Tracking Man-Eaters: The Jim Corbett story

Features Issue 80 Jul, 2010
Text by Neale Bates

Jim Corbett was a legend in his time, and remains the world’s most famous hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards in the Himalayas. His remarkable story lives on in books by and about him, and in local folk tales and songs.

The Champawat man-eater that reportedly killed 436 people was one of many man-eating tigers that roamed the Himalayan foothills of north India and Nepal in the early 20th century. The tigress of Champawat was the first man-eater eventually tracked and shot by the legendary Jim Corbett. In a span of 35 years, from 1906 to 1941, Corbett killed a dozen man-eaters that, altogether, had taken at least 1,500 villagers’ lives. Corbett’s man-eaters came in both genders (though tigresses were more common) and were given a variety of names. The Bachelor of Powalgarh, the Panar Tiger, Mohan Man-Eater and the Pipal Pani Tiger were among them. Not all man-eaters were tigers; there was also the ‘Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag’. Some, like the Champawat man-eater arrived in north India after being chased out of far western Nepal by the locals. She was especially famous, not only as Corbett’s first kill, but for having been tracked and shot at (but missed) by contingents of Gurkha soldiers and a number of local and British shikaris (hunters).

Corbett begins his first and most famous book, Man-Eaters of Kumaon, by describing one such hunter: “I was shooting with Eddie Knowles in Malani when I first heard of this tiger which later received official recognition as the ‘Champawat man-eater’. He goes on to describe Eddie as “a sportsman parexcellence” who possessed the best of  everything in life, including a rifle that was “without equal in accuracy and striking power” and a brother who was “the best gun shot in India.” When Eddie’s brother was deputed by the Government of India to go after the Champawat man-eater, Corbett assumed it wouldn’t be long before the big cat met her fate. But it didn’t happen that way, and the subsequent account of Corbett’s own attempts to find and kill her, and his stories about all the other man-eaters he bagged, make fascinating reading. Corbett wrote three books about man-eaters and another two about life in India, all of which are among the favorite books in my library. Some of Corbett’s stories have been told and retold over campfires on dark nights on family treks in the hills.

Corbett’s life
Edward James (‘Jim’) Corbett was born in 1875, one of the youngest of a dozen children, to Christopher and Mary Jane Corbett of Irish heritage, both of whom were also born in India under the British Raj. Jim’s father was postmaster in the hill station of Nainital (a few miles west of Nepal). He died when Jim was a young boy, after which the family was forced to survive on his mother’s meager widow’s pension. It wasn’t easy, and Jim later described his mother as a women with “the courage of Joan of Arc and Nurse Clavell combined.” Perhaps it was his early familiarity with deprivation and poverty that endeared him to the Himalayan hill people, whose language he learned to speak perfectly and whose welfare always concerned him. He never married, but for years he shared his home with his unmarried sister, Maggie, in the lower foothills at Kaladhungi and in a summer house at Nainital, and briefly in Kenya where he died in 1955.

As a boy Jim became adept at jungle lore and with guns, and was soon hunting and fishing to help feed the family. He used an old shotgun with its one good barrel lashed to the stock by wire, and a catapult (sling-shot), and sometimes a bow and arrows. He relied on his intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of the jungle to track and kill wild game over some of the roughest terrain. He could so perfectly mimic the calls of wild birds and animals that one time while imitating the call of a leopard both a real leopard and a British hunter began tracking him in the forest simultaneously. He writes about his youth, about the hill villagers and about wildlife in two of his popular books, My India and Jungle Lore.

At the age of 17, Jim joined the Indian railway service where he worked until he moved back to Nainital at age 39. From 1914 onwards, he dedicated his life to hunting man-eaters, photographing wildlife, especially tigers, and working indefatigably to conserve India’s dwindling wildlife and forests. In those days his was a voice in the wilderness, so to say, for neither environmental awareness nor the conservation of wildlife were yet commonplace public issues.

When hunting man-eaters, Corbett insisted on two conditions of the local governments: first, that official rewards be withdrawn so he wouldn’t become known as a bounty-hunter of Indian wildlife and, second, that other hunters be withdrawn so he could avoid being accidentally shot. He preferred to hunt alone and on foot, though at times he found himself inextricably followed by local village men eager to help. Given his success at shooting man-eaters, he soon became a legend amongst the hill people and something of a saint.

The Leopard of Rudraprayag
One of his most famous long-remembered triumphs is described in his second popular book, The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag. For eight years, between 1918 and 1926, the big cat, which ultimately killed 125 people, terrorized the region of Garhwal (west of Nepal). It made headlines the world over, and was even brought up in the British Parliament. Corbett recounts how the big cat terrorized the locals so thoroughly that no one dared go out after dark. The leopard could knock down house doors, claw its way through the thin mud or thatch walls of village huts, leap through windows, and cleverly outwit even the most skilled hunter. It’s territory was extensive, covering 500 square miles.

An especially chilling experience with the leopard occurred near the town of Rudraprayag on the pilgrim trail to the sacred Hindu shrines of Kedarnath and Badrinath. A group of pilgrims had assembled to sleep on the verandah of a shop near the village of Kamera. A lone sadhu joined them, and when they expressed their fears about the leopard he assured them that while he was there they would be safe. During the night, the leopard came and made a kill. In the morning, the body of the sadhu was found in the nearby forest, partially eaten. It was the holy man whom the leopard singled out that night, then stealthily killed and carried him off in his mouth without disturbing the other sleepers.

