Corbett, a hunter or a conservationist?

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Jim Corbett is an iconic figure in the world of wildlife and conservation. But his legacy is a slightly muddled one, says Harshad Sambamurthy. Corbett was as much a conservationist in his later years, as he was an avid hunter in his salad days. But he left us with much to muse about.

Edward James Corbett, remembered, and celebrated for his writings that chronicled fantastic tales of “man-eating” tigers and leopards in the region of Kumaon, was born 25th July, 1875, in Nainital.

A proficient marksman

Growing up embedded in his local surroundings, he developed early-on, an acute curiosity for the environment. A keen observer of nature, it was only through everyday experiences that he acquired the necessary skills for tracking, and eventually hunting. As a young boy, returning from school, fearful of walking through the jungle alone, Corbett was compelled to learn the art of soundless perambulation, of tree-climbing, of adjusting his eyes for surveying the dense thickets, and of calibrating his ears to listen to the mellifluous modulations of the forest. He could read the signs, mimic the sounds and ascertain the differing warning signals of various animals.

A proficient shooter since his youth, he coupled his skills as a marksman with the deep knowledge of the jungle to train military personnel in jungle-warfare. Corbett himself served in the British Indian Army in France, and fought in the Third Afghan War in Waziristan in the 1920s. Yet, it was Corbett’s adventures in the forests of Uttarakhand, on the trail — quite literally — of “man-eating” tigers and leopards, that established him; enshrining him as the archetypal author — alongside Kenneth Anderson — of jungle lore.

The roots of his environmentalism, however progressive and evolved for the time, were nevertheless paradoxical, for though he revered the tiger as a “large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage”, he did, as the historian Vijaya Ramadas Mandala writes, “pursue and kill them with purpose, and for prizes”. Though he claimed to hunt only to decimate the looming and spectral threat of a “man-eater”, his remorse for shooting these animals separated him from the presiding discourse that pitted the imperial hunter against monstrous vermin: a woefully ignorant and cruel term used by the colonial government to categorise tigers and leopards; vindicating their slaughter.

The killer of “man-eaters”

Between 1907 and 1938, Corbett executed nearly a dozen “man-eaters” in the Garwhal and Kumaon regions of the United Provinces. These tigers and leopards were estimated to have killed at least 1,500 people. One of his spectacular feats — coincidentally, Corbett’s first “man-eater” — was slaying the notorious Champawat tigress, responsible for 436 documented human deaths. He received a commemorative plaque for this achievement. Such recognition, Mandala argues, was perhaps what spurred Corbett to pursue other such cases. He was responsible for extinguishing the Panar leopard, that allegedly killed 400 people, and the infamous leopard of Rudraprayag, who, between 1918 and 1926, preyed on 125 people across several villages on the pilgrim route between Rudraprayag and Kedarnath, and along the road to Badrinath.

His first book; Man-eaters of Kumaon, documented some of these early adventures, catapulting Corbett to celebrity. His narratives were enthralling, but, as the late conservationist Billy Arjan Singh insisted, were a major “disservice to tigers… emphasising the innate savagery of a hard-pressed animal.” Corbett always maintained a devout respect for tigers and leopards, never explicitly describing these hunts as sport, yet, his photographs illustrate a man who seemed to attain some gratification hunting animals worthy of the kill. In one image (pictured here), Corbett looks relaxed, almost indifferent, with a quiet swagger and air of condescension, towering over the lifeless, gargantuan Bachelor of Powalgarh, sought-after not for his “man-eating” or cattle depredations, but purely for the novelty of his colossal size. Corbett even admitted to the thrill of “securing a magnificent trophy” when on the trail of the Pipal Pani tiger.

The general presumption that Corbett only killed “man-eaters” is, as Mandala similarly contends, erroneous. During this time, the widespread and consistently increasing press-coverage on “man-eaters” perhaps enabled hunters — and Corbett, alike — to justify the extermination of what they deemed troublesome animals. The phenomenon of the “man-eater” was equally a construction of the hunter; who, through narrative, engineered and exaggerated the panic and devastation caused by these animals; thereby substantiating reasons for their elimination. Corbett the imperialist hunter, was, in actuality, only an arms-length away from Corbett the conservationist.

The transformation

His complete transformation nonetheless, manifested and concretised itself as a result of the hunting excesses he saw in others, coupled with the wonton and rapacious exigencies of Empire that destroyed Indian forests. He stood against the thoughtless, indiscriminate eradication of wildlife and believed adequate measures were required to save the tiger and other fauna. His first step, inspired by his friend; the writer, naturalist and photographer F.W. Champion, was to take up shooting with a camera. For him, conservation was not so much an abstract idea, but something deeply personal; a bond between himself and his own immediate environment. This Thoreauvian outlook “introduced interesting inflections into any simplistic dichotomy of coloniser and colonised, powerful and feeble, hunter and hunted” casting Corbett in an utterly unique meld of hunter-turned-conservationist.

Ironically, Corbett’s baffling methodology as a conservationist was to organise shoots for Governors and Viceroys, where he inveigled these high-officials to subscribe to a philosophy of preservation. Nevertheless, it was through this puzzling medium that Corbett played a pivotal role in the establishment of India’s first National Park — what is now Corbett National Park — in 1936. The Park’s legislation served as an antecedent to later, more comprehensive wildlife laws, and was fittingly selected as the venue for the launch of Project Tiger in 1973.

Some critics have branded Corbett a green imperialist. But, instead of being a “cog in the colonial machinery”, Corbett was an original, and in spite of his nuanced imperialist sympathies, devoted his life — most notably his later years — to the conservation of India’s wildlife. His methods, however abnormal or anomalous, separated him from the dark shadowy phantoms of colonialism as a beacon, however faint, in his desire to — as Edward Said articulated — “induce a change in the moral climate”, and shift attitudes towards wildlife conservation. He succeeded in his endeavour, and it is the consequence of his efforts and legacy — and in the countless other, perhaps brighter lights that followed him — that conservation has so energetically entered, and continued to relentlessly thrive in public consciousness.

After India’s Independence, Corbett retired to Nyeri, Kenya, with his sister Maggie. He never married, and passed away, a few days after the completion of his sixth book Tree Tops, on 19th April, 1955.


Harshad Sambamurthy

Harshad Sambamurthy is an environmental writer. Through the written word, he hopes to develop an environmental consciousness that recognises the inherent link between humans and wildlife using creative educational and pedagogical tools like storytelling and folklore. He is based in Chennai, and can be reached at harshad.samba@gmail.com

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