In the London Spectator, Neil Clark defies contemporary political correctness by recommending the classic hunting books of maneater-eliminator par excellence Jim Corbett.
I was reminded of Corbett and his wonderful books when reading last week that human-assaulting tigers are once again on the prowl in Nepal, with 104 attacks and 62 people killed in the past three years. Conservation efforts have seen tiger numbers rise three-fold since 2010, but with that good news comes the bad news of increased danger to humans. In March a tiger believed to have killed five people was captured in western Nepal. Meanwhile in India, a tigress apparently responsible for two deaths was captured in June.
So the man-eaters are back, though the terror from the current wave does thankfully seem less than in the days of Corbett. ‘No curfew order has ever been more strictly enforced, and more implicitly obeyed, than the curfew imposed by the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag,’ he wrote. During the hours of daylight, life continued more or less as normal. But at night, ‘an ominous silence brooded over the whole area’. Little wonder. For eight long years, between 1918 and 1926, the 50,000 inhabitants of Garhwal in the United Provinces of northern India, and the 60,000 Hindu pilgrims who passed through the district annually on their way to the ancient shrines at Kedarnath and Badrinath, lived in fear of the ferocious big cat that claimed the lives of 125 people.
One of the victims was a 14-year-old orphan employed to look after a flock of 40 goats. He slept with the goats in a small room. But even though the door was fastened by a piece of wood, the leopard got in, killed the poor boy and then carried him off to a deep, rocky ravine where he devoured him. The goats were left completely unscathed. A shocking story, and there are plenty more like it, but don’t worry – we can be sure that our hero Jim will ultimately stop the leopard’s reign of terror.
I first encountered Corbett’s three-volume Man-Eater series in childhood. We had copies of his books in my school library back in the mid-1970s and they were always among the most popular to borrow.
Goodness me, how those hardback editions with their pictures of snarling big cats on the cover captured our imaginations and broadened our horizons. Corbett was a great writer – ‘dramatic yet reflective’ to quote the OUP’s omnibus edition of his works – who brought the Indian Himalayas of the early 20th century vividly to life with his understated, descriptive prose.
For much of the post-war era his books on hunting the man-eating Bengal tigers and leopards of the Raj were hugely successful. More than four million copies of Man-Eaters of Kumaon had been sold worldwide by 1980. The BBC made a television version six years later. But one worries that in the 21st century, Corbett’s work is not read anything like so widely, particularly by children who would gain so much from his incredibly exciting tales.
Yes, the books involve hunting, which is now very un-PC – but it’s the hunting of bloodthirsty beasts which had claimed more than 1,500 lives between them. And aside from that, there is so much we can learn about life from Corbett’s writing.
Jim Corbett’s accounts of tracking down man-eating leopards and tigers have some pretty scary moments. I remember one scene in which Corbett is bending down in a gully examining the pugmarks of the tiger he is tracking and bits of dirt begin falling on his head. Corbett was not the only one hunting, it turns out, and his adversary is right above him.
The letter we are about to read was sent by a soldier of the West Riding, stationed at Mhow, in India, to his sister, in Bradford, on 7th April 1926.
At the time, Britain was at the height of its powers in India and ruled over a third of the globe. British soldiers and administrators had access to wonderful sporting opportunities and it is on one of these outings that our story unfolds.
The subject of the letter is the unfortunate Major George Pritchard Taylor D.S.O, M.C. M.B of the Royal Army Medical Corps, in which he served form 1909 until 1926.
His career took him to South Africa, France, Russia and India on active service and he was well-decorated and considered an expert revolver and rifle shot. He was an experienced big game hunter and as well as a good polo player and horseman. He was nick-named â€˜Dare-devil Taylorâ€™ during the First World War.
7th April 1926
What a week of adventure! Itâ€™s nearly taken by breath away. As I told you last week, I went out fishing during the holidays and had quite a good time on the first and second days (Friday & Saturday). I caught 24 fish on Friday and 14 on Saturday; not too bad for one man especially when you know the smallest weighed a pound and a half and the biggest (a carp) five and a quarter pounds.
Well, anyway to get on with the yarn, Iâ€™d just nicely got settled on Sunday when I saw a boat put out over the lake with and officer and his wife going over the other side for a bit of shooting.
