragged away into the jungle to eat.
The head of the boy was found in the forest a kilometer from his home Saturday morning, said Kamal Prasad Kharel, the police chief of the Baitadi district, an area about 600 kilometers (373 miles) west of Kathmandu.
The grisly discovery, which came after teams of people searched for the child, marks the 15th victim in the past 15 months in that remote district in western Nepal.
The police chief suspects that a single man-eating leopard is responsible for the deaths. If not, there are at most two of the man-eating creatures around, he believes.
Maheshwor Dhakal, an ecologist at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in Kathmandu, agreed that it is unusual to find more than one or two man-eating animals in one area. Most leopards live on wild prey.
More human victims could also be expected if there were more than one or two man-eaters around, he said.
“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,” Dhakal said.
Kharel said he feared the actual number of people killed by the leopard could be higher than 15, because others have lost their life to leopard attacks in Uttarkhand state in northern India, which borders Baitadi district.
“It could be the same leopard,” he said.
Of the 15 victims in Nepal so far, two-thirds are children below the age of 10. The others are older children and a 29-year-old woman who had gone to collect fodder for domestic animals in the nearby forest, a common practice in Nepal.
“No adult male has been killed,” Kharel said.
All the victims are from villages bordering the dense forests in the district, he said.
After killing its victim, the leopard takes the body away into the forest to eat.
“In the case of the children it just leaves behind the head, eating everything, but some parts of the adult body are left behind because it cannot finish it,” Kharel added.
The district administration has announced a Rs. 25,000 (about $300) reward to anyone who captures or kills the leopard.
The local administration has sought to raise public awareness of the dangers of going alone into nearby forests and has mobilized the police, armed police force and local people who have licensed guns to hunt for the animal.
Controlling this particular leopard has been a challenge for the wildlife officials in Kathmandu.
“We are sending a veterinary doctor to the district to understand the situation,” Dhakal, the ecologist, said. “There is no alternative but to kill the leopard.”
The chief district administrator has granted permission for this particular leopard to be killed. Normally, it is illegal to kill wild animals.
Leopards are common in the low mountain areas, as compared to the high Himalayas, across the country.
While cases of leopards killing domestic animals are common, and there are sometimes instances of leopards killing people in Nepal, this case is “extreme,” Dhakal said.