Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Jim Corbett: The Greatest Hunter of Maneaters

Jim Corbett featured with a leopard
Colonel Jim Corbett is one of those rare men that accomplished such amazing feats over the course of his life that he seems almost unrealistic. There are action movie characters that pulled off less impressive deeds, and all without the aid of modern tech. No sir, Mr. Corbett was in my opinion one of the finest hunters that ever lived and an intellectual gentleman besides.

He is of course best known for tracking down and eliminating over twenty man eating leopards and tigers in his home region of Kumaon, India. To the uninitiated such incidents were far from rare in India at the time. India's history is plagued with such animals wreaking havoc on the citizens of rural villages. Us folks here in the States and urban Europe tend to freak out at a single shooting incident with less than a dozen people dying. Now imagine that type of terror magnified tenfold as an animal is prowling about looking for its next meal. You don't know where it is, when or where it will strike, and you know that until it is killed it will continue preying upon your neighbors.

Jim Corbett was one of the few men who not only stepped up to the plate to eliminate such troublesome beasts, but excelled at it better than any other hunter I've ever heard of. That's including such famous men as Colonel James Patterson who slew that Tsavo Man-eating lions or George Rushby who killed the Njombe lion pride, although those two certainly took a lot of skill and time as well.

Part of what sets Corbett apart was the uncanny finesse and skill he brought to the table not only as a rifleman but as a tracker. Almost like a pulp character he learned how to track from an early age while growing up in the jungles of Nanital. In fact he became capable of deducing an astonishing amount of information from various marks, to the point that he could actually differentiate between individual animals of the same species just by looking at their tracks. Nor was he limited to just footprints, but other marks also gave him clues. Indeed, he became so familiar with various animals and their habits that he could locate his quarry by listening to other wildlife. Frequently in his books he could pinpoint a man-eater by the alerting barks of deer or monkeys, knowing exactly how they would react to different animals.

He could almost seem to speak to animals in a very literal sense, as more than once he demonstrated that he could attract or redirect animals by mimicking their calls perfectly. Tarzan would have been most impressed at his skill set!

Also very pulpy in origin was his learning curve with firearms. In his youth he started out with a piece of crap double barrel muzzle-loader with one half completely disabled and thus had to use it as a single shot. The stock was even maintained by having wire wrapped around the stock! He was eventually able to graduate to a .450 Martini Henry rifle, then a double barreled 500 Nitro Express and finally a .275 Rigby, more commonly known as the 7x57mm Mauser bolt action. Not unlike Karamojo Bell he had to learn how to make every shot count when starting off with a muzzle-loader.

He was also quite the animal telepath. Throughout his books he has been routinely able to accurately predict the movements and behaviors of almost every animal he dealt with, although it was used to its fullest when bringing down trouble-makers. So well-attuned to nature was he that on one occasion, without seeing, hearing or smelling anything out of the ordinary he somehow knew that a troublesome tiger lay ahead of him along a bend in the trail he was traversing. Sure enough, when he took a round about route to get a view of the path from a different angle he found the foliage disturbed with the fresh tracks of a tiger.

Truly, Corbett had honed his craft to a science. And yet in his writing he seems in no way to be a braggart. As Peter Capstick so eloquently put it "The most common theme of his many books is a feeling of absolute truth." I'm well inclined to agree. The fellow just seems so sincere and honest in his writing that it's most difficult to find any fault with the man.

I'm only going to cover a few of his encounters, as covering even half of them would be to write down an entire book and a half, so hopefully you can bear with me and enjoy the highlights.

His very first hunt for a man-eater was not an easy task, as he went up against the Champawat Maneating Tigress, which had an official body count of 436. And no, that's not a typo! 436! She started out chewing on folks in Nepal until the Gurkhas had enough of that crap and actually chased the cat down south and out of their territory. Just take a second to appreciate how hard core that is. A cat that racked up 200 kills got booted out of an entire country by a group of men with kukri knives. Yeah, the Gurkhas are that awesome.

