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Gentle Man Jim Corbett, Maneater Hunter & Filmmaker

This is the man whose exploits inspired Forest, the film Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar (Little Terrorist) is making in India. Jim Corbett loved India and loved its wildlife. He was an expert tracker and hunter who became a pioneer filmmaker. To remote villagers, terrified by the presence of a maneater in their district, he was a hero. Now, with India's first national park named after him and his beautifully written books in school curricula throughout the country, he is a hero for every new generation of Indians, though some modern conservationists would criticise his methods. His books have inspired films before. His classic The Man Eaters of Tsavo became Hollywood's The Ghost and the Darkness. This is Jim Corbett's story...

Edward James Corbett was of English ancestry, born in the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas in Kumaon in 1875. Corbett's father was postmaster in Naini Tal. Unfortunately, he died when Jim Corbett was four. It fell to his widow, Corbett's mother, to raise and educate 12 children on a small widow's pension. Corbett recalled his mother as having had "the courage of Joan of Arc and Nurse Clavell combined."


Corbett's early life was something of an Indian forest idyll. Lying in his bed at night Corbett he would listen to the sounds of the jungle. He quickly learned to imitate the cries and calls of the animals so precisely that once, when he impersonated a leopard, a British hunter and a real leopard crept toward him at the same time, from different directions.

Corbett began hunting to help feed his family. Every round had to count. His gun was an ancient muzzle-loading shotgun; its one good barrel was lashed to the stock with wire. Corbett's shooting skill and his encyclopedic knowledge of the jungle, soon became well known. As early as 1906, requests come to him, begging that he track down a tiger or leopard that had preyed on humans.


Corbett believed that animals that had killed under special conditions - protecting cubs or disturbed at a legitimate kill - should be given the benefit of doubt. He was only interested in habitual man-killers. Even then he agreed to come only after two conditions had been met. First, all offers of a reward had to be withdrawn. Second, all other hunters had to leave the area.

Corbett refused all payment for his services. He wrote, "I am sure all sportsmen share my aversion to being classed as a reward-hunter and are as anxious as I to avoid being shot."


Between 1906 and 1941, Corbett hunted down at least a dozen man-eaters. It is estimated that the combined total of men, women and children those 12 animals are thought to have killed before he stopped them was more than 1,500. His very first man-eater, the Champawat tiger, alone was responsible for 436 documented deaths.

Hunting had always been part of Corbett's life since childhood, when game for the table was a family necessity, but his reaction to his success as a hunter was invariably ambivalent. In middle age, in the 1920's he became appalled at the ever-increasing number of hunters, British and Indian, in the forests.

Corbett grew increasingly concerned at how the jungles were being seen as a source of profit from timber, rather than a sanctuary for wildlife. He began speaking to groups of schoolchildren about their natural heritage. Students not paying too much attention would suddenly take notice as he ended his speech with the full-throated roar of a tiger. Corbett helped create the Association for the Preservation of Game in the United Provinces, and the All-India Conference for the Preservation of Wild Life, and he established India's first national park, inaugurated in 1934 in the Kumaon Hills.


By the mid-thirties, Corbett had almost entirely abandoned hunting and turned his attention to the challenge of shooting tigers on film. No one could possibly get closer than he to the big cats, to capture their private moments on camera. When Corbett discovered the clockwork camera mechanism's whirr was disturbing the tigers, he dammed a stream so its gurgle would cover up the sound of the camera. Corbett sat there in a hide every day day for four months until he was at rewarded with the appearance of no fewer than seven tigers, which he captured on film.

When World War II broke out, Corbett was 64 years old. Working as a volunteer he trained Allied troops techniques of jungle survival, but the strain proved too much and he became very ill. Recuperating, he wrote Man-eaters of Kumaon. The book became an international best-seller and was translated into 27 languages.

After 1947, Corbett and his sister Maggie, to whom he was devoted, retired to Kenya. He continued to write and sound the alarm about falling tiger numbers and other wildlife. Jim Corbett died of a heart attack in 1955 and is buried in Africa. The national park he fought to establish in India, where Ashvin Kumar has been filming his Forest story, was renamed in Corbett's honour two years later. It is now nearly twice its original size and is a favourite place for visitors who hope to    see a tiger.


Of all the sub-species of tiger, India's Bengal tiger has gained the worst reputation as a man-eater. Although it is an increasingly rare animal, it was once relatively common all over India. It is said that "at one time, in parts of India, at the beginning of the 19th century, man-eaters were so prevalent that it seemed to be a question of whether man or tiger would survive." Villagers took precautions against attack . Every night, fires encircled the villages. Native people only ever travelled in large groups, fully armed and beating drums to scare away any big cats.

In the 1930s tigers killed between 1,000 and 1,600 people each year, creating terror among the human population. One famous tigress known as Champawat killed some 200 men and women before being driven out of Nepal. She moved to another location, this time in India, and continued to kill bringing her total up to 436 before she was finally tracked down and killed by Jim Corbett in 1937.


