Hunter who turned to conservation: The remarkable legacy of Tiger Jim

Jim Corbett devoted much of his life to hunting big cats. But the park he created in northern India may now represent the tiger's best hope of survival in the wild. By Andrew Buncombe

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"I was shooting with Eddie Knowles in Malani when I first heard of the tiger which later received official recognition as the 'Champawat man-eater'."

So begins the opening chapter of Jim Corbett's first and probably most famous book, Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Published initially in 1944 and with a foreword by Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India, the book details Corbett's Boy's Own-style exploits in the jungles of northern India and helped cement his reputation internationally as a hunter, animal-lover and adventurer. It was translated into 27 languages and is still widely available today.

But more than half a century after his death, another part of Corbett's legacy is being recognised as being of far greater importance, as the tigers he hunted and loved face their most pressing battle for survival against the unprecedented encroachment of mankind.

Indeed, Jim Corbett National Park, which the hunter-turned-conservationist helped establish in what is now the Indian state of Uttaranchal, is home to one of only two genetically viable tiger populations in the entire country.

"We have managed to keep it that way," said Brijendra Singh, honorary warden of the reserve and a member of India's National Board of Wildlife, which is meeting today in Delhi to discuss the fate of India's tigers. "The main challenge we face is the encroach of population and the loss of habitat. We can deal with the poaching, but there have to be places [set aside] for tigers."

By the time Corbett helped establish the park in 1936 – the first national park in India – he already had a near-legendary reputation in the country as a man who would track down and kill man-eating tigers, those animals driven to despair by injury, hunger or whatever other urges, and which had turned upon humans. Between the years 1907 and 1938, usually hunting on foot and alone, Corbett hunted and killed at least a dozen such tigers, allegedly responsible for the deaths of more than 1,500 people. The first man-eater he shot – the Champawat tiger, of which he wrote with such passion and eloquence – was said to have killed more than 436 people.

And yet Corbett was slow to categorise a tiger as a man-eater and was loath to tarnish the reputation of the emblematic great cat as an evil creature. "A man-eating tiger is a tiger that has been compelled, through stress of circumstances beyond its control, to adopt a diet alien to it. The stress of circumstances is, in nine cases out of 10, wounds, and, in the 10th case, old age," he wrote in the preface to Man-Eaters of Kumaon.

"Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers, and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds or old age that, in order to survive, they are compelled to take to a diet of human flesh."

Mr Singh said: "In the 1920s and 1930s the shooting of tigers was a big sport, but it was done with bait tied for the tiger. It was not really sport. The tigers were getting decimated by all these sportsmen. Corbett realised that they would not survive."

Corbett sought to spread the word about the threat to the tigers by establishing both a magazine and two organisations – the Association for the Preservation of Game in what is now Uttar Pradesh and the All-India Conference for the Preservation of Wild Life. The magazine was only to run to three issues but around the same time Corbett was asked to help establish a park in which tigers and wildlife would be preserved. That reserve – first named the Hailey National Park – was established in the area where Corbett had earned his fame.

"Those magazines make fascinating reading today," said Valmik Thapar, a widely respected tiger expert and author. "In one of them he wrote that 'wildlife in India is on a sinking ship'. His true role was a visionary and a conservationist – most people do not realise that. He was forced to do some shooting of man-eaters but he was really interested in finding a way to save the tiger for posterity and to save the beautiful Indian forests for posterity. He hoped to his last breath that India would be able to keep the tiger for the unborn generations of the future."

Set against that benchmark, India is not doing very well. When the National Board for Wildlife meets today, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be told that India's entire population of tigers probably ranges between 1,300 and 1,500.

In addition to Corbett's estimated 80 tigers, the only other genetically viable population is contained within the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Many experts believe that for all the efforts India has made, it will require a miracle for the tiger to avoid extinction.

