The “Jungle Book”-like tale of a young girl said to have been found living with monkeys in an Indian forest was shocking, disturbing and fascinating. It might also have been untrue.
The story of the girl circulated among news outlets around the world in recent days, including The Washington Post, after reports by the Associated Press and the New Indian Express. The girl, according to those reports, was rescued earlier this year by police who found her surrounded by a pack of protective monkeys in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. One police officer speculated that she might have been raised by primates from infancy. She has since been living at a hospital in the city of Bahraich, where the chief medical officer told the AP in a recorded interview that she arrived crawling, eating and screeching like an animal.
But other officials cast doubt on some of those details Saturday. JP Singh, the district chief forestry officer in the Katarniya Ghat area, told the Guardian that the girl was located on a roadside, not in the forest. Sarbajeet Yadav, a police constable who participated in the rescue, told the Hindustan Times that “there were no monkeys around.” What’s more, many cameras in the area – used for both security and animal-tracking purposes – would have detected the girl had she been there, forest department officials said.
Officials involved in helping the girl stressed from the start that they were not certain how long she had been living outdoors and on her own, and they said they were scouring missing children reports in an attempt to identify her. But Singh, the forestry officer, told the Guardian that he suspected the girl’s inability to communicate was the result of a disability, not a childhood among apes, and that she had been recently abandoned by relatives who did not want to care for her. Her age is still unknown.
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The girl was found near a forest outpost in Bahraich district in the state of Uttar Pradesh in January, forest officials said. Villagers coming from a local market passed through a road built inside the wildlife sanctuary and found her sitting on the side and a few monkeys were reportedly close by. They immediately called the police help line as the girl appeared weak and injured. The district police officers arrived and took the girl to the local station. She was between 9 and 10 years old, wearing a bedraggled dress and underwear and was unable to tell police were she was from, authorities said.
“There is a high probability that if she was living in the forest, someone would have found her,” Singh told The Washington Post in an interview. “If she has been living in the forest for 8-9 years, she could not have survived. There are over a 100 leopards in the sanctuary, and she could not have escaped them.”
Another range officer voiced his skepticism that the girl lived in the forest. Khurshid Alam walks through the sanctuary several times a day and did not see the girl on his rounds. “I think she was abandoned near the outpost. The villagers who found her told me that she was wearing clothes. So, she could not have been living in the forest,” Alam said.
In an attempt to find her family, the police released information about the girl to local newspapers, but no one came searching for the girl. The cops suspect that someone from a distant village abandoned her because she has not been recognized by people living in the area.
“That is why we believe she was abandoned. Most probably someone left her in the morning or afternoon of the day we found her. She would not have survived the night there alone,” Ram Avtar Yadav, a station house officer of the Motipur police station, told the Post.
“She seemed disabled. She could not speak coherently. At the time, we thought her legs were paralyzed as she was moving with the support of her hands,” he said.
The girl has gained mobility after a good and steady diet provided to her in the last couple of months but she still has injury marks on her hands, feet and stomach. She has been referred to another hospital for better treatment, according to reports.
The hospital’s chief medical officer, DK Singh, echoed that and said the girl might also have been cast off because of another perceived handicap: being a girl in a society that prizes boys.
“Some families value girls less than boys,” Ranjana Kumari, an advocate for young girls, told the Guardian. “They would rather get rid of the girl than spend money on her. It is a lot more responsibility because of the social environment we live in.”
As The Washington Post reported Friday, stories of feral children have long been told in both legend and well-documented reportage. It seems this one might exist somewhere in between - less like “The Jungle Book” and more like a tragedy of neglect and desertion.