Gurkha soldiers and mercenaries have consistently been some of the most bad-a warriors in human history.
India on the other hand wasn't quite that appreciative of the accomplishment, as now an established man-eater officially became their problem. As it happens, most villagers in India are poorly equipped to deal with such problems, but who could blame them? Most were simple farmers tending flocks of cattle and fields, and weapons were a bit hard to come by since the British had done a good bit of disarming. Even when guns were present, which they sometimes were, few of the local men had the skill or will to fight what to many of them was a supernatural beast. That's when you call in a specialist.

Jim Corbett just so happened to be that specialist, and the Champawat Tigress would be the first in a long line of man-eaters he would deal with. It certainly helped establish a name for himself! Amazingly he killed this particular animal on his first try with the distinct aid of many of the local villagers. I must take a moment to commend how remarkable it is that people living in fear such as they were able to rally together and help in one monumental effort with one of the most terrifying animals to lurk in their generation with all of their faith hinging on Corbett and a government official. Even though a multitude of these gents were armed with firearms that they hid despite the British trying to confiscate them all, they weren't very good at all and were mostly utilized as noisemakers for the beat that took place. Thankfully though the official present not only said that he'd turn a blind eye to anyone who just happened to have a gun, but he'd supply ammunition for them as well!

For those of you who don't know what a "beat" is, it is a large assemblage of people walking in a horizontal line through a patch of brush and make a heap of noise to scare out any wildlife. It is dangerous even when not dealing with man-eaters, but these boys took to it bravely. Corbett and the official were supposed to reach a specific hill to overlook a canyon the tigress would have been forced to move down, but when the official stopped to fix his shoe which had been troubling him the villagers mistook it for his signal and started the beat! Things did not go all according to plan, but with some quick thinking the day was saved.

Taking as best a position as he could within a patch of grass Corbett's heart lifted when he saw the tigress bounding down the slope towards the gorge he had planted himself next to. But then the official blasted off both barrels of his shotgun, causing the tigress to swap ends and turn right back towards the beaters! Corbett let off a quick shot even though he knew he was out of range and was not unreasonably frustrated with the turn of events. However the natives, upon hearing three rapid shots, believed that the tigress had been slain and the resulting noise that they unleashed at that critical moment dwarfed what they had done before and half scared the tigress out of her skin and again switched directions! Bolting for the gorge again Corbett hit her twice, although the first shot was too far back and she showed no signs of injury at the second hit.

Surprisingly during this episode Corbett ran out of ammunition for his gun, three shots total, on the logic that he didn't think that he'd have the chance to fire more than that. And here is perhaps the only thing I can find that Corbett ever did wrong, that being not carrying sufficient ammunition. I'm probably going to be haunted by his ghost for saying that, and you don't question the authority of someone like Corbett lightly, but I've got to be honest here. This was to be only the first in several different encounters where insufficient ammo caused problems. Often Corbett's logic for carrying such small amounts were actually quite reasonable, but he apparently hadn't heard Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And boy does that happen a lot!

Corbett was probably experiencing some extraordinary anxiety at this point, as the tigress was now looking right at him at only 30 yards away and was less than pleased at him plinking away at her flank. An empty 500 Nitro Express rifle isn't all that useful as a melee weapon and he was going over possible responses in his head if she happened to try and add him to her admirable body count. Again, for those who don't know, wounded animals are invariably more dangerous than healthy ones, as being injured makes them extraordinarily cranky and vastly more prone to charging and mauling an assailant rather than fleeing, as a healthy animal almost always will.

To his unspeakable relief the tigress for some unknown reason began to retreat across a nearby stream. Out of ammo Corbett asked the official to kindly come down and let him use his shotty, but the poor boy wasn't doing too well in the walking department and was unable to oblige. Having had enough of that nonsense Corbett flew up the hill, grabbed the barely weapon and bounded back towards the stream. Now desiring a rematch the tigress emerged from the foliage and out onto a flat projecting piece of rock in what probably looked like a very cinematic showdown.