When Corbett arrived at the village where the man-eater of Champawat had taken her last victim he found the area a virtual ghost town, Villagers were locked inside their huts. No-one had ventured outside for over a week. The tigress roamed the roads near the village roaring and terrifying villagers.

Her last kill was a 16-year-old girl who had gone out gathering wood. From the scene of the tragedyl, Corbett trailed the tigress through blackthorn bushes that were draped with "long strands of the girl's raven-black hair" Corbett came across part of a human leg. "In all the subsequent years I have hunted man-eaters," Corbett wrote, "I have not seen anything as pitiful as that young comely leg-bitten off a little below the knee as clean as though severed by the stroke of an axe." Unfortunately, while distracted by the leg, Corbett forgot about the tigress he was tracking, until "a little earth from the fifteen-foot bank in front of me, come rolling down the steep side".


When Corbett later examined the dead tigress, he found the upper and lower canine teeth on the right side of her mouth were broken. The upper canine was broken in half, the lower one broken right down to the bone. This permanent injury, Corbett claimed, "had prevented her from killing her natural prey, and had been the cause of her becoming a man-eater."

Shooting the man-eater of Champawat made Corbett an instant folk hero. Today, a stone plaque marks the village and gives details of how Corbett tracked the tigress down and finally killed her.

Corbett had started receiving requests to assist where tiger attacks took place from as early as 1906.

Indian villagers themselves and British officials would petition for his assistance. A typical villager villager request reading something like this:

"We, the public, venture to suggest that you very kindly take trouble to come to this place and shoot this tiger and save the public from this calamity. For this act of kindness the public will be highly obliged and will pray for your long life and prosperity."


No matter how much prayer was involved, Jim Corbett's creed would never let him kill a tiger that was not a proven habitual killer. One or two attacks did not make a maneater 'proven.' Corbett held firmly to the belief believed that most tiger attacks were due to sheer misfortune, or a tigress protecting her cubs, rather than a true man-eater on the prowl.

Over a thirty-five year period following Champawat, Jim Corbett agreed to hunt and kill another eleven tigers. Together these animals had killed 1,300 people. From his observations Corbett noted that tigers were responsible for human kills carried out in daylight hours. Kills done at night were usually because of leopard attack.

Corbett was 63 when he finally shot his last tigress. He tracked her for days and then finally lured her to come within shooting range by imitating the call of a male tiger.

Jim Corbett himself was instrumental in creating the park that now carries his name. He did this with the help of Sir (later Lord) Malcolm Hailey, who was Governor of the United Provinces in the early 1930s. When the park was ready to open to the public, Hailey had already left India, and the authorities named it 'The Hailey National Park', the first of its kind in India.

Many years after Jim Corbett's death the Indian government made the decision to change the name of its first park to Corbett National Park, something that sparked a lot of debate, but supporters believe the renaming was the best tribute to a great man and that there is no one better qualified to bear that label than Jim Corbett. Others point out, though Corbett was an ardent conservationist, after leaving India, he was involved with the Kenyan-based Safariland Hunting Company. During the period from 1948 to 1951 he was a director of the company in a land which offered some of the best hunting grounds in the world.


Outfits like Safariland employed dozens of professional hunters and guides. They looked after the game using rigid and strict standards, but there is also evidence suggesting that this system also helped ensure the future of much wildlife.

It was certainly not in their interests to see game shot out and exterminated, as it provided their income. Conservationists could never approve this system of managed hunting, but the fact remains that it was only after the 1970 hunting ban was imposed in Kenya that wildlife numbers plummeted. Poachers then removed almost all the “tuskers” – African elephants – for their ivory. White and black rhinos fell victim for their horn - used to make dagger handles or as an oriental aphrodisiac- leopards and cheetah for their patterned skins.

It is also worth remembering that there were many very famous hunters who became conservationists in their lifetimes. Corbett is just one of these, others include Theodore Roosevelt, F.C. Selous (of Selous National Park in Tanzania), C.J.P. Ionides (a world authority on venomous snakes, known as “ The Snake Man”,) E.P. Gee, J.A. Hunter. Anthony Dyer, John Kingsley Heath, Eric Sherbrooke Walker, F.W. Champion and Eric Risley.

It should be remembered also that before he left India in 1947, Corbett, with the help of hundreds of his friends the villagers who lived around the park, led a one-man war against poachers in the park.


Jim Corbett will undoubtedly remembered for his fantastic tales of hunting man-eating tigers and leopards. But he was also a naturalist, author and above all a humanitarian. He gave his services freely, risking his own life every time, without expecting anything in return. He loved the poor villagers, he ate their food, slept in their thatched huts while after man-eaters, learnt to speak their dialects and helped them all his life with land, shelter, food and money. This was colonial India, where many English men snubbed at the Indians, looked down at them or cursed their presence. Corbett is still a folk hero in Kumaon, worshipped as a hero and saviour of the poor. Some of his books have been part of the school curriculum in India for decades. The Indians still love him, just like the Kenyans love Karen Blixen who too showed compassion towards the Kikuyu people while other Europeans treated them more like animals.

Oscar nominated director Ashvin Kumar is shooting a feature in India, inspired by a Jim Corbett story. You can read all about it here.....