Ask an Indian who Jim Corbett was, and it’s highly unlikely that anybody will say "Boxer". The more educated and well-read, or the people of the hills (especially the villagers of Garhwal and Kumaon) are almost certain to say, "Hunter". Because Jim Corbett was born Edward James Corbett in 1875, in Nainital (the capital of the district of Kumaon, now in Uttarakhand state, but back then part of the United Provinces). From a very young age, Corbett was fond of roaming the dense forests of the area around where he had grown up. He was very comfortable in the jungle, and remained in touch with the wild side of India even after he had grown up and joined the Indian army.
As a colonel in the army, Corbett also became a ‘sportsman’ (as they euphemistically called hunters back then – men and even women who, for the sheer sake of showing off their fine aim, went out into the woods to stalk and shoot wildlife. Sometimes the shooting was for the need for food – only so much could be carried when on a long trek through the hills, with a vast entourage of coolies, guards, trackers and other servants following. More often than not, it seems, the pleasure was all in the ‘sport’ of it, and the moth-eaten tigerskins, leopardskins and antlers still found in very old bungalows are evidence of how much these shikaris (hunters) were to blame for the sorry state of Indian wildlife today.
Fortunately, somewhere down the line, Jim Corbett’s attention began to drift from shooting animals with a gun to shooting them with a camera instead. He became an avid photographer, and eventually a conservationist as well. In the 1930s, he was the one who helped push the then-governor of the United Provinces, Hailey, to conserve the swiftly vanishing wildlife of the area by declaring part of it a wildlife preserve. What resulted, in 1936, was India’s first national park, Hailey National Park.
In the meantime, too, Corbett’s prowess as a hunter had earned him respect in another field – as a hunter of man-eaters. Thanks to its dense jungles, the area of Garhwal and Kumaon had a large population of tigers and leopards. Thanks to reasons as varied as hunting accidents (a shot that didn’t kill, followed by a failure to trail and put an end to the animal), encounters with porcupines, and epidemics that ended up causing vast numbers of human corpses to lie about in the woods – some of these predators began preying on cattle, or even in some cases, humans.
The sheer terror spread by these man-eaters still makes for chilling statistics: the Champawat man-eater (the first man-eater to be killed by Corbett, in 1907), for instance, is believed to have killed at least 436 people, if not more. The tiger, and other man-eaters, would carry off villagers, sometimes from within their huts, sometimes from a group of people walking down a village road. The fear caused by them was such that life would come to a halt for weeks altogether: fields would go uncultivated, people would not even step out of their houses to gather firewood, and the roads would be deserted. Considering that these man-eaters sometimes held sway for many years (in the case of the leopard of Rudraprayag, 8 years), life must have been pretty unbearable).
Over the years, called in to help by the government, Corbett accounted for the killing of 33 man-eaters: 19 tigers and 14 leopards. He was revered by villagers and townspeople across the area as a sadhu or saint, and many people would bend in the traditional sign of reverence among the Hindus – to touch his feet – when they met him. He is still, more than 50 years after his death, remembered with affection and gratitude (as ‘Carpet Sahib’, though, by the illiterate) throughout the area.
Interestingly, Corbett also proved in later years to be, besides a conservationist, photographer and hunter, a fine writer. He wrote his memoirs of his hunting of various man-eaters, and they all make for very interesting reading. Do look out for these books: among the best are The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag and Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Both evoke a superb sense of the forest, and are excellent depictions of northern India in the early 20th century. They also reveal a lot about Corbett himself, his love for the jungles, and his affection, indeed, for the people he protected from the depredations of the man-eaters he killed. Most of Corbett’s range of books are available on Amazon.com.