Everything went on alright for about an hour, when suddenly two shots went off almost together, followed after a second or two by by a third and then there came such a scream, I have heard it ever since.
Naturally, I looked across to where the sound came from. I saw the woman signalling to me so I ran round to her and she told me she and her husband had come across a tiger and without being fired at or anything the damned thing had sprung at them. The officer was only loaded with duck shot but he let it have both barrels of that at its head and then tried to load again but got a jam and, by this time, the tiger had grabbed his right arm.
He managed somehow or other to to slip a lethal cartridge into the barrel and let it have that from the left shoulder with one hand and then it got him. That was when he screamed.
His wife picked up the gun and smashed it across the tigerâ€™s back and the tiger slunk away so she left her husband and called me. Well, we found him, or rather what was left of him. He was practically eaten up.
When we were in Kurdistan I saw a fellow with twenty nine bullets in him, but he didnâ€™t look a hundredth part as bad as this poor blighter did.
Anyhow, we managed to get him to the boat and rowed him to the other side, where we managed to get hold of some niggers to help lift him to his car. We got a charpey (native bed) and used it as a stretcher right across the car and took him down to Mhow.
I have never seen a woman show such superb nerve as his wife, firstly by smashing the gun over the tigerâ€™s back, and then by driving the car a distance of eleven miles to the hospital, without even crying, although she cracked-up as soon as we got him there.
The most pathetic part about the whole think was the manâ€™s pluck.. Although he must have lost quite three parts of the blood in him he kept on talking the whole me.
He said to me â€œBy God, corporal, that tiger gave me the finest five minutes of my life.â€, and then he said to his wife â€œIt was damned good while it lasted, wasnâ€™t it old lady.â€ However, Iâ€™m sorry to say that neither of their pluck was any good – he died on Tuesday.
The tiger was afterwards found dead a hundred and fifty yards away from where I was fishing.
No one knows exactly how they got thereâ€”the skeletal remains of 500-some-odd people spread around Lake Roopkund, in the Indian Himalayas. Since the bones were rediscovered by a forest ranger in 1942, a number of hauntingâ€”if unsubstantiatedâ€”theories have circled the skeletons like vultures: Had these been Japanese soldiers who succumbed to the elements? Victims of a landslide or forgotten epidemic or attack?
Now an international team of more than two dozen researchers has thrown more than one wrench into this enduring and alarming mystery. As it turns out, the remains do not all date to the same historical periodâ€”and they donâ€™t even share a common geographic origin. This means that, many centuries apart, different groups of different peoples from different parts of the world somehow all met their demise at this same spot, which has since earned the popular moniker Skeleton Lake. The researchers published their puzzling findings yesterday, in the journal Nature Communications.
Ã‰adaoin Harney and Nick Patterson, biologists at Harvard University and two of the studyâ€™s 28 authors, say they were very surprised by what they found in their DNA analyses. With their colleagues they looked at 76 distinct skeletal elements, 38 of which provided full genomic information, and all of which combined to present an impressive diversity: Of the 38 individuals, the remains of 23 date approximately to the year 800, while the remains of the other 15 date approximately to 1800. Though the 23 older individuals all appear to have come from South Asia, Harney and Patterson say there is evidence indicating that they came from different places within the subcontinent, and the evidence indicates that their remains were â€œdeposited in more than one event.â€ All but one of the other 15 individuals, meanwhile, came from as far away as the eastern Mediterraneanâ€”perhaps, says Patterson, from somewhere in the Greek-speaking world. The remaining individual had Southeast Asian ancestry, and so constitutes a third distinct group.
Ayushi Nayak, another author of the study and a PhD candidate in archaeology at Germanyâ€™s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, emphasizes that those three groups were represented in the remains of just 38 individuals. How many more historical periods and geographical regions, she wonders, might lie within the siteâ€™s hundreds of bones? Looking at all of them was not feasible for just one study, but the remaining samples have been well preserved by the chilly Himalayan air, so more research is possible.
