Man-Eaters of Kumaon

Author Corbett, Jim
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Review

A truly engrossing book by a truly engrossing man. Jim Corbett was an ‘Englishman’ born and raised in India, and after gaining some fame and experience as a hunter, gradually came to earn a reputation (as he put it) of being more likely to photograph animals than to kill them—except for man-eaters and wounded or infirm animals whose proximity to humans and reliance on livestock made them likely to become such.

Corbett speaks eloquently on how it’s never malice or cruelty that causes tigers and leopards to take to killing people, and often emphasises the injuries, commonly human-caused, that drive them to such easy prey. Nonetheless he did what he saw had to be done, and over the course of some thirty-odd years, he killed 33 man-eating animals; 19 tigers and 14 leopards. The Champawat Tiger alone had killed 436 people (436 documented deaths, that is). These he would go after, often alone—maintaining throughout his book that he felt it would be too dangerous to have other people around, as the presence of multiple guns made accidents too likely, and preferring instead to stalk man-eating tigers through the jungle all by himself (or, sometimes, accompanied by a smallish dog called Robin). He shot many of them at what sounds to me like a shockingly close range; I guess an Indian jungle does not afford very great lines of sight, but the notion of shooting man-eating tigers from well within leaping distance is kind of discombobulating.

I’ve probably made it clear that Corbett was brave and that he had stories to tell; moreover, he could tell them. The style is elegant and succinct—another reviewer used the phrase “economy of language”, and I cannot do better than to repeat it. He also writes with a sense of humour, a sense of compassion and respect for the animals, and perhaps more notably from a white hunter in Imperial British India, respect for the native people, treating their fear of ravaging tigers as understandable and mentioning their religious practices in passing as quite natural, rather than sounding patronising.

Highly recommended, and full of moments of He did what? that I could not help but read out loud to the nearest person.

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