Jim Corbett - hunter, conservationist, legend

Man-eating tigers stalk the Himalayan foothills even today. A hundred years ago, British hunter, conservationist and author Jim Corbett began a journey that would make him a legend. For more than three decades, he demonstrated enormous courage in hunting down a long list of notorious man-eaters.

In northern India, nearly everyone now carries a mobile phone and most ride motorcycles. However, many other aspects of life have changed little in millennia. The women in their colorful saris still make daily trips into the wilderness to collect bundles of grass for their cattle and sticks for their cooking fires. This seemingly harmless activity, which cannot be avoided, exposes them to significant risk. In India, every year, tens of thousands of people die of snakebite. With a large population still largely farming the fields by hand, and making use of the surrounding bush for fuel and fodder, it is inevitable that many encounter various specimens of India’s highly venomous snakes. The result is a staggering death toll to snakebite.

The death toll to man-eating leopards and tigers is minute in comparison to that from snakebite. However, there is something deep in the human psyche in regard to man-eaters. Whether it is a white pointer shark attack at an Australian beach or an Indian jungle death to a hungry tiger, these events are widely publicised and draw strong, morbid, public interest.

Jim Corbett was born in Nainital, India, on July 25, 1875, and died in Nyeri, Kenya, on April 19, 1955, aged 79. Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Corbett wrote a series of books on his life and experiences in India. The books were best-sellers at the time and remain classics today. Unlike so many other books by ‘great white hunters’, Corbett had a low-key but enthralling style that makes his writings hard to put down. His great love of India, its landscapes, people, forests and particularly wildlife is clearly evident.

Corbett’s first few books were devoted to recounting stories of the many man-eaters he tracked down and shot. In an area and era before vehicle access or telephones, Corbett would often walk for a week or more to reach an area affected by a man-eater. Once onsite, he would sometimes spend months there. During the day, he would walk up to 50km, alone and along footpaths that no other soul would dare walk unless in the company of a large group. He would visit small villages here and there, following up any reports of man-eater activity.

At times, when hot on the track of a man-eater, he would spend days in the jungle, climbing into the safety of a tree to sleep at night. If he was lucky, he might take a dish of tea or milk from a village in passing. He always politely refused the offer of a substantial meal, as he knew that the hospitable, but desperately poor, people had barely enough for their own needs.

Most of the time, Corbett was completely alone in his jungle stalking of man-eaters. More often than not, after a day of walking many kilometres up and down the steep Himalayan foothills, he would have a hasty meal and then sit over a human or animal kill right through the long night. Corbett readily admits that many times, sitting alone in the night-time jungle, with a mangled corpse for company, waiting for the return of a man-eater, he was terrified. He notes that if it was possible to die of fright, then he would have done so on many occasions.

During Corbett’s childhood in the Himalayan foothills, man-eaters were a rare occurrence. However, with increasing hunting pressure and a decline in natural prey, those tigers suffering a handicap would sometimes turn to man-eating. Tigers generally suffered handicaps in one of two ways. Tigers would sometimes attempt to kill porcupines and in the process, could get a large number of spines embedded deeply in their bodies. These porcupine spines are as thick as a pencil, barbed and up to half a metre long. Corbett reports tigers being blinded in one eye and having dozens of these large spines embedded deeply into their forearms and paws. This effectively crippled the tiger’s ability to stalk the deer, buffalo and pigs it would normally eat.

The other form of disability came from tigers wounded by hunters and not followed up. Corbett, like most big-game hunters, felt a compelling moral obligation to follow and despatch any wounded game, often at great personal risk. He detested any would-be hunter who did not abide by that unwritten and compelling ethical code.

Initially, man-eater hunting was seen as merely a novel new twist on an established recreation. Views changed quickly, however, as the tables were turned and would-be hunters of man-eaters became prey themselves. On many occasions, Corbett was the only person in the whole continent willing to take on such established man-eaters. Some of these man-eating tigers and leopards racked up enormous death tolls.

Corbett’s introduction to man-eater hunting came with the arrival of the Champawat man-eating tigress. After a lengthy reign of terror in Nepal, where she killed at least 200 people, the tiger was driven out of Nepal by the army. She set up home in the vicinity of Champawat village, not far from Corbett’s childhood home, and over the next four years, added another 234 people to her score.

It goes without saying that such animals were incredibly wary and hard to come to terms with. Based in the mountainous Himalayan foothills, with access limited to footpaths only, the killer’s range could extend over thousands of square kilometres. It seems impossible to think that a lone man, on foot, could hope to find and kill such an animal in a vast mountain wilderness. Corbett was one of the few people who thought otherwise.

With a wealth of jungle skills, accumulated since he wandered the jungles as a little boy, great powers of patience and observation, a fluency in the various dialects and customs of the people and a great affinity with them, plus his marksmanship, Corbett was confident in his ability to locate and kill man-eaters. Time and again, he backed himself in quests that everybody else considered appallingly dangerous.

