A leopard killed and ate two children in a span of 12 hours in Chhindwara district on Sunday, triggering panic among villagers living on the fringes of the forest range.

With these two deaths, five children have now been killed by tigers and leopards in the state in three months.

What terrifies the villagers is that the leopard struck in clear daylight. On Sunday afternoon, it killed a three year-old girl in front of her house in Mohli Mata village and made off with the corpse. About six hours later, it struck again and killed a 10-year-old boy 3km away in Jholidhana village.

The victim, Harish Tekam, was sitting outside his house when he was attacked. The leopard was so swift that no one heard a thing. When his mother came outside a little later, she saw blood splatters on the walls of her little hut and the boy missing.

The victim's mother screamed for help, leading to a tense search at night. Tekam's mangled body was found behind some bushes.

"It is a leopard, and a young one, which is why it's targeting children. We are searching for the animal and will relocate it once it is captured. We are in touch with villagers to help them take safety measures," district forest officer, Chhindwara (east forest division) SS Uddey told TOI.

Attacks on children have become alarmingly frequent as the big cats are moving out of overcrowded, protected areas in search of new habitat or because of depleting prey base. On January 6, a leopard killed a 12-year-old boy in Malhamau village of Raisen district. Rohit Rajput was playing in his farm when the big cat struck. Two months ago, a nine-year-old boy was mauled to death by a tiger, which sneaked into human habitat in Budhni region. Forest officials are yet to capture the tiger. And on October 22, a 10-year-old girl was killed while grazing cattle in Sehore's Khadabad village. Her young sisters made a brave attempt to snatch her body from its jaws, but failed. This is close to Ratapani forest, where the tiger population has doubled in the last few years.