What we can all learn from Jim Corbett’s tiger tales

What we can learn from Jim Corbett’s big-cat tales

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

‘The word “Terror” is so generally and universally used in connection with everyday trivial matters that it is apt to fail to convey, when intended to do so, its real meaning.’ Thus begins the third chapter of The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (1947), part of the Man-Eater series by the great Anglo-Indian hunter and naturalist Jim Corbett.

I was reminded of Corbett and his wonderful books when reading last week that human-assaulting tigers are once again on the prowl in Nepal, with 104 attacks and 62 people killed in the past three years. Conservation efforts have seen tiger numbers rise three-fold since 2010, but with that good news comes the bad news of increased danger to humans. In March a tiger believed to have killed five people was captured in western Nepal. Meanwhile in India, a tigress apparently responsible for two deaths was captured in June.

So the man-eaters are back, though the terror from the current wave does thankfully seem less than in the days of Corbett. ‘No curfew order has ever been more strictly enforced, and more implicitly obeyed, than the curfew imposed by the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag,’ he wrote. During the hours of daylight, life continued more or less as normal. But at night, ‘an ominous silence brooded over the whole area’. Little wonder. For eight long years, between 1918 and 1926, the 50,000 inhabitants of Garhwal in the United Provinces of northern India, and the 60,000 Hindu pilgrims who passed through the district annually on their way to the ancient shrines at Kedarnath and Badrinath, lived in fear of the ferocious big cat that claimed the lives of 125 people.

One of the victims was a 14-year-old orphan employed to look after a flock of 40 goats. He slept with the goats in a small room. But even though the door was fastened by a piece of wood, the leopard got in, killed the poor boy and then carried him off to a deep, rocky ravine where he devoured him. The goats were left completely unscathed. A shocking story, and there are plenty more like it, but don’t worry – we can be sure that our hero Jim will ultimately stop the leopard’s reign of terror.

I first encountered Corbett’s three-volume Man-Eaterseries in childhood. We had copies of his books in my school library back in the mid-1970s and they were always among the most popular to borrow.

Goodness me, how those hardback editions with their pictures of snarling big cats on the cover captured our imaginations and broadened our horizons. Corbett was a great writer – ‘dramatic yet reflective’ to quote the OUP’s omnibus edition of his works – who brought the Indian Himalayas of the early 20th century vividly to life with his understated, descriptive prose.

For much of the post-war era his books on hunting the man-eating Bengal tigers and leopards of the Raj were hugely successful. More than four million copies of Man-Eaters of Kumaon had been sold worldwide by 1980. The BBC made a television version six years later. But one worries that in the 21st century, Corbett’s work is not read anything like so widely, particularly by children who would gain so much from his incredibly exciting tales.

Yes, the books involve hunting, which is now very un-PC – but it’s the hunting of bloodthirsty beasts which had claimed more than 1,500 lives between them. And aside from that, there is so much we can learn about life from Corbett’s writing.

The need for patience is one of the greatest lessons. Corbett, who had been tracking wild animals in India since childhood, was commissioned by Raj officials to kill man-eaters, but sometimes, given the cats’ wide range, that took an awfully long time. While in pursuit, the great shikari spends night after night sleeping, or trying to sleep, in trees. He goes days without food and drink. But whatever the hardships, he never gives up. He must get his prey.

The Man-Eater series also reminds us that the closer we are to danger the more we feel alive. The greater the risks we run – and risks don’t get much greater than going after man-eating tigers alone and on foot – the greater the joy of living. ‘The time I spent in the jungles held unalloyed happiness for me, and that happiness I would now gladly share,’ Corbett wrote. ‘My happiness, I believe, resulted from the fact that all wildlife is happy in its natural surroundings. In nature there is no sorrow, and no repining. A bird from a flock, or an animal from a herd, is taken by a hawk or by a carnivorous beast and those that are left rejoice that their time had not come today, and have no thought of tomorrow.’

Throughout his work Corbett’s respect for his prey shines through. He castigates people who class leopards as ‘vermin’. ‘Those who have never seen a leopard under favourable conditions in his natural surroundings can have no conception of the grace of movement, and beauty of colouring of this the most graceful, and the most beautiful of all animals in our Indian jungles,’ he says. Although they inflict terrible harm on village communities, he actually makes us feel sorry for the big cats he is so determined to kill. ‘A man-eating tiger is a tiger that has been compelled, through a stress of circumstances beyond its control, to adopt a diet alien to it… Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers, and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds and old age that, in order to live, they are compelled to take a diet of human flesh,’ he explains in his introduction to Man-Eaters of Kumaon.

After shooting the Champawat tigress – said by the Guinness Book of Records to have been responsible for 436 human deaths – he finds that she had permanent damage to her teeth from a previous gunshot wound, meaning she had no option but to switch to man-eating to keep her and her cubs alive. The Talla Des man-eater, who killed around 150 humans over an eight-year period, had been seriously injured in an encounter with a porcupine, again making it difficult for her to provide for her family without turning to human flesh.

Throughout the books there are some wonderful insights into the natural world. In The Temple Tiger we get a fight between a tiger and a Himalayan black bear, which Corbett notes is only the second case he knows of different species of animals fighting for the sake of fighting. The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag contains a savage scrap between the man-eater and another leopard determined to protect his territory. When Corbett finally gets his kill he reflects that the ‘only crime’ of the ‘best-hated and most feared animal in all India’ was that he had shed human blood, not because he was a ‘fiend’, but only in order that he might live.

Modern readers might find it hard to comprehend that a series of books about killing tigers and leopards actually makes the strongest case for preserving them. But that’s exactly how it is. Corbett swapped his gun for a camera and became a pioneering conservationist, helping to establish Indian’s first national park in Uttarakhand which is fittingly named after him. It’s part of his legacy that we’re once again reading about man-eating big cats in the Himalayas – though now the solution is a tranquilliser dart and re-homing away from humans rather than a bullet.

Corbett’s work helped save the tiger – and I think it can save us too. It’s so easy in today’s world to feel utterly overwhelmed by emails, text messages, social-media notifications, breaking news stories and the internet in general. And we all know how feeling overwhelmed can lead to stress and depression. So why not switch off from modern living for a while and head into the Indian jungle with Jim Corbett and his rifle. I promise you won’t regret it.

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