In his hunting of the Muktesar man-eating tigress, an opportunity arose to try for a night-time sit over a kill in a gully. There were very few trees available and Corbett chose the stunted tree closest to the kill. The small tree, growing out of the gully bank at an angle was smothered in wild rose creeper. Corbett climbed up in the late afternoon and gingerly sat on the thorny mass of wild rose.

As the evening descended, Corbett was aware that the rose vine was sagging under his weight and he was only a couple of metres off the ground below. He was well within reach of any tiger that might choose to attack him. It was now too late to attempt to move and he was committed to sitting right through the night. Heavy clouds came on, obscuring what little light the moon and stars could provide. It was pitch black and Corbett had no other sources of light. Unable to shoot by the dim light of the moon and stars, he would have to wait for the tiger to begin feeding on the kill, less than 7m away, and aim his heavy double rifle at that sound.

After a long and tense wait, Corbett heard the tiger approaching through the dark towards him. After it settled at the kill and began feeding, Corbett carefully estimated his aim and fired at the sound. He heard the tiger leap up several metres onto the small flat bank above the gully and rush through the scattered dry leaves there. Then utter silence. Corbett sat still with the rifle still to cheek, straining to hear any sound of the tiger. One possibility was that his shot had gone true and after its leap and rush, the tiger had died in its tracks. The other possibility was that he had missed and the tiger had stopped close by to assess the situation.

After several minutes of intense listening, Corbett lowered his rifle. Immediately, from only a few metres away, came the deep and chilling growl of an angry man-eater. He had missed and the tiger had now seen him. Philosophically, Corbett knew that tigers, even man-eaters, do not normally kill beyond their immediate requirements, and so long as he stayed where he was, he should be safe.

Sitting there alone in the pitch black, with an angry man-eater growling at him from only a few metres, Corbett admits he was deeply frightened. With nothing to lose, he took out and lit a cigarette. Just out of the glow of the match, the tiger repeated its long and resentful growl. After smoking a series of cigarettes and being growled at each time, the onset of heavy cold rain drove the tiger off to seek shelter. Corbett had no option but to sit through the chilly downpour on his thorny seat. It rained solidly for five hours. The sky finally cleared at about 4am and a stiff cold wind set in. By sunrise, Corbett was nearly frozen. There were many nights like that.

Corbett finally accounted for the Muktesar man-eater some time after that night. Having spotted her first while stalking the jungle, he took a long cross-gully shot at her. The shot actually missed her narrowly, but at the time, Corbett thought he had had wounded her. He later discovered that she was also blind in one eye from a porcupine kill. What, at the time, appeared to be a flat-out charge from a wounded man-eater was most likely a half-blind animal fleeing from a near miss, but Corbett did not know that at the time.

The raging big cat raced at great speed along the game trail straight towards the hunter. Waiting until she was only a couple of metres from him, Corbett fired the second barrel of his .500 Nitro Express. The tigress, dead in midstride, narrowly missed Corbett and plunged over the edge of the hill and fell into the stream 15m below.

With repeated successes against many man-eaters Corbett’s fame grew. He became renowned throughout India and internationally. Among the rural people of India, his status was that of a saint. For a populace that considered man-eaters to be demons or evil spirits, Corbett’s ability to find and kill such animals was considered a religious miracle. He was widely considered to be a rare example of European ‘Sadhu’, essentially, a profound holy man or saint.

Despite the first-hand witnessing of many tragedies and surviving many hard hunts and close calls, Corbett remained a lover of all wildlife and a champion of tigers in particular. He was one of the first people to agitate and push for the establishment of national parks and the preservation of the tiger. His words in defence of the tiger resonate strongly, even today.

In his later years, he retired his rifles and took up the camera. Corbett obtained some of the first movie film of wild tigers ever taken. Like his rifle hunting, he did this alone and at distances down to 2m! Other commentators have recorded hearing the angry roaring of a tiger and on investigating, found the ageing Corbett backing out of a thick patch of jungle with camera in hand, to explain that he had got a bit too close to a tigress with cubs who objected to his presence.

Corbett was honoured in many ways for his bravery and service to India. One of these was the rarely bestowed Freedom of the Forests - the right to go where he pleased in any of India’s forests. Most fittingly, Corbett National Park was named in his honour, and a species of tiger named after him as well.

While a renowned hunter, he was far more than that. His books vividly portray the nail-biting intensity and danger of tracking man-eaters, while at the same time his great empathy and humanity shine through. You do not need to be a hunter to appreciate Corbett’s writings on India. If you never read a book by any other famous hunter, past or present, you must read Corbett.

Jim Corbett’s books

1935, Jungle Stories, privately published (only 100 copies).

1944, Man-Eaters of Kumaon, Oxford University Press, India.

1947, The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, Oxford University Press, USA.

1952, My India, Oxford University Press, USA.

1953, Jungle Lore, Oxford University Press, USA.

1954, The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon, Oxford University Press, USA.

1955, Tree Tops, Oxford University Press, USA (a short 30-page novella, completed only days before Corbett’s death).

1978, Jim Corbett’s India - Selections by RE Hawkins, Oxford University Press.

1981, The Champawat Man-Eater, John Murray Publishers, UK.

2012, My Kumaon: Uncollected Writings, Oxford University Press, India.

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