Corbett ran until he was within 20 feet of her, which is 30 feet too close, but as he lined up the gun he saw that it had a wee bit of a problem. To quote him "And found to my horror that there was a gap of about three-eighths of an inch between the barrels and the breech-block." In layman's terms this meant that the weapon was dangerously unstable and was very likely to blow up in his face and blind him. But with a man-eater almost close enough to kiss he took the risk and let her fly. And yet the despite aiming at her mouth at such close range the weapon somehow, impossibly missed! Instead of going down her throat and into the internal organs it slammed into her paw, which he would later remove with nothing but his fingernails.

Thankfully the tigress had been bleeding badly from his earlier two shots and was unable to offer a rebuttal. Instead she slumped down and to Corbett's intense relief, expired.

The next big contender on the list was the Panar Leopard, who officially racked up a kill count of 400 hundred, only a short distance behind the Champawat Tigress. The writer and hunter Peter Capstick, when writing his own chapter on Corbett expressed skepticism over the accuracy of this number, since the chances of the body count landing precisely on 400 are extremely low and feels that it was rounded off so that bureaucrats would have an easy number to throw around. This is quite possible and even likely, but seeing as how the leopard itself was so inconsiderate as to not keep us posted, we'll just go along with 400 as well.

It is also interesting to note Corbett's own theory on why the Panar Leopard took to eating humans. Common theories today hold that most animals feed on man only due to old age and injuries preventing the hunting of normal prey, or a scarcity of their normal food. At first glance these seem rational as the idea of an animal enjoying the taste of human flesh is far from popular. Corbett theorizes that the Panar Leopard started off by scavenging those who had died from disease in large numbers, and when the outbreak ended the leopard had developed a strong attraction for humans and thus went from already deceased to those still living.

From a chronological angle this makes a good deal of sense, as the Panar Leopard began its reign of terror just after a deadly wave of cholera in that region of India. To directly quote Corbett "A leopard in an area in which his natural food is scarce, finding these bodies very soon acquires a taste for human flesh, and when the disease dies down and normal conditions are established, he very naturally, on finding his food supply cut off, takes to killing human beings."

Spooky stuff, but true! Like the Champawat Tigress, he nabbed this bloke on his first try, but the circumstances were very different. Whereas the tigress was killed in daylight with hundreds of beaters flushing her into the open, the Panar Leopard was killed in the depths of night while Corbett sat in a most unsatisfying tree while watching over a goat he posted out as bait. Now, sitting out without a light waiting for cat that has eaten roughly 400 people is unnerving enough, but things went a good bit worse than that.

Before settling down completely for that night Corbett had his men tie bundles of what he calls blackthorn shoots, which appear to be very stiff and pointy branches, around his perch and the trunk of the tree. This would later prove to be a very wise decision. And this wasn't a thirty foot tall oak tree either. It was a puny thing with one appreciable branch that wasn't very high off of the ground at all and gave Corbett almost nothing to hold on to. And guess what the leopard targeted first that night?

You guessed it. Rather than go for the goat our over-achieving friend went straight for Corbett. Thankfully the shoots kept the fellow from crawling up the tree, as any attempt resulted in him instantly getting a face-full of needle-sharp thorns. So the beast then bit down on one of the bundles and began yanking fiercely, trying to dislodge Corbett from his perch. In fact his position was so precarious that he couldn't even turn himself enough to fire his shotgun! And this was in the dark, where the Panar Leopard could see fine but Corbett was just about blind. In fact in anticipation of this he had tied a white rag about the muzzle of his gun so that he could see something in the gloom.

Corbett writes that the leopard's growling actually didn't unsettle him because at least then he knew where the animal was at. But when it was quiet? That was when he was darned near petrified. Not knowing where a man-eater is is a heck of a lot worse than knowing where it is! After a period of time where Corbett probably lost a year of his life due to pure anxiety the Panar Leopard eventually gave up and rushed towards the goat and gave Corbett the chance he needed. When the leopard killed the goat, which was stark white for the exact purpose of being able to make out better in the dark, Corbett fired and was rewarded with an angry grunt and the sound of retreat.

