Human beings are not the natural prey of tiger, and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds or old age that, in order to live, they are compelled to take a diet of human flesh. Corbett (1944:vii)
Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett contains ten fascinating stories of tracking and shooting man-eating tigers in the Indian Himalayas during the early years of the the 20th century. Not a book which would usually grab my attention, but I picked up a copy after reading a culture trip blog post, 7 Must-Read Novels That Bring India To Life.
At first glance, this book appears another colonial book, glamourising British brutality in India. That first glance couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a man who cared deeply for his work and the people and villages he rescued from the torment and tragedy of man-eating tigers.
Once I started reading the book, it was very difficult to put it down. Corbett’s vivid descriptions transport the reader to the jungle, as if you were sitting beside him, seeing every intricate detail, smelling every scent and feeling the fear and excitement of hunting the man-eaters. The beauty of the jungle and the exhilaration of killing a man-eater – restoring life for the villagers in the Himalayas – are as pronounced as the sheer terror of tracking an animal into the dead of night, only to realise the tiger (or leopard) being followed is below or right behind you; it’s been tracking you all along. I say ‘you’, because Corbett’s writing takes the reader deep into the scene, it feels as though you are right beside Jim Corbett, tracking the man-eaters and sitting in those trees through the night.
Man-eating tigers remain an issue in contemporary India:
A tiger usually makes one large kill every week. For India’s 1,700-odd tigers, that adds up to more than 85,000 kills in a year. If humans were part of a tiger’s natural diet, and since there are people everywhere in India, a good number of these 85,000 kills would be humans. The truth is, less than 85 people are killed or injured – accidentally or otherwise – in a year by tigers here. Many times more die of snakebites or rabies. Yet, the tiger remains the most feared killing machine in public perception. People rarely discriminate between accidental and deliberate killings. And every time there is an attack, the media jump the gun. Under the law, the heads of the state wildlife departments can declare a tiger a man-eater and permit its killing. BBC, 2014
How India could do with Jim Corbett now. He has a National Park in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand, India named after him, in honour of his conservation work; India’s oldest and most prestigious National Park.
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