Corbett and the Powalgarh Man-eater
Corbett and the Powalgarh Man-eater

A cool breeze blew over the lush Indian forest. Jim Corbett was being hunted. The tigress that stalked him was already credited with at least sixty-four human kills, and Corbett hoped that he was targeted to be next. Jim leaned against the rocky slope of a nearby hill and lit a cigarette. The Chowgrath Tigress had already sneaked up on him once in this grove, and he tried to give her the chance to do so again. As the afternoon waned, however, Corbett decided that she was too canny to try the same trick twice.

He opted to lay one last trap for his adversary before the sunlight failed. He led a buffalo into the grove, and tied it up securely as it grazed. If the tigress took the bait she would be able to kill the animal, but would be unable to drag it off. His intent was to circle behind the nearby hill, climb to the top, and give watch to the grove below. It would be a shot of over two hundred yards, but over the years he had felled many a beast from such distances. Even if his long-range shot only managed to wound the man-eating tigress, he would at least be left with a blood-trail to track, and therefore end his months-long hunt.

He set off at a quick pace, anticipating that the tigress would observe his departure and take the opportunity to prey upon the buffalo. As he rounded the hill in a dry riverbed his pace wasn’t so hard as to shut out all distraction: in a shallow depression there rested a pair of Rock-jay eggs. As an amateur oölogist, or egg collector, Corbett could not pass up these unusual specimens. He used some moss to wrap them up, and carried the eggs delicately against his belly with his rifle crossed over his chest. He continued briskly along the sand, hoping to make it to the hilltop before the tigress finished her buffalo feast. As he squeezed past a large boulder which blocked most of the riverbed, something in his peripheral vision gave him pause: something orange and black, with a predator’s eyes, poised behind the boulder and ready to pounce. In that instant he knew he had been outmaneuvered. With his hands full of Rock-jay eggs, and his rifle hugged against his body, there wasn’t much he could do to deflect the imminent attack. He turned his step into an anti-clockwise spin, set the rifle butt against his hip, and managed to fire a single shot.

For a moment the tiger was unaffected, and stayed coiled on the verge of springing out. Then her muscles slacked and her head came down to rest on her forepaws. The bullet had entered the back of her neck, and plunged through to her heart. After ensuring that the Chowgrath Tigress was indeed dead, he returned the way he’d come, and believing he couldn’t have made that improbable shot without the eggs in hand, he returned them to the nest. It was the least he could do.

Edward James Corbett was born in July of 1875, in Kumaon, India at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. He was the penultimate of 9 children born to Irish parents, and from the day he was allowed to walk to school on his own, he began taking long excursions through the jungles of India. He taught himself to mimic the sounds of the forest, to track wildlife, and to watch for warnings. When night would fall, he had no fear of sleeping anywhere in the wild with only a small campfire for company. On one such trek, Corbett followed a meager trail and pushed through a plum bush only to catch the attention of the tiger napping inside. The tiger stepped from cover, and gave him a look that conveyed a message he interpreted as, “Hello, kid, what the hell are you doing here?” Even in those days Corbett didn’t fear tigers. He believed that a tiger was keen to leave humans alone and keep to their own business.

As a young adult, Corbett was drawn in with the big-game hunting crowd. He often accompanied a notorious poacher on illegal hunts where Corbett was educated on the intricacies of India’s big cats. He developed into a masterful hunter, learning to read the environment by observing the forest creatures’ reactions to unseen threats. At the age of 18, however, Corbett found more gainful employ with the railways. His work allowed him to travel much of the country and learn various dialects. In 1906, Corbett’s uncanny hunting skills were called into action once more when a friend and fellow hunter contacted him with an opportunity to use his powers for good instead of evil: to hunt the infamous the Champawat Tiger.

The Champawat Tiger was already credited with 200 human deaths in Nepal before the army drove her out. In India the tigress took another 234 lives. Many had sought her, some claimed to have shot her, but her reign continued unabated. After much personal debate, Corbett approached the ministry, and informed them that he would hunt the Champawat Tiger, but only under his terms: all the rewards for the tiger’s kill were to be rescinded, and all other hunters to be recalled. The ministry agreed. During the months that Corbett tracked her, she continued to prey upon the hapless citizenry. When Corbett’s well-placed shot finally felled the formidable beast, he discovered the reason for her diet of tender human flesh: she had been shot in the mouth some years earlier, thereby destroying her teeth beyond use on her natural prey.

