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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 35-36 August 26 & September 2, 2023

An Irish legend Indians will always adore and respect | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 25 August 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



Hero of Kumaon:
The Life of Jim Corbett
by Duff Hart-Davis

HarperCollins India
Pages: xii + 259; Price: Rs 399

It was an Ashoka moment that transformed the legendary Edward James Corbett from a widely-admired hunter of man-eaters in the hills of Kumaon to an ardent conservationist, an avid photographer of wild animals and, finally, as a successful author that fetched him unprecedented international fame.

Jim, as he was popularly known, had once taken three British Indian army officers to a lake where the men blazed away their guns until the barrels became too hot to handle, leaving more than 300 water-fowl dead – far more than they could retrieve or carry away. For one used to killing man-eaters and not any tiger or leopard, this was a senseless slaughter. The bloodbath gave birth to Jim the conservationist, a radical development that led to India having its first National Park in 1935.

Born in Nainital to a poor Irish-Indian family as one of its 15 children, his first weapons were a catapult, a pellet bow, a bow and two arrows and an axe – in that order. Unlike the whites from other families around him, Jim grew up with Indian village boys, speaking Hindi and learning country dialects. These turned out to be indispensable assets when he went after man-eating leopards as well as tigers. He was only 10 when he shot his first leopard.

The India of early 20th century was abundant with wildlife and forest cover. This was more so, among other places, in the lower Himalayas which share a long and porous border with Nepal. Jim didn’t become what he eventually became simply because of his knowledge of local tongue.

He grew to a six-footer who could easily walk 20 miles a day in the hill country. His penchant to go off into the thick jungles for days at a time helped him to intimately understand wild life from close quarters. He imitated birds. He went without food for days. Most important, he mastered the art of sitting and sleeping on trees in the wild. This provided him the perfect camouflage while he hunted the unsuspecting man-eaters.

But unlike Indian royalty and British monarchs, he respected ecological balance and never killed animals for the pleasure of it. The Maharaja of Sargujah, though one-eyed, killed a whopping 1,157 tigers. The Maharaj Kumar of Vizianagram slaughtered 383. When King George visited India in 1911, he and his retinue shot 39 tigers, 18 rhinos and four bears. Although Jim killed many small birds and animals when young, he refused to harm any tiger or leopard which didn’t prey on humans or killed too many domestic cattle. It was a code which he violated perhaps just twice.

Jim’s tiger kills are not unknown. The first took place in 1900 when he targeted the Pipal Pani tiger which had killed many buffaloes, cattle and pigs and moved very close to human settlements. The reputation he thus earned got him an official invite in 1907 to go after a man-eater at Champawat which had killed 200 people in Nepal and 234 in Kumaon. When he shot it, Jim became a sensation in the region. Although he had been working for the railways since age 17, the Raj gave him the title Freedom of Forests, which gave him unlimited license to patrol the reserve forests whenever he wanted.

Now there was no looking back. He kept taking breaks from his office work to go after one man-eater after another. Jim’s next victim was a man-eater at Muktesar, a village not far from Nainital. This was in 1910. The same year, on another request from the government, he killed a leopard that was terrorizing villagers on the border of Almora. The hunt which earned him immense fame and adoration was a leopard from Rudraprayag in Garhwal which was officially credited with killing 126 people, including Hindu pilgrims trekking to Kedarnath and Badrinath, for eight long years till April 1926.

Jim was not in the best of health when he decided to do away with the man-eating Tella Des tiger in a remote part of the hilly region. This big cat had been killing people unchecked for a decade. The next to go were a leopard and four tigers, one of which had killed at least 64 people in Chowgarh district. Jim was 55 years old when he decided to go after a mammoth tiger known as The Bachelor of Powalgarh in 1930. For once, this was no man-eater; its sheer size made it the most sought after in the province but no one succeeded where Jim did.

None of these kills, which turned Jim into a living legend, were achieved easily. He frequently walked long distances in the hills to reach out-of-the-way affected villages, spending days and nights in deep forests in search of elusive quarries. There were any number of days and nights when he was all alone in forests after having told his men to stay back in nearby villages. At least on one occasion it was feared a man-eater had gotten him. No man – Indian or British – could have matched Jim feat without the commitment, stamina and will-power he possessed. He shot his last tiger in 1945, soon after returning to India after World War II.

Once he turned conservationist, Jim became a passionate protector of not just the big cats but also the impregnable forests of Kumaon region. He was opposed to the commercial plantation of trees which were positively hostile to wildlife. He moaned that a senseless slaughter by humans of chital and sambar was depriving tigers of their natural food. Rather than a tiger skin which would anyway decompose, a good photograph of the majestic cats, he concluded, was a far better souvenir. That is how he took to photography. He also lectured on wildlife to schools in Nainital and Lucknow.

By the time India gained independence in 1947, Jim became pessimistic about the future of tigers in the country. He put the bit cat’s population then at 3,000-4,000, and feared that the animal would become extinct in 10 to 15 years. The warning came almost true. When Project Tiger was launched in 1973, the number of tigers in India was estimated at only 1,200. The project’s success is of course another story but linked to Jim life.

Jim genuinely loved and admired India and her people. He had utmost regards for the simple and hard-working men and women inhabiting the hills. For someone who kept no diary, he had envious diary. Once he was prodded into writing, after the initial usual rejections from English journals, he produced a masterpiece of a book, Man-Eaters of Kumaon. It sold non-stop across continents and got translated into 15 European and 11 Indian languages besides Afrikaans and Japanese. The book, and the others which followed, brought him international honours which his tough and risky life hunting man-eaters had failed to provide.

The communal conflagration that accompanied India’s partition shocked and saddened him. He came to hate people who were at each other’s throats “for no other reason than they wear different headgear”. He was 72 and certainly not in robust health when he and his sister Maggie, who was closest to him all through his life, left India for good in November 1947 because they were sure the new India would not want them. It marked the end of his family’s 200-year relationship with India. He moved to Africa, with which he was familiar from earlier visits; he began to dream of returning to his country but that never happened because of his rapidly failing health. At age 77, Jim passed away in Kenya.

The Corbett National Park in Uttar Pradesh remains the most remarkable memorial to a man who killed man-eaters only because he wanted ordinary and simple folks in the hills of Kumaon to live without fear. For every man-eater he killed, Jim saved countless human lives. No wonder, in the hills which was once his home, villagers still worship Jim Corbett. This is indeed a touching and moving story of the legend.

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