The difference between Jim Corbett writing a first-hand account in the 1940s and Dane Huckelbridge recycling that account today is the ideology. Jim Corbett’s story is a modest, downright self-effacing account of how a local sportsman went to the assistance of terrified Indian villagers and tracked down and killed an extraordinarily bold and aggressive man-eating tigress who’d killed and eaten a record 436 people. Corbett does attribute the tiger’s human predation to a jaw injury from an old bullet-wound, but Corbett tells a stoic and under-stated modern version of the classic man versus monster story.
For Huckelbridge though, the man versus monster saga is just a secondary problem arising from a more basic, more important conflict: British Colonialism versus Pristine Native India.
Then there is Jim Corbett, the now-legendary hunter who was finally commissioned by the British government to end the Champawat Tigerâ€™s reign. To many, even in present-day India, he is nothing short of a secular saint, a brave and selfless figure who risked life and limb to defend poor villagers when no one else would. To others, particularly academics engaged with post-colonial ecologies, he is just another perpetrator of the Eurocentric paternalism that defined the colonial experience. Each is a fair judgment. …
Which brings us, inevitably, to colonialism itselfâ€”a topic far too broad and multifaceted for any single book, let alone one thatâ€™s concerned primarily with man-eating tigers. Yet it is colonialism, undeniably, and the onslaught of environmental destruction that it almost universally heralds, that served as the primary catalyst in the creation of our man-eater. It may have been a poacherâ€™s bullet in Nepal that first turned the Champawat Tiger upon our kind, but it was a full century of disastrous ecological mismanagement in the Indian subcontinent that drove it out of the wild forests and grasslands it should have called home, and allowed it to become the prodigious killer that it was.
What becomes clear upon closer historical examination is that the Champawat was not an incident of nature gone awryâ€”it was in fact a man-made disaster. From Valmik Thapar to Jim Corbett himself, any tiger wallah could tell you the various factors that can turn a normal tiger into a man-eater: a disabling wound or infirmity, a loss of prey species, or a degradation of natural habitat. In the case of the Champawat, however, we find not just one but all three of these factors to be irrefutably present. Essentially, by the late nineteenth century, the British in the United Provinces of northern India and their Rana dynasty counterparts in western Nepal had created, through a combination of irresponsible forestry tactics, agricultural policies, and hunting practices, the ideal conditions for an ecological catastrophe.
Which is why this particular story of environmental conflict is not only relevant, but urgent and necessary. At its core, Jim Corbettâ€™s quest to rid the valleys of Kumaon of the Champawat Tiger is dramatic and straightforward, but the tensions that underscore it contain the resonance of much larger and more grievous issues. Yes, it is a timeless tale of cunning and courage, but also a lesson, still very much pertinent today, about how deforestation, industrialization, and colonization can upset the fragile balance of cultures and ecosystems alike, creating unseen pressures that, at a certain point, must find their release.
All of Mr. Huckelbridge’s pious notions about “ecosystems” healthy or otherwise, “apex predators,” proper forestry, suitable hunting practices, game conservation,and Environmentalism are entirely Western ideas. When he applies them to Kumaon, he himself is being colonialist.
The Champawat maneater was undoubtedly injured by an unskilled native poacher armed with a primitive musket, shooting at a tiger in defiance of hunting laws and game permits invented and imposed by the British Raj. How Huckelbridge can claim that this occurred because the poor tiger was driven out of some unidentified “forests and grasslands” by “a century of ecological mismanagement and environmental destruction” to arrive at the forests and grasslands of Kumaon is unexplained. Where exactly was it that all this alleged mismanagement and destruction occurred? Were there no native tigers in Kumaon previous to all this nearby mismanagement and destruction? What exactly does Huckelbridge think the British (and their Rana dynasty of Western Nepal counterparts) mismanaged and destroyed? Why are the British supposedly to blame for (politically independent) Nepalese actions and policies anyway?
It’s all just a farrago of Enviro-sanctimony and cant lavishly seasoned with the usual “British Colonialism was simply awful” left-wing fantasy.
In reality, the difference between Pre-Raj India and the India of Jim Corbett was that, in the former, tigers undoubtedly had more commonly the upper hand, most humans were unarmed or poorly armed, maneaters munched their way through the Indian peasantry unrebuked without records or scores of the numbers eaten ever being known or kept.