Corbett's men were soon there to help him down and asking him what happened and he had them make up a good number of torches to follow the animal up. This is not the easiest thing in the world to do. In fact if there is anything more dangerous than following up a wounded man-eating leopard in the dead of night, it doesn't immediately come to mind with the possible exceptions of playing Russian roulette with a 1911 or telling your wife/girlfriend that yes, that dress does make her look fat.

Lining up in a line behind Corbett with torches raised they set out to at least make sure the leopard wasn't dead and curled up within a short distance they set out. But like a horror movie monster the leopard wasn't dead and charged them from the deep shadows. Although his men promised not to run for the hills if the leopard charged, as that would leave Corbett in the dark, they turned tail and bolted. Well, they attempted to, but ended up bumping into each other in such a confused jumble that they either didn't go anywhere quickly or dropped their flickering torches and gave Corbett enough light to empty a barrel into the man-eater's chest.

Corbett is man enough to admit in ink that had he been one of those unarmed torch bearers he would have turned tail too. Hey, who wouldn't? He showed no ill will to his men and with the realization that the terror of the night was now thoroughly dead it wasn't long before the mood was lifted and the people of the region slept soundly.

Now, as if those weren't chilling enough, far worse lay ahead. Although the Panar Leopard had an astounding kill count it actually did little to gain attention from India at large. His activities were kept in the more out of the way areas and thus didn't disrupt much. The Leopard of Rudraprayag was a different story altogether. (Do you have any clue how challenging it is to spell that name from memory?!)

By comparison to our first two contenders, a kill count of 125 may seem paltry. Speaking personally, I believe the death toll was in fact much higher. Corbett explains the grisly census task of body counting and attributing kills to an animal requires at least part of the victim to have been found and brought to the attention of officials. As most of the folks there probably would not be inclined to follow a man-eater and poke at his lunch there were many kills that were unconfirmed and thus not added to the official tally. Corbett himself knew of many who died who were never actually listed.

It also didn't help that many victims were eaten in their entirety, clothing included, and thus left little for anyone to examine.

But the number of dead isn't what sets this animal apart. Unlike the other two, the hunt for the Rudraprayag Leopard lasted eight years! And during that time the people around the leopard's hunting range did everything that could reasonably done in an attempt to kill it short of saturation bombing. If there was an animal more hard to kill I haven't heard of it. These people tried everything. A detachment of Gurkha soldiers were sent to kill it. If you recall above, a group of these guys was amazing enough to make the Champawat Tigress move to another country entirely. The Gurkhas came up empty handed. Almost every single hunter in the country turned up to kill the animal. A sodding bounty was placed on its head.

In eight years only one man besides Corbett actually injured the thing in any way, and that was a revolver bullet creasing his toe as he shot across a bridge at night. When guns in the hands of hundreds of hunters didn't work people literally tried bomb traps and even dousing the bodies of kills with cyanide! All sorts of kookie traps and schemes were attempted, but all in vain.

Wolverine wasn't this hard to kill. So you can understand when the people in the region were paralyzed with fear and considered the beast to even be a devil or demon. And this was in a much more busy region. If I recall correctly this was around a road that was frequently used for a mass pilgrimage by tens of thousands of Indians. You can imagine how well this went over with a hungry leopard on the prowl. If you thought the stakes in the movie Jaws were high, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Corbett himself utilized a heavy duty American gin trap, one of the few I've heard of that actually had teeth on the jaws, cyanide capsules, gun traps, and even had one of the few if only other hunters he trusted to assist him, a fellow by the name of Ibbotson. Corbett almost never had other people accompany him when actively hunting for several reasons. One was that they almost invariably slowed him down, being clumsy and not nearly as adept in the brush as he was. Another reason was that they were in some cases almost as dangerous as the animal's he was trying to kill. In an earlier attempt to kill the Champawat Tigress another fellow actually tried tagging along, and on their return trip the fellow was waving his gun wildly behind Corbett, who expected a bullet in his back at any moment. He then tried switching positions, figuring he was safer behind the man. That was until the bloke slipped and for a brief moment Jim was looking straight down the barrel of his gun. He wasn't so hot on having company after that.

