Jim Corbett And The Champawat Tiger
Tigers and their status as an endangered species have made them, rightly, the poster child for preservation. They are gorgeous animals who have had an enduring mark on history through their symbolism of strength and dominance. They are generally beloved animals today. Yet if you look at one in the eyes at say a zoo, there is an inkling of primal fear of what it is like to be hunted.
It was not too long ago that tigers were one of the most feared creatures on planet earth. This is for a good reason — tigers will attack and kill people. One study showed that between 1800 to 2009 there were 373,000 deaths related to tiger attacks or 1,784 per year. The highest number of fatalities occurred in South and Southeast Asia. Of all these tiger attacks, the most deadly came from a tigress called the Champawat Tiger who killed an estimated 436 people.
The Champawat Tiger was originally from Nepal where it had managed to kill approximately 200 people starting in 1903 before the Napalese drove her out (without killing her) to the Kumaon region of India in the early 20th century. After the tiger’s arrival, she managed to kill another 234 before an exasperated government called in Jim Corbett.
Edward James Corbett was born on July 25, 1875, the son of British colonists in India. He had become a colonel in the British Indian army. Perhaps it was because he was born in India that Corbett did not exhibit the same kind of racially superior attitude that other British had toward the colonies. He completely understood the local languages and appreciated Indian culture. Being raised in the valley of Nainital and Kaladhungi region full of natural wonder, he grew up appreciative of wildlife and the need to conserve it. As was typical of early naturalists, he took to hunting and viewed the conservation of wildlife as being more to preserve stock for hunters rather than the preservation of the ecology per se. His skill as a hunter was well-known although this would be the first time he would attempt to take a reputed “man-eater.”
As the depredations of the “Man-eater” of Champawat increased, the government called in Corbett. Corbett agreed to hunt the tiger on two conditions. First, that the government cancels any bounties offered for the tiger even for himself since he did not wish to be considered a reward hunter, viewing himself as a sportsman. Second, that all others hunting for the tiger be recalled. Corbett was afraid of being shot by accident.
After a march, Corbett arrived with several assistants to a village near Champawat. The village, comprised of about 50 residents, was in a state of uproar due to the tiger attacks. The latest victim was a teenage girl. People were afraid to leave their houses — apparently, their food supplies were running low.
Corbett spent the first night out of doors looking to stalk the tigress along a road which she was said to routinely patrol. However, Corbett too was filled with an anticipated fear that he would become hunted. Corbett wrote, “...when the night wind agitated the branched and the shadows moved, I saw a dozen tigers advancing on me, and bitterly regretted the impulse that induced me to place myself at the man-eater’s mercy. I lacked the courage to return to the village and admit I too was frightened to carry out my self-imposed task, and with teeth chattering, as much from fear as from cold, I sat out the long night.”
When Corbett returned to the village in the morning, the villagers were surprised to see him alive. Corbett went on to further investigate the killings and was asked to stand guard while the villagers harvested wheat — otherwise, they would not have done so for fear of the tigress. Harvesting went on as planned, with no sign of the tiger. Corbett himself was hesitant about searching out the tiger although he knew that the villagers could show them the vicinity of where the big cat was likely to be. It took a successful hunt of three deer that fully gained the villagers' confidence in Corbett, plus relieved Corbett and his men’s jitters about hunted the feared tiger.
The villagers guided Corbett to the scene of the latest attack. After examining the animal’s footprints, he determined the tiger to be a female, “a little past her prime.” Further examination revealed the scene, how the girl was collecting branches when she was suddenly seized by the foot by the tiger. Then she was subsequently taken by the throat into the forest. Then Corbett found the remains — only a few pieces of bone which they wrapped in cloth so that they might be cremated. There were also some clothes. Nothing else.
Corbett investigated other attacks. In one case he interviewed a woman who witnessed her sister taken by the tiger. When Corbett informed her of his intention to shoot the tiger, she put her hands together, and then touched his feet, as if in supplication. This made Corbett feel wretched. He wrote, “True, I had come with the avowed object of shooting the man-eater, but with an animal that had the reputation of never killing twice in the same locality, never returning to a kill, and whose domain extended over an area of many hundred square miles the chance of accomplishing my object was about as good as finding a needle in two haystacks.”
For three days Corbett roamed the jungle during daylight. With no sign of the tiger, he moved on to Champawat proper, some fifteen miles distant. By the time he arrived, Corbett managed to gather a party of about thirty men, eager to rid the district of the tiger. As he traveled, he heard more stories about the tiger’s attacks. It was while here that he suddenly received word of a fresh tiger attack on a teenage girl. Rushing to the scene, he found pools of blood and a trail that led deeper into the jungle. As he proceeded, a terrified man from the village armed with a rifle joined him. He was under orders from the village chief to accompany Corbett.
This annoyed Corbett since he was determined to go alone. He ordered the villager to take off his heavy boots. They proceeded to follow the trail down to a watercourse. Corbett ordered the man to station himself on a large rock. Something he did gratefully, while Corbett proceeded.
He found the tigress eating its meal by a pool near a ravine. Nearby there were the remains of the young girl’s leg. Corbett stared at it in morbid fascination before coming to his senses. He grabbed his rifle and put his fingers on the trigger shooting. At the sound of the rifle, the tigress turned away into the brush. There were then growls. It was an eerie thing that Corbett hoped would precipitate an attack and bring the tiger out. Instead, she ran off into the underbrush.
Corbett hurried back to organize a beat of villagers to drive the tiger out. Over difficult terrain hundreds of men firing firearms and noise marched, trying to drive out the tiger to Corbett, who had assumed a position to intercept her. The tiger finally emerged.
The tigress did not go down easily. Corbett fired multiple times before the job was finished. Corbett later examined the corpse and found that the upper and lower right canine teeth were broken. Corbett concluded, “This permanent injury to her teeth — the result of a gun-shot wound — had prevented her from killing her natural prey, and had been the cause of her becoming a man-eater.”
Jim Corbett went on to earn fame through hunting many other tigers and leopards that had killed humans. In most cases, like the Champawat tiger, these “man-eaters” had sustained wounds or disease that prevented them from hunting their normal prey. Today, a national park in India is named after him and is a valuable preserve for Bengal tigers. Also, the Indo-Chinese tiger, Panthera tigris corbetti, was named after him. He died of a heart attack in 1955 while in retirement in Kenya.