Huckelbridge’s book is nothing more than a breathless re-telling of one chapter of Maneaters of Kumaon accompanied by a truckload of PC nonsense and a lot sanctimonious self-righteousness. Consign this one to Kali!
In 1942, H K. Madhawl, a British forest guard in Roopkund, India made an alarming discovery (despite the fact that there had been reports of bones on the lake shore since the mid 19th century). At an elevation of 15,750 feet, near the bottom of a small valley, was a frozen lake absolutely full of skeletons. Roopkund Lake, in the state of Uttarakhand, India, was a six-foot-deep glacial lake that typically remained frozen year round.
What he saw up there confused everyone. At first, it was one bone. But as the temperatures rose, the number of exposed remains grew exponentially. That summer, the ice melting revealed even more skeletal remains, floating in the water and lying haphazardly around the lakeâ€™s edges. People wondered what happened, and what were these people doing up here?
The immediate assumption (it being war time) was that these were the remains of Japanese soldiers who had died of exposure while sneaking through India. The British government, terrified of a Japanese land invasion, sent a team of investigators to determine if this was true. However upon examination they realized these bones were not from Japanese soldiersâ€”they werenâ€™t new enough.
With the immediate concerns of war eased, the urgency of identifying the remains became less of a priority and efforts to further analyze the remains were sidelined. It was evident that the bones were quite old indeed. Flesh, hair, and the bones themselves had been preserved by the dry, cold air, but no one could properly determine exactly when they were from. More than that, they had no idea what had killed over 300 people in this small valley. Many theories were put forth including an epidemic, landslide, and ritual suicide. For decades, no one was able to shed light on the mystery of Skeleton Lake.
But what caused their death? Was there a massive landslide? Did some disease strike suddenly? Were the individuals conducting a ritualistic suicide? Did they die of starvation? Were they killed in an enemy attack? One theory even suggests that the individuals did not die at the scene of the lake, but their bodies were deposited there as a result of glacial movement.
A 2004 expedition to the site seems to have finally revealed the mystery of what caused those peopleâ€™s deaths. The answer was stranger than anyone had guessed.
The 2004 expedition took samples of the bones as well as bits of preserved human tissues. As it turns out, all the bodies date to around 850 AD.
DNA evidence indicates that there were two distinct groups of people, one a family or tribe of closely related individuals, and a second smaller, shorter group of locals, likely hired as porters and guides. A number of these victims of the mountain were so well preserved that they still had remnants of flesh, hair, fingernails, and clothes. Rings, spears, leather shoes, and bamboo staves were found, leading experts to believe that the group was comprised of pilgrims heading through the valley with the help of the locals.
The plausible scenario of what exactly happened? The two groups perhaps met at the foot of the mountain. The first of the two, taller and who which outnumbered the others, probably wanted to make a pilgrimage pass through the mountain and are thought to have been of Iranian origin. The second group, with thinner and smaller bones, showed up as their local Indian guides. The travelers were related to each other (a large family or tribe), and could have come from Iran. The locals that guided the way were unrelated.
Another suggestion is that they braved the elements to collect â€œKeeda Jadi,â€ which are larvae of the ghost moth that have become the home to a fungus (that actually wraps around the larvae and slowly devours it).
These â€œMagical Mushroomsâ€ are believed to have incredible medicinal properties and locals head out in search of them in the springtime.
The journey should have progressed well until the point everyone was trapped, with no place to run and hide as a disaster struck. A violent torrent of baseball-sized hailstones falling from the skies battered the whole group. All the bodies had died in a similar way, from blows to the head. However, the short deep cracks in the skulls appeared to be the result not of weapons, but rather of something rounded. The bodies also only had wounds on their heads, and shoulders as if the blows had all come from directly above. What had killed them all, porter and pilgrim alike?
Among Himalayan women there is an ancient and traditional folk song. The lyrics state that â€œthese are the holy lands of the Goddess Nanda, her sanctuary in the mountains. King Jasdal of Kanauj and his wife were undertaking the â€œNanda Jatâ€ pilgrimage; along the way, the queen gave birth. Instead of pleasing their goddess with their tributes, the deity was angered for this defielment of her pure mountain. To punish the group, she sent a great snowstorm, flinging iron-like hailstones that took the life of each and every personâ€.
