The legend of an outstanding hunter, who later turned conservationist in a big way, is alive and throbbing even 68 years after his passing away
Born on July 25, 1875, Jim (Colonel Edward James) Corbett, was a legend in his lifetime to the villagers of the Terai and Bhabar of Kumaon, whom he delivered from the terror of man-eating tigers and leopards. Many decades after his passing on April 19, 1955, he remains a legend with men and women the word over who love the wilds and their denizens. India has rightly named after him its first and perhaps best-known national park—Jim Corbett National Park--and the wider Corbett Tiger Reserve of which it is a part.
One feels Corbett’s astral presence long before reaching the park. From the Nayagaon junction on the Bazpur-Kaladhungi Road and Kaladhungi, where his erstwhile summer home has been turned into a museum, to Ramnagar, the town closest to the park, a host of dhabas, restaurants, home-stay establishments, hotels and resorts, bear his name. There is no doubt an element of commercialization here, an attempt to cash in on a famous name, but then there can be such an effort only if the name resonates with a certain respect and admiration.
The respect and admiration are widespread and reflected in the honours conferred upon him, such as the naming of a tiger sub-species as “Panthera Tigris Corbetti” in 1968. In India, apart from the naming of the park and the tiger reserve after him, the Government launched Project Tiger from the park on April 1, 1973. The move was followed by measures like the formation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority in December, 2005, following the Report of the Tiger Task Force: Joining the Dots earlier that year, and the establishment of the Special Tiger Protection Force. Thanks to these and other measures, there has been a significant increase in India’s tiger population which had come down to 1,411 in 2006 from 40,000 to 50,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. According to the latest tiger census, Status of Tigers 2022, the country had 3,167 tigers.
It would be wrong to attribute all this to Corbett. He was, however, among the earliest to fire a warning shot, stating in the Man-Eaters of Kumaon, “A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage, and when he is exterminated - as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support - India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.” Earlier, turning a conservationist in the late afternoon of his life, he had, among other things, played an active role in holding the All-India Conference for the Preservation of Wildlife in Delhi on January 28, 29 and 30, 1935.
Corbett, doubtless, has had his critics who have pointed out that he organized hunts for senior functionaries of the British government of India, including the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, who and his camp followers shot and killed several tigers, driven to their guns by beaters, during their annual visits. He also did trophy hunting like the killing of the large, majestic tiger, the Bachelor of Powalgarh, and the Pipal Pani Tiger, who were by no means man-eaters. In the case of the latter, however, one can say in mitigation that there was an apprehension of its turning into a man-eater as it had been shot at and severely injured by a villager in Chhoti Haldwani near Kathgodam.
It is, however, unfair to judge past actions of men and women by standards that have evolved subsequently. Also, people grow and change. Corbett’s actions need to be seen in that light. These benefited many. He killed 33 man-eaters—19 tigers and 14 leopards—between 1907 and 1938. These had, among themselves, killed over 1,200 people. He was a fearless hunter who often stalked the most feared man-eaters on foot and shot them at close range.
Besides, the very fact that a legendary hunter like him had turned into a conservationist sent a powerful message, which was further reinforced by the deep love for wildlife and forests that resonates through his books like Man-Eaters of Kumaon, My India, The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon and Jungle Lore. His words reverberate through one’s mind as mind when one is in Jim Corbett National Park, which sprawls over an area of 1,318.54 square kilometres with a core area of 520.82 square kilometres and a buffer area of 797.72 square kilometres. The latter has eight safari zones—Dhela, Bijrani, Jhirna, Dhikala, Durga Devi, Gajriya, Sitabani and Phato.
The park abounds in animals—tigers, leopards, elephants, sloth and black bears, wild boars, spotted and barking deer, langurs and other monkeys, crocodiles, snakes (including pythons), a wide variety of birds and so on. Sighting is abundant in season but one is not without rewards even when it is negligible in the monsoon.
There is something mysterious and magical about its sights and sounds—the dense darkness under the forests, the play of sunlight and shadows on grasslands and bushes, the grandeur of the massed clouds during monsoons, and, besides the calls and trumpets of animals, the susurration of leaves stirred by passing breezes and drumbeat of rain on tin roofs. Memories linger long after one has left all this behind.
(The author is Consulting Editor, The Pioneer. The views expressed are personal)