Jim Corbett: Animal Lover, Hunter And Photographer

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Though Jim Corbett was a renowned hunter, his legacy as a naturalist is stronger. How did he switch from the rifle to the camera?

Jim Corbett was only eight years old when he was gifted his first gun – a double-barreled muzzle-loader – in 1883. He would have been only ten when he shot his first leopard at Kaladhungi, in the Nainital district he spent most of his life in. It was at Kaladhungi, 61 years later, where he shot his last tiger – ending a career as a hunter of man-eaters, with 16 tigers and 19 leopards as documented kills.

For such a renowned hunter, Jim Corbett writes with the careful language of a naturalist. He wastes few words, and uses no superlatives to describe what he has seen. In the introduction to “The Man-Eaters of Kumaon”, he makes an impassioned case for understanding why a tiger would ever kill a human being.

A man-eating tiger is a tiger that has been compelled, through stress of circumstances beyond its control, to adopt a diet alien to it. The stress of circumstances is, in nine cases out of ten, wounds, and in the tenth case old age.

As he writes, you can tell he disapproves of the reputation the big cat had achieved. The term, as ‘cruel as a tiger’ represented an ignorance in the man who coined it, he wrote. He was well qualified to write this – very few people had hunted tigers as successfully as Corbett, and he knew how more often than not, a tiger would spare a human life when it had no reason to kill. Corbett was no trophy-hunter – he refused any reward for what he did, and often hunted alone (for fear of being shot by an amateur). He never sought out a kill – the victims of man-eating tigers and leopards asked for him by name.

It is odd that today we remember a hunter as a conservationist. The language in Corbett’s memoirs – which sold in the millions across the globe – reveals a man that could not be anything else.

What drove him to kill was the sheer humanity of the situation. As he wrote, after visiting a village where a tiger carried a screaming teenage girl past a crowd of twenty armed men – who were too terrified to intervene.

…the conviction I came to after a brief sojourn in that stricken land, that there is no more terrible thing than to live and have one’s being under the shadow of a man-eater, has been strengthened by thirty-two years’ subsequent experience.

This was no ordinary man-eater – the tigress of Champawat had killed 346 people already. She began her rampage in Nepal, where after 200 men and women were killed, the Nepalese Army was sent in to do the job – and failed. Ultimately, Corbett was put to the task – his first commissioned hunt by the people of India would be against an animal that had already killed more people than any human serial killer to come.

According to his memoir, he very nearly became the 347th victim, after he paused to take in the sight of a dismembered human leg. A sixth sense saved him, as he swung his gun towards an unknown danger – which deterred the watching tigress from an ambush attempt. The hunt was on – and its full proceeds read like an action film.

To cut a long story short, he tracked the tiger across miles of hills and forest, before trapping it with the help of the local villagers. It ended like a film scene – the tigress about to leap for his throat, and him with a broken gun with a single shot left in it. That shot was enough, and the cat was felled. The villagers, who had each lost someone dear to the tiger, were keen on hacking it to bits – but Corbett’s presence changed their plans.

For Corbett, even this genocidal cat had to have a reason for killing humans – and he found that its teeth were broken by an old bullet wound. She could not hunt her natural prey, and so, turned to humans.

The killing of the Tigress of Champawat cemented his reputation, and in the years to come, villagers and officials would often ask him to kill the local man-eaters. Some, like the Bachelor of Powalgarh, were large specimens worthy of a trophy hunter. But when he was asked to kill animals that had only hunted cattle, he would reimburse the villagers for the cattle – subsidizing the tiger or leopard’s kills in exchange for its life.

Kumaon’s homegrown hero

Jim Corbett, hunter, tiger, bachelor, powalgarh
(Image: Public Domain) Jim Corbett with the slain tiger of Powalgarh – one of the largest known tigers of the time

Corbett was the son of Irish parents, born and bred in Nainital, Kumaon – then part of the United Provinces that encompassed modern-day Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.

It was a region of natural splendour, and he grew familiar with the local wildlife in his youth. At the age of 19, he joined the Indian Railways, and helped ferry cargo between one bank of the river Ganga to the other. Somehow, in this time, he acquired a reputation as a skilled hunter – and that’s what gave him his break.

His accounts of each hunt are not prone to the hunter’s exaggeration – indeed, they’re sources for academic publications today! A landmark 2013 study on the gene sequencing of tiger and cat DNA, published in Nature magazine, citing his book on the role of smell in tiger’s territorial behaviour.

One can learn so much about wildlife from reading the accounts of this hunter. For example, you can tell the difference between a tiger and a leopard attack by a simple fact – tigers lose all fear of humans once they become man-eaters, but leopards do not. What does this mean? That tiger attacks can happen by day, but leopards only ever attack at night.

For die-hard fans of his work, there is a desire to trace his every step – which the authors of “Behind Jim Corbett’s Stories: An Analytical Journey to ‘Corbett’s Places’ and Unanswered Questions” have tried to accomplish.

One popular mystery is the ‘mysterious night scream from the deserted Thak village’ – where Corbett, on the hunt for a marauding tiger, heard a terrifying scream from a village that had been wholly evacuated. But later, no known human was known to have gone missing – despite three witnesses to the sound. As Corbett remarked, “…it were best to assume that neither the kakar, the sambur, nor I heard those very real screams, the screams of a human being in mortal agony.”

He doesn’t sound too satisfied with the lack of explanation, and 75 years since, the answer remains elusive. As the book’s authors discuss, it could have been a bird – mimicking a human scream it had heard before from a tiger attack.

From gun to camera

In 1928, Corbett began his experiments with wildlife cinematography – supposedly the first to video a tiger in the wild. Shot on 16mm, and with titles like “Honey Harvest in India”, “Life at the Foothills of the Himalayas”, they are incredibly valuable shots of a world long gone.

But there is a symbolism in Corbett dropping the gun for the camera – he knew that nature would not be here for long. As he wrote:

A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage, and when he is exterminated – as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support – India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.

The national park he helped set up in the region (India’s first) would later bear his name – and become the launchpad for Project Tiger’s resuscitation of the dwindling orange cat. Today, the Jim Corbett natural park is India’s finest, and one of the last truly natural regions in the country.

Jim Corbett’s life is best told in his own words; sparingly and without recourse to bragger. A humble naturalist who took up the gun in a very different era than today (though parts of the country still seek the services of hunters against man-eaters), he shows that you can love the wild even as you protect mankind from it.

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