After much research and consideration, the 2004 expedition came to the same conclusion. All 300 people died from a sudden and severe hailstorm. Trapped in the valley with nowhere to hide or seek shelter, the â€œhard as ironâ€ cricket ball-sized [about 23 centimeter/9 inches circumference] hailstones came by the thousands, resulting in the travelersâ€™ bizarre sudden death. The remains lay in the lake for 1,200 years until their discovery.
Atlas Obscura profiles another really strange non-European weapon.
The urumi hasnâ€™t regularly been used as an actual weapon for generations, but even as a demonstration weapon, it is still incredibly dangerous. Especially to the user.
The urumi (which can be translated as â€œcurving sword,â€ and is also known as a â€œchuttuvalâ€), hails from southern India. The historic weapon was saved from the erasure of time when it was incorporated into Kalaripayattu martial arts, an Indian fighting style that is considered one of the oldest in the world. Incorporating elements of yoga and performative dance, Kalaripayattu movements look like violent but graceful choreography. Urumi fighting is no different, it is just far more dangerous to those who would attempt to learn the skill.
Like any sword, the urumi comes in a number of varieties, with a variable length, and even a variable number of blades, but they all follow the same basic construction. Usually simpler than more elaborately decorated sword weapons, at its simplest, the urumi consists of a hilt connected to a thin, flexible steel blade. The handle is usually protected by a crossguard and knuckle-guard. The long blades extend somewhere between four and six feet in length (or even longer in some cases), and around an inch in width, but the aspect that makes the weapon unique is that the steel is always thin enough to flop around. Almost like a cartoon-version of a rubber sword.
Given the urumi’s unique construction, wielding it is also an art unto itself. Since the flexible blade is no good for stabbing, it is slung around similarly to a traditional leather whip. In order to make continuous strikes with the weapon, it must stay continually in motion so that the momentum which gives the blade its slashing power is not lost. This usually requires the user to swing it over and around their head and shoulders in furious arcs.
While this makes the urumi incredibly hard and dangerous to use, it also provides it with one of its major benefits as a weapon. When the blade curves around the sword wielder in quick arcing slashes, it creates a defensive bubble of flying metal that an opponent would be reckless to get close to. In addition, it makes a terrific weapon for defending against multiple opponents, both by providing a good barrier at a number of angles at once, and for the long, wild attacking arcs the steel whip provides.
Urumi sparring incorporates small buckler shields that are used to deflect direct swings of the weapon, but when the urumi was used in actual combat, it was said to have had the added benefit of curving around the edges of enemy shields, landing cuts even when blocked.
As an added bonus of having a wildly flexible blade, the urumi could be tightly rolled up for easy travel and concealment. In fact, it has often been worn as a belt.
Of course all of this versatility comes at a price. As you can imagine, winging metal whips around your delicate face flesh at high speeds can easily result in a missing nose, or other mishap. Wielding the urumi correctly and safely takes years of training, learning techniques for everything from bringing the blade to safe stop, to altering the rotation of your swings without slicing your arm off.
This strange looking creature, with its immensely long and delicate snout is the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). Until very recently it thrived throughout the Indian sub-continent but now it numbers less than a few hundred in the wild. …
Once it flourished and could be found in all of the major rivers of India and Pakistan. The Indus, which has its source in Tibet and flows through Pakistan and Northern India had gharials along almost its entire length. Now, in this vast river not a single one may be found.
It is the same in many other major river systems. The list is depressingly long. The Irrawaddy in Myanmar holds none, neither does the Brahmaputra of Bhutan and Bangladesh â€“ and this is not counting the many tributaries of these vast waterways. In fact the gharial can now be found in only 2% of its former territory.
These survivors from the age of the dinosaur need our help to survive â€“ or it will be goodbye to them forever within a few decades. There are nine protected areas in India for the gharial. Eggs are often collected in the wild and raised in captivity. …
Over 3,000 young gharial have been released under these operations. Even so, it is thought that at most there are only around 400 breeding pairs in the wild. …
There are about ten places in Asia where the gharial is bred in captivity with the young released in to the wild at around the age of three. Another 8 centers in the US and 3 in Europe also offer some hope to the gharial.