It is not as though successive governments have done nothing. In 1973 – alarmed by the results of India's first tiger census which reported there were just 1,827 animals in the country – the government of Indira Gandhi established Project Tiger. The project – launched at the Corbett National Park – set up nine special tiger reserves based on the idea of a buffer system in which tigers would be protected from human populations. Today there are 28 such reserves.

But experts say that since the assassination of Mrs Gandhi in 1984, subsequent governments have done less to protect the animals. Most recently, many campaigners argue, the passing of the Recognition of Forest Rights Act – a piece of legislation that gives impoverished communities legal access to forests – is setting up scenarios for countless more clashes between humans and tigers.

"This humbug of human beings and tigers being able to live together does not work," said Mr Singh. "He ends up killing your cattle or killing you and then you want to kill the tiger. There are only very few places where humans and tigers live together and in those communities the people know they risk losing their animals to the tigers."

That is something that Corbett certainly knew well. Born of Irish ancestry in 1875 in the Himalayan foothills town of Naini Tal, Corbett was his parents' eighth child. His father was a postmaster and while the Corbetts were not impoverished, they were not wealthy. Corbett left school at the age of 17 without having completed his senior years and soon afterwards took a job with the Bengal and North Western Railways. His first job was as a fuel inspector based in Manakpur.

Corbett's time increasingly became taken up with dealing with man-eating tigers that were terrorising local populations. He also famously tracked and killed a leopard – known as the Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag – that for 10 years had attacked pilgrims visiting Hindu shrines in Kedarnath and Badrinath.

Yet as his awareness of the plight of the tigers and other wildlife grew, so did Corbett's efforts to raise awareness of the issues confronting the animals. He travelled around schools and societies, lecturing about the tiger and the need to preserve it for those generations to come.

"If you read just one of his books you will see that it was not a bunch of stories about hunting tigers; it is about compassion and love towards the great cats – he called the tiger 'a large hearted gentleman with boundless courage'," said Jerry Jaleel, director of the Jim Corbett Foundation, a Canadian-based non-profit group that helped to repair Corbett's grave in 1994.

"Hunting continued in India until 1970, but the conservation movement started by Corbett caught on, and when Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India, she wholeheartedly supported the creation of Project Tiger, which still continues in India. If Corbett hadn't started this conservation movement 75 years ago, the tiger population would have diminished long ago."

Corbett also became increasingly interested in photographing the animals. As he wrote in the final chapter of Man-Eaters of Kumaon: "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."

Mr Thapar said: "He had a box camera with which he would take his photographs. He was the first to film white tigers.

"He watched [the tiger]; he understood how it lived. He was a true master of the language of the forest."

Perhaps surprisingly for a man born and raised in India and who was so associated with the country and its wildlife, Corbett left around the time of its independence in 1947. He and his sister, Maggie – neither of whom ever married – moved to Kenya where he continued to write about the plight of the tigers. They lived in a cottage called Paxtu, once occupied by Lord Baden Powell and located in the grounds of the Outspan Hotel in the town of Nyeri, 100 miles north of Nairobi.

In February 1952 he was at the now legendary TreeTops Hotel in Nyeri on the night that Princess Elizabeth learned that her father, King George VI, had died and that she had succeeded to the throne.

With typical aplomb, Corbett wrote in the hotel's guest log: "For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen – God bless her."

Three years after King George's death, Corbett himself died, after suffering a heart attack. At the time of his death, aged 79, he was near completion of his sixth book, entitled Tree Tops. A year later, the park he helped establish in India was renamed by the authorities in his honour.

Since then, Corbett has been honoured further. In 1968 one of the last six remaining sub-species of tiger – the IndoChinese Tiger – was renamed after him. It is now properly known as Panthera tigris corbetti, or more simply Corbett's tiger.

But if Corbett's real concern was about the future of the tiger, rather than his own reputation, then it is the park in Uttaranchal, located close to the foothills were he grew up and where he came face to face so many times with the remarkable animal, that is his truly lasting contribution. As India struggles to find a way to save its last remaining tigers, the Corbett National Park is a rare place of refuge for these remarkable animals.

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