Historical Fiction Books

‘No Beast So Fierce: The Champawat Tiger and Her Hunter, the First Tiger Conservationist’ by Dane Huckelbridge: In the forests of the night

Ethical questions: A painting of Corbett with the ‘Bachelor of Powalgarh’ that he killed in 1930.   | Photo Credit: Anuj Arora

This book is as much a story of the Champawat man-eater as it is of its eliminator, Jim Corbett. Both of them have been written about before, the former by Corbett himself in Man-Eaters of Kumaon, and the latter by Martin Booth, in Carpet Sahib: A Life of Jim Corbett.

The Champawat man-eater allegedly killed 436 human beings in Nepal and India between 1900 and 1907, when Corbett finally shot it dead. This makes it an animal singly responsible for the death of the largest number of men, women and children anywhere in the world. In luminous prose, Dane Huckelbridge recounts the story of the Champawat tiger’s depredations, first in Nepal and then in India.

The tiger possibly became a man-eater after a bullet injury left it with broken canines, disabling it from hunting its normal prey. Thus began its killing spree to satisfy its own hunger and that of its two cubs, about which, incidentally, Huckelbridge makes no further mention in the book. The British Indian administration deployed several hunters to kill the beast, but it was so elusive that none of them succeeded in tracking it down. Till Corbett got it at last after its seven-year reign of terror.

Who’s right?

The book raises important ethical questions. On the one hand is the “abnormal” tiger that became a man-eater because of

‘No Beast So Fierce: The Champawat Tiger and Her Hunter, the First Tiger Conservationist’ by Dane Huckelbridge: In the forests of the night

human folly. On the other hand are the villagers, most of whom lost a loved one to the animal. So, did Corbett do the right thing by killing the tiger? The author describes Corbett’s moving encounter with the villagers. In Corbett’s words, “...for five days no one had gone beyond their own doorsteps — the insanitary condition of the courtyard testified to the truth of this statement — that food was running short, and that the people would starve if the tiger was not killed or driven away. That the tiger was still in the vicinity was apparent. For three nights it had been heard calling on the road... a hundred yards from their houses, and that very day it had been seen on the cultivated land at the lower end of the village.”

The passage reminded me of my own encounter with villagers barely five months ago in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, where Avni, a man-eating tigress, had been wreaking havoc for two years. Like the villagers of the Kumaon over a century ago, the Yavatmal villagers too insisted that they wanted the man-eater killed, regardless of what city-based conservationists said. I found myself sympathetic to the villagers’ point of view then, and even more so now, after reading painfully graphic descriptions of how a tiger kills its human victims with its claws and teeth in Huckelbridge’s book: “Tigers have four canine teeth that can reach close to four inches and they have a total of ten claws on their forepaws of comparable length. This means that in the first milliseconds of a full-speed tiger attack, a human body must not only cope with a bone-fracturing impact... but also absorb fourteen simultaneous stiletto-deep stab wounds — four of which are usually inflicted on the back of the head or the nape of the neck.”

The other questions raised by the book are political. The British colonists clearly emerge as the villains of the piece, responsible for the tiger’s dwindling population in India. For the British, “To kill a tiger was to vanquish all that was deemed alien and dangerous in India; the act itself made the country safer, and a little more like England.” Furthermore, “To the British... the extermination of tigers became synonymous with progress, with ‘civilization’. They were an obstacle to modernity that needed to be removed.”

Damage done

In the name of development, the British also destroyed forests, the tiger’s habitat. However, while they saw tigers as a hindrance to progress, they left the smaller, but equally dangerous, leopard alone. According to Huckelbridge,the British saw leopards as “vermin”. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that unlike tigers, leopards do not face extinction today. If anything, their numbers are on the rise.

The author also attacks the colonists for their “paternalistic” attitude. After the 1857 Mutiny, they had forbidden Indians from possessing weapons. Thus the villagers became dependent on the gora sahibs to help them tackle man-eaters. Corbett too was guilty of this — his books portray the villagers of the Kumaon as hapless souls who came running up to him every time a man-eater made its appearance. True, they were not as skilled as he in the killing of wild animals, for Corbett had shot his first leopard at the age of 10 and his first tiger at 12. Still, had the villagers been allowed to use firearms, they would have known how to deal with wild animals, alongside whom they had been living for centuries.

In his old age, Corbett regretted shooting man-eaters and organising hunting expeditions for the British royalty. He became an arch-conservationist. But it was too late, the damage had already been done. During the Champawat tiger’s reign, India had close to a lakh tigers. By the time Corbett left India for Africa, around Independence, their number fell to 4,000. We can only hope that by the end of the 21st century, the Royal Bengal tiger will not become extinct, like its kin, the sabre-toothed tiger.

The writer is former Head of the English Department at Pune University.

No Beast So Fierce: The Champawat Tiger and Her Hunter, the First Tiger Conservationist; Dane Huckelbridge, William Collins, £16.99

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