Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jim Corbett: Legendary hunter, author and conservationist

When man-eating tigers and leopards were terrorizing villages in the northern jungles of British India, Jim Corbett was someone the people could count on to take care of the problem.
Between 1907 and 1938, Corbett, at great personal risk, tracked and shot dead 19 tigers and 14 leopards – a total of 33 documented man-eaters. Those big cats had killed more than 1,200 men, women and children.
Later in life, Corbett enjoyed great success as the author of books that recounted his adventures, including “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” (1944) and “The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag” (1947).
Corbett also became a noted conservationist, stressing the need to protect India’s wildlife, especially its majestic, misunderstood tigers. India’s first national park was named in his honor.
Corbett achieved his success through continuous education, practice and a dedication to his profession and the people he protected.

Knowledge and experience trump fear

“After a lifelong acquaintance with wildlife I am no less afraid of a tiger’s teeth and claws today than I was” as a young man, Corbett wrote in “The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon” (1954). “But to counter that fear and hold it in check I now have the experience that I lacked in those early years.”
Where he used to look for danger all around him in the wild and was afraid of every sound he heard, he learned through experience what sounds to ignore and which to pay special attention to, he wrote. Through practice, he also was much more certain where the bullets he fired would go.
“Experience engenders confidence, and without these two very important assets the hunting of a man-eating tiger on foot, and alone, would be a very unpleasant way of committing suicide,” Corbett wrote.

Reading jungle signs

From early boyhood, Corbett made a hobby of reading and interpreting jungle signs. This included reading animal tracks and understanding various animal calls, such as langur monkeys or chital deer.
For instance, from a tiger’s pug marks, or tracks, you can tell the direction and speed the animal is traveling, its sex and age, and whether all four of its limbs are sound, and if not, which limb is injured or ailing, he wrote.
From a tiger’s territorial scratch marks, you can learn the animal’s sex, the direction it’s heading, the length of time that has elapsed since it passed, the direction and approximate distance of its headquarters, and the nature of its kills, including whether it recently had a meal of human flesh, Corbett noted.
The calls of certain animals like birds and monkeys can alert you to the presence of a leopard or tiger, if you know how to interpret them.
Such skills as tracking are “absorbed a little at a time, and that the absorption process can go on indefinitely,” Corbett wrote.
But you have to be open to learning, he said.

Pay attention or remain ignorant

In “Jungle Lore” (1953), Corbett recalls taking a 12-mile hike with a companion from one camp to another through a beautiful forest. Corbett describes the trees and other plants in full bloom, brightly colored butterflies flitting about, the scent of flowers filling the air and the forest throbbing with the song of birds.
“At the end of the day my companion was asked if he had enjoyed the walk, and he answered, ‘No. The road was very rough,’” Corbett wrote. This example serves “to emphasize my contention that if you are not interested you will see nothing but the road you walk on, and if you have no desire to acquire knowledge and assume you can learn in a fortnight what cannot be learnt in a lifetime, you will remain ignorant to the end.”
Corbett believed that a person’s capacity for absorbing knowledge was based on how much they had already absorbed. So, the more knowledge you accumulate, the more capacity for learning you’ll have, he says.

Be prepared; don’t enter the jungle with an unloaded gun

Corbett was a stickler for preparation.
“When entering a jungle in which rapid shooting might at any moment become necessary, I never feel happy until I have reassured myself that my rifle is loaded,” he wrote in “Man-Eaters of Kumaon.” “To pull a trigger in an emergency and wake up in the Happy Hunting Grounds or elsewhere because one had omitted to load a weapon, would be one of those acts of carelessness for which no excuse could be found.”
He made a habit of inspecting his weapon thoroughly before a hunt. He would discard any cartridges that looked discolored or dented and he would check his rifle’s safety catch to make sure it was working smoothly.
Corbett was often stalked by the carnivores he was hunting. For safety’s sake, he liked to hunt alone.
“To walk with safety through forests or along deserted roads in an area in which a man-eater is operating calls for the utmost caution and the strict observance of many rules,” Corbett wrote. “It is only when the hunter has repeatedly been the hunted that the senses can be attuned to the required pitch, and those rules be strictly adhered to, the breaking of which would provide the man-eater with an easy victim.”

Fear sharpens the senses

Corbett used his fear in dangerous situations to his advantage. “Danger … tends to sharpen the faculties and to bring into focus all that is to be seen and heard in a forest,” he wrote. “Danger that is understood, in which you are prepared to face, does not detract in any way from pleasure.”
Fear keeps people “on their toes,” he said.
After an unsuccessful hunt for a man-eater, Corbett wouldn’t beat himself up over his failure to bag the beast. Though disappointed, he knew that his failure wasn’t based on his lack of preparation.
To take his mind off an unproductive hunt, Corbett liked physical activity, a warm bath and a good meal.
“Exercise, warm water, and food have a wonderfully soothing effect on bitter thoughts,” he wrote in the “The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag.”
Corbett suffered exposure, mental strain and illness during his hunts, which made the going rough. He battled malaria and pneumonia, but kept his determination to get the job done. “But for all these occasions I am amply rewarded if my hunting has resulted in saving one human life,” he wrote in “Man-Eaters of Kumaon.”

Study your enemy

Corbett studied his quarry. He gained a deep appreciation for big cats. He felt that tigers were maligned as bloodthirsty and cruel by some authors.
He tried to educate people that most tigers were not a threat to humans. He said those that became man-eaters typically did so because of an injury that prevented them from hunting their natural prey. Nine out of 10 times a man-eater was found to have an injury, such as a wound from a gunshot or impacted porcupine quills. And the tenth case would be old age.
“A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that 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,” Corbett wrote.
Corbett pushed for the creation of nature preserves for tigers, including what would become Jim Corbett National Park in Kumaon in 1957.
In his later years, Corbett much preferred photographing animals to shooting them.
“Apart from the difference in cost between shooting with a camera and shooting with a rifle, and the beneficial effect it has on our rapidly decreasing stock of tigers, the taking of a good photograph gives far more pleasure to the sportsman than the acquisition of a trophy; and further, while the photograph is of interest to all lovers of wild life, the trophy is only of interest to the individual who acquired it,” he wrote.
Sir Maurice Hallett, who served as governor of the United Provinces of British India from 1939 through 1945, wrote that Corbett had all the qualities of a successful shikari or big-game hunter. He had “physical strength, infinite patience, great power of observation and power not only to notice small signs but also to draw the right inference from those signs. To these must be added great courage,” Hallett wrote.
Corbett was born in Nainital, United Provinces, British India, in 1875. He worked for railway and shipping companies managing the transportation of goods in northern India. He earned the rank of colonel in the British Indian Army and fought in World War I.
Corbett died in Kenya in 1955 at the age of 79.

Related Web links:

Wikipedia entry on Jim Corbett

Find a Grave memorial for Col. Edward James “Jim” Corbett

The Corbett Foundation

Photos (top to bottom):

Jim Corbett after killing the man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag in 1925;
Corbett and the man-eating tiger known as the Bachelor of Powalgarh in 1930;
Corbett at rest in Dhikala;
Corbett and the Leopard of Rudraprayag in 1925;
Portrait of Jim Corbett.

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