There were many attempts to kill the leopard, without success. Over the years, 300 special gun licenses were issued in the region, a reward of 10,000 rupees was put on the leopard’s head (a considerable sum in those days), and it was rumored that the ownership of two
villages would accompany the reward. The government hired special hunters at high wages, and local soldiers on home leave were allowed to carry their guns with them. Army officers tried to kill it. Clever traps were designed and set. And fresh human and animal kills were laced with cyanide, arsenic and strychnine for it, but nothing worked. The cat continued to spread panic throughout the region, year after year.

When all other attempts to kill the leopard failed, Corbett was called in, and in the autumn of 1925 he began the hunt. His greatest assets were his strong sense of purpose for the job and his ability to doggedly and carefully pursue a man-eater and outsmart it. One morning, going back along his own track of the previous day, he found the leopard’s distinctive pug marks on top of his own. The cat had followed him at close quarters, and only Corbett’s vigilance had kept him from being struck down. Another time, while sitting up in a rainstorm on a hay rick a few feet above the ground to watch over a kill, the leopard sought shelter directly beneath him, but was gone before it was light enough for Corbett to shoot.

For many weeks in 1925 and again in early 1926, Corbett tracked the killer. Finally one night while sitting in a mango tree over a goat staked out to attract the leopard, he successfully shot it, and the Devil of the Garhwal was no more. Corbett wrote later that: “ was no fiend, who, while watching me through the long night hours, had rocked and rolled with silent fiendish laughter at my vain attempts to outwit him... Here was only an old leopard, who differed from others of his kind in that his muzzle was grey and his lips lacked whiskers; the best-hated and most-feared animal in all India...”

When the dead leopard went on display for all to see, thousands of villagers came to thank ‘Carpet-sahib’, as Corbett was familiarly known. As the people filed past, they sprinkled rose and marigold petals at Corbett’s feet, much to his embarrassment, for he was a naturally shy individual and preferred to avoid public adulation. Still today, as one of his biographers notes, the legend of the hunter lives on in many folk songs and folk tales about ‘Carpet-sahib’.

What makes a man-eater?
“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,” Corbett wrote in the preface to his first book. “The stress of circumstances is, in nine cases out of ten, wounds, and in the tenth case old age... Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers,” he said, “and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds or old age that, in order to survive, they are compelled to take to a diet of human flesh.” It’s the same with leopards.

There is a major difference between tigers and leopards that makes tigers the easier of the two cats to track and shoot. “When a tiger becomes a man-eater,” he says, “it loses all fear of human beings and, as human beings move about more freely in the day than they do at night, it is able to secure its victims during daylight hours... A leopard on the other hand, even after it has killed scores of human beings, never loses its fear of man and, as it is unwilling to face up to human beings in daylight, it secures its victims when they are moving about at night, or by breaking into their houses at night.” Corbett assures his readers, however, that the vast majority of jungle cats are not man-eaters, and should be protected.

The exploits of Jim Corbett in the forests and jungles of the Himalayan foothills were so extraordinary that it is impossible to do justice to them here. The best way to appreciate and enjoy Corbett’s adventures today is to read his books.

In 1947, after Indian Independence, Corbett left India, along with other British residents who had called India ‘home’ for many generations. As one writer put it, Corbett was “too proud an ‘Englishman’ to stay on in independent India.” He and his sister Maggie sought refuge in Kenya, still a British colony. There he wrote four of his five books on India, and one on Kenya called Tree Tops. Corbett remained very much attached to India and wanted to return, but ill-health prevented him from going back.

He wrote his own epitaph at the end of Man-Eaters of Kumaon: “I have come to the end of the jungle stories I set out to tell you and I have also come near the end of my man-eater hunting career... I have had a long spell and count myself fortunate... [and, while there] have been occasions when life has hung by a thread..., I am amply rewarded if my hunting has resulted in saving one human life.”

Do man-eaters still exist?
Occasional man-eaters still roam the forests of India and Nepal, where they are hunted down and killed whenever possible. Headlines such as these from recent stories periodically show up in local newspapers: ‘Girl survives tiger attack in Nepal...’, ‘Maneater shot in Nepal...’, ‘Tiger kills woman in Dhorar [India]...’, ‘Tiger kills woman near Nagpur [India]...’, ‘Tiger kills another woman in Maharashtra [India]...’, ‘Tiger kills British ornithologist in India...’. and ‘Where death stalks the forest...’ Most tigers and leopards, however, are not man-eaters, and all are endangered.

A Living Legacy

One of the great legacies of Jim Corbett was the establishment of India’s first national park in 1936. Corbett, with a few friends, was instrumental in encouraging the Indian government to create it. At first it was named after some (long forgotten) British colonial administrator, but in 1956, a year after Jim Corbett died, the park was renamed in his honor. Corbett National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary covers slightly over 520 square miles (1318 sq km) of land in the lowlands of northern India, just across the border from southwestern Nepal.

Today the park is known for its tigers and other rare and exotic wildlife and birds, and as a popular destination for visitors keen on having a jungle experience. It is much like Bardia and Chitwan National Parks in the adjacent Nepal Terai lowlands. It is in these parks of India and Nepal that the big cats can live normally, relatively safe from poachers, and where they still have a chance of survival.