Corbett's prolonged effort to kill this one animal took months and involved so many bizarre twists and turns that it required a book of its own! I don't even know where to begin with how difficult it was to nail this animal. Perhaps I should start with just how cunning and devilish of an animal it was. The fact that it was an unusually strong and powerful animal takes a backseat when hears accounts of how overpowered it was in the stealth department. The animal had killed and taken people from inside their own homes with other people present and not being spotted.

Actually, I don't think I can actually do the justice of reciting the feats the Rudraprayag leopard accomplished, and will instead direct you to Corbett's writing itself below. That entire saga really is just too epic for me to even attempt to retell.

So for now I'll stick with saying that the game of cat and mouse that went on between Corbett and the leopard could have made an entire season of a show. Each came within a whisker of killing the other multiple times and was often by a queer twist of fate that death was avoided. It was almost uncanny just how lucky the bloody thing was, and even now I can scarcely believe that the creature had dodged death so consistently.

Even so, if an opponent is the measure of a man's mettle, then I'd say that Corbett was the best hunter of man eating cats this world has ever seen, putting even the famous Colonel John Patterson, the slayer of the Tsavo Man-eaters to shame. It took every shred of Corbett's wit, marksmanship, and bushcraft to nail this animal, and even then it took many months. At one point his nerves were so shot that he actually had to pack it in for a little while and recover. He knew that if he kept up at the pace he'd been going he would have ended up dead.

When he eventually did slay the Rudraprayag Leopard the territory went into a frenzy of joy with many people believing him to be a sadhu, or saint. Now that's a pretty epic title, hunter saint!
The leopard itself was most unusual. It was actually a giant as far as leopards go. Between the pegs it measured seven feet and six inches long. According to Peter Capstick, any leopard measuring at just six feet will get you a near invincible title in the Rowland Ward sport records, so you can imagine that extra six inches being amazing. His pelt was unusual. Perhaps due to old age his hair was short, pale and brittle. Even more unusual was his entire mouth and tongue being completely black! This might be a result of having ingested such large quantities of cyanide, as on at least one occasion he ate an entire body that had been given many times more than the minimum lethal dosage.

Contrary to popular theories regarding man-eaters, the Rudraprayag Leopard wasn't a broken down animal. Although certainly old with worn teeth, he was actually unusually healthy for his age and much stronger than normal. It's actually unnerving how many man-eating cats I've read of who actually become healthier after a strict human diet. Brrrrr.

Corbett had plenty of trouble with other tigers as well, of note being the Thak Man-eater who pulled her own Tsavo stunt by paralyzing a railroad crew with terror and temporarily shut the operation down. Most tigers become shy and paranoid after being pursued which makes them hard to scope out. The Thak tigress however seemed rather contemptuous in the face of confrontation and actually grew cranky when the railroad workers tried scaring her away with shouts and noise. She just held her position and began roaring until the air stank of fear and urine.

Now, you'd think that after dealing with animals that killed well over a thousand men that Corbett might hold a bit of a grudge against big cats in his home country. Ah, but being the enlightened sportsman he developed no such hatred. On the contrary, when the villages continued to expand and the wildlife became persecuted he was one of the first to step up and try to secure strongholds of nature to be conserved. Like Theodore Roosevelt, he was one of the first men of the century to champion conservation and even got an entire nature park reserved in his name which stands even today!

Although best known as the slayer of man-eaters, and not without reason, Corbett was a gentle soul who loved both men and nature. He was a gentleman of the truest sense who's skill set was almost unrivaled. He is one of my personal favorite heroes and even in this day of technology and distance from danger his work still has relevance.

His writing is still around and has thankfully been put up online for all to enjoy. If you have any interest in his writing of any kind I heavily encourage you to look at it. They aren't meant to be action packed thrillers, but is rather frank and straightforward. The amount of information contained inside is a veritable treasure trove to those who can appreciate the words of such an experienced man. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have! :)


I might later do a post talking specifically about man-eaters of different types and titles, examining their causes and how they were dealt with. But for now bask in the glory that is Jim Corbett!

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