1948 movie poster
Corbett was a second-generation Indian-born Englishman. He was born at the height of the Raj in 1875 in Naini Tal, in the Himalayan foothill district of Kumaon. His father was the district post master. Corbett grew up as one of sixteen children with the jungle as his backyard. As a boy of eight he ventured out with increasing confidence into the jungles, accompanied sometimes by his younger brother Archie. Young Corbett's taste for jungle exploration was indulged by his mother, his father having died when he was only four, and encouraged by his eldest brother Tom, who had succeeded to their father's old position. With a native escort, he was permitted to head out for adventures that lasted for days, sleeping out in the jungle. Here he learned to recognise the tracks and calls of the forest animals and became an expert tracker and a gifted mimic; both skills that would serve him well in his career as the archetypal great white hunter. The young hunter, having already proved a good shot with both catapult and bow, was charged by his ornithologist cousin with collecting specimens and entrusted with a shotgun. He was able to further improve his shooting skills when he became the youngest cadet with the Naini Tal Volunteer Rifles, aged just ten.
The Bengal and Northwestern Railway provided Corbett with employment from the age of 19 as a fuel inspector. Three years later however in 1907 he cemented his reputation as a hunter when he killed the Champawat Man-eater. This, the first of 19 tigers which would be shot by Corbett, had been terrorising villagers across the border in Nepal, where she had killed and eaten some two hundred people and managed to evade the pursuit of the Nepalese army. Crossing the border into Kumaon, the tigress continued her bloody progress, accounting for another 236 people, fearlessly approaching villages in broad daylight. Corbett, with his reputation for being a fine shot was called upon and following the killing of a sixteen year old girl outside the town of Champawat, he followed the bloody trail to track down and shoot the tigress.
Corbett's best selling account of his exploits was published in 1944
Upon inspection, the dead tiger had lost most of her teeth and this, Corbett concluded, had been the cause of her turning man-eater. Tigers do not naturally pray upon humans and as Corbett's experience as a hunter grew, he came to understand that tigers were only turned into man-eaters through desperation following injuries that prevented them from hunting their natural pray, or sheer old age. Unarmed villagers, usually young women, since they were charged with chores that took them out into the forests were easy prey. They tasted a bit like chicken and were a good option for tigers with compromised hunting ability. In 1910 Corbett was charged with the killing of the man-eating Leopard of Panar. This beast had accounted for four hundred people by the time Corbett tracked it down and put an end to its activities. The leopard had, Corbett believed, obtained a taste for human flesh following a major cholera outbreak. Large numbers of bodies had been dumped in the jungle and having fed on the flesh, the leopard developed a preference for human prey. For leopards it seems, once you've tasted human you never look back. This was born out by the case of the Rudraprayag man-eater, which emerged in the aftermath of the Spanish flu outbreak and went on an eight year killing spree before finally being killed by Corbett in 1926.
Corbett poses with the slain Panar Leopard
Corbett continued to work for the railways, ultimately ending up with responsibility for the ferrying of goods and people across the Ganges at Mokhameh Ghat. He also invested in property and bagged profitable bounties from his man-eater killing activities. During the First World War he was responsible for raising a labour force to serve on the western front and thereafter moved back to his hometown of Naini Tal where he settled down as a local official and landowner. Unlike most Englishmen in India during the Raj period, Corbett enjoys a reputation as man free of prejudice or condescending paternalism. He treated all Indians, even the very poorest and those of the lowest caste with a respect and dignity that marked him out as an exceptional man for his times. Upon discovering that an old 'untouchable' who was too frail to work at Mokhameh Ghat was in fact literate, Corbett promoted the man in spite of India's social taboos and wrote; For the first time, the man held his head high and left his office with a book tucked under his arm and a pencil behind his ear.
Corbett continued to find himself called upon to deal with man-eaters and in 1929 set out to hunt down a tigress and her sub-adult cub known as the Chowgarh man-eaters. Between them they had killed sixty four people in three years, with the cub learning to kill humans from the aging mother, whose hunting ability was compromised. Corbett killed the cub on his first expedition but it took a further two hunts to track down the mother, with which he came to face to face, shooting her in April 1930 at a distance of just eight feet.
Corbett's best seller inspired a Hollywood movie in 1948
Corbett was unfortunately a man of his times and he also killed for sport. Late in 1930 he killed an enormous tiger known as the Bachelor of Powalgarh. The sheer size of the beast, at ten feet eight inches from its snarling jaws to the tip of its tail, doomed the magnificent tiger, as India's top hunters vied to be the one to put a bullet in it. Corbett was lucky not to end up being killed by the tiger since it survived being shot through the head on their first encounter and was merely enraged. Having extricated himself, Corbett was able to finish the job the following day. This was the last big cat Corbett would shoot for sport and in future he restricted himself to taking care of man-eaters when requested. The killing of the Bachelor represented something of a road-to-Damascus moment for the great hunter. Thereafter he committed himself to the preservation of India's wildlife and wrote of the lasting satisfaction of photographing tigers far outweighing the fleeting atavistic pleasure to be had from shooting them. That he had to shoot over 30 tigers and leopards before coming to this conclusion has to count against his reputation somewhat but, once he had seen the light, Corbett became a passionate defender of the forests he had loved since boyhood and the creatures that dwelt in them.
Corbett with the murdered Bachelor of Powalgarh
Corbett set out to educate both locals and officials in the importance of preserving the natural habitats of India's wildlife. He campaigned against the encroachment of farming and logging and unrestricted hunting. Tigers were at the time perceived as a menace to humanity. Locals saw them as devils in feline form whilst the British elite saw them as fair game and a must-have trophy. From his experience Corbett was able to argue that tigers did not naturally prey upon humans and were only driven to this extreme through injury or old age. As the world authority on man eating tigers, he was listened to. In every case he had encountered, Corbett could point to an injury that had caused the change in behaviour, often inflicted by hunters. The locals, who loved and respected 'Carpet Sahib' listened attentively and Corbett lectured in schools to win young hearts and minds to the cause of conservation. The tiger, Corbett warned, was doomed to extinction, perhaps within a decade, unless steps were taken for its preservation. He was the very first to speak out for the protection of the tiger in India and was insistent that action was needed urgently. His efforts saw him involved in the establishment in 1936 of India's first national park in Kumaon. It is now named after him.
Despite its Boy's Own appeal, the book appealed for the preservation of tigers.
The Second World War saw Corbett pressed into service to provide jungle training for British forces fighting the Japanese. He found time in between teaching soldiers jungle survival skills to write his best selling book, Man-eaters of Kumaon, which was published to great acclaim in 1944. Its Boy's Own appeal saw it made into a movie four years later but its introduction contained an appeal for the preservation of the tiger:
The tiger is a large hearted gentleman with boundless courage and when he is exterminated - as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies in his favour - India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.
Corbett shot his last man-eater in 1946 at the age of 71. He had lured the tigress to her death by imitating the mating call of a male tiger. Upon inspection of the carcass, he found two old bullet wounds from a careless hunter - the cause once again of the tiger turning man-eater. He left India the following year, taking independence as his cue to emigrate to Kenya with his sister, sensing that his era was over. He had never married. Corbett was present at Tree Tops Hotel when Princess Elizabeth visited and dined with her on the very night that she discovered that she had become queen. He died in Kenya in 1955.
Man Eaters of Kumaon