Thereafter requests from villages, cities, or even the parliament began in earnest, often reading something like “We, the public, venture to suggest that you very kindly take trouble to come to this place and shoot this tiger and save the public from this calamity. For this act of kindness the public will be highly obliged and will pray for your long life and prosperity.” Corbett never sought payment or a bounty for his services, regardless the risk to himself.

One such public calamity was the Rudraprayag Leopard. This animal was said to have a fearlessness which allowed it to push through doors or windows, and on at least one occasion, to claw through a wall. For eight years villagers between Kedarnath and Badrinath dared not venture out after nightfall, but despite their caution the Rudraprayag Leopard made meals of 125 people. After months of stalking, Corbett marked one of the leopard’s favorite trails, set a goat as bait, and climbed into a mango tree. There Corbett spent ten nights, with only the anxious murmurs of the landscape hinting at the leopard’s proximity. Just before midnight on the eleventh evening, he heard the distinct clamor of the goat’s bell, and snapped on his weak flashlight. The beam caught a flash of pale fur, and a single shot rang out from the mango tree. The leopard disappeared into the gloom. Five hours later, when the clouds broke, Corbett left the safety of his tree to investigate. There in the silver light of the moon, he found the man-eating Rudraprayag Leopard dead.. He took no joy from the kill; the leopard’s crimes were “not against the laws of nature,” Corbett lamented, “but against the laws of man.”

After having killed the Chowgrath Tigress with a one-handed shot, Corbett found that she was afflicted by a collection of porcupine quills in her right foreleg. Unlike most punctures, a porcupine’s quill will not dissolve, and after years of having the quills embedded the wound was so deteriorated that the tiger’s muscle was rotted, and the bones cratered with signs of infection. Most of the big cats taken by Corbett were also assigned a reason for having become man-eaters. Between 1907 and 1938, Corbett killed a dozen large cats who were collectively blamed for more than 1,500 human deaths. While being hailed as India’s most celebrated hunter of man-eaters, Corbett developed a vast respect for tigers and leopards. Years spent stalking intelligent and powerful predators through the forests convinced him that these were graceful creatures that deserved respect. Even these man-eaters held his respect, for he understood that they were merely adapting to their desperate circumstances. “The stress of circumstances is, in nine cases out of ten, wounds, and in the tenth case old age,” Corbett once wrote, “Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers, 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.” Indeed, Corbett admired the wild tiger as “a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage”, and he urged India’s people to rally for the conservation of “the finest of her fauna.”

In a time when a hunter was measured for how many fearsome animals he could kill, Corbett exuded pride at never having killed a large cat for sport or financial gain. He refused even to hunt leopards which were often regarded as vermin at the time. “Those who have never seen a leopard,” he said, “can have no conception of the grace of movement, and beauty of colouring of this the most graceful and the most beautiful in our Indian jungles. Nor are his attractions limited to outward appearances, for pound for pound, his strength is second to none, and in courage he lacks nothing.” Corbett began lectures in various schools and nature societies with a message to protect the vanishing tiger and leopard populations. He referred to his youth as “days when there were ten tigers to every one that now survives.” Corbett aided in the organization of Hailey National Park, the Association for the Preservation of Game in the United Provinces, and the All-India Conference for the Preservation of Wild Life much to the dismay of the some of the sport-hunters that had called him friend over the years.

Rudraprayag leopard
Rudraprayag leopard

During the 1930s, Corbett’s hunt for India’s cats had turned almost exclusively to shooting them with a camera. No one was able to match Corbett’s knack for approaching tigers. On one expedition Corbett found that the clicking of his camera was disturbing his quarry, and therefore built a crude dam in a nearby creek so the burbling water would mask the sound.

When World War II began Corbett was 64 years old. He promptly volunteered to train Allied troops the skills of jungle survival. After the war Lieutenant Colonel Corbett retired to Kenya where his conservation efforts redoubled, and he penned six books before he passed away in 1955. Two years later, India’s first national park was renamed to The Corbett National Park. Visitors there often seek to spy a tiger in the wild. Although there are many tigers there, that particular park is unfortunately not home to Jim’s namesake: the Panthera tigris corbetti, also known as the Indochinese tiger, or Corbett’s tiger.

In 1875, there were more than 100,000 tigers in the world. In 2007 there was only one tiger alive for every fifteen that lived during Jim Corbett’s childhood. Had it not been for the intervention of this large-hearted gentleman, it is almost certain that there would be far fewer⁠—if any⁠—of these remarkable animals alive today.