Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Critique of Two Books About the Champawat Tiger: Man-Eaters of Kumaon and No Beast So Fierce

Critique of Two Books About the Champawat Tiger: Man-Eaters of Kumaon and No Beast So Fierce

A question every human has in their mind is whether monsters are born or created.  If monsters are born, then no one is to blame for the death, destruction, and sorrow left in their wake.  But if a monster is made, then who is culpable for the misery inflicted on others?



One monster arguably made is the Champawat Tiger or rather the Champawat Tigress. She is attributed to no less than 436 deaths: 200 in Nepal and 236 in the Kumaon area of northern India. Her reign of terror is thought to have lasted almost a decade around eight or nine years before a brave hunter from a modest background laid her to rest.

Jim Corbett, born in India during the British occupation of India, was not part of the British elite, being of Irish ancestry and not being from a wealthy family. With a large family, six older half-siblings, and eight younger full siblings, he learned the ways of the Indian wilderness when need drove him to hunt to provide for his siblings due to his father’s untimely death.   



Critique of Two Books About the Champawat Tiger: Man-Eaters of Kumaon and No Beast So Fierce

Eventually, Jim Corbett’s reputation as a skilled hunter led the British Raj to call upon him to destroy the tiger. He traveled north to the Himalayan foothills where the tiger reigned over the terrified populace. Through cooperation with the local populace combined with an understanding of tiger behavior and acts of bravery by many people, the Champawat tiger was brought to bay and slain by Jim Corbett.



The Champawat Tiger was his first experience with a fearsome man-eating carnivore. Unlike all the others who had attempted to hunt this killing machine, he quickly ascertained the animal in question was an older tigress. Did the others simply not care or were they so lacking in an understanding of their quarry?



The story can be read in Jim Corbett’s own words in the book Man-Eaters of Kumaon. He has an engaging but simple storytelling style. He sidesteps some thorny issues of the day but it is clear that he was a humble man and one surprisingly open-minded towards Indians. Keep in mind that in this era it was perfectly acceptable to refer to anyone not white as savages and barbarians and open racism was expected from a “civilized” gentleman.  



Unusually for an adventure story, the author is honest about the discomforts offered by the landscape.  He talks about the dangers of malaria, risk of wounds turning septic, and uncomfortable nights in trees and getting rained on.  He also acknowledges the danger from India’s wildlife itself, which included king cobras, leopards, mugger crocodiles, and of course enraged tigers.

It’s hardly a surprise the story of the Champawat Tiger would continue to fascinate even over a hundred years from when it occurred.  There is a lone hero, Jim Corbett. A cast of stalwart sidekicks and supporters of the hero. Of course, no story would be complete without an anguished villain, the tigress herself.

Jim Corbett retains a simple but tactful style. He avoids falling for the temptation of sensationalism, avoiding gory detail about the tiger’s victims. He states enough to communicate the horror of what the victims were subjected to but in deference to the people who loved them, he avoids unnecessary details of the nightmare scenes that he witnessed.  

Of course, aspects of the story almost require suspension of disbelief. Some ask if one lone tiger could really eat 436 people. The story caught the attention of journalist Dane Huckelbridge who set out to research the story, which has reached legendary proportions.

In No Beast So Fierce: The Terrifying True Story of the Champawat Tiger, the Deadliest Animal in History, the author sets about verifying the facts of the legend. While he does not fully endorse the 436 alleged victims, he does note that while it may have been lower, it could have been a much higher number due to various social circumstances in British run India.

While the author is not a tiger expert he did travel to the region for his research and took pains to research not only tigers but also the socio-economic conditions in the region during the Chapawat’s reign of terror.  There are a few minor mistakes such as saying tigers flip porcupines onto their bellies when I am sure he meant backs, as porcupines typically walk (maybe waddle is more correct) with their bellies to the ground.  

Overall though it is well written and provides additional insight into the Champawat Tiger and British run India.  For many reasons, Jim Corbett kept his stories politically neutral although he does hint at the tensions between the native-born population and the British colonizing them. When one understands the hostility of the Kumaoni towards the British Raj and their representatives, it just shows how extraordinary Jim Corbett was to earn their trust and love.

An interesting aspect of No Beast So Fierce is the author asserts that the Champawat Tiger was a man-made ecological disaster. He draws attention to the deforestation and mass killing of animals that occurred at the time.  Sadly such things continue today.

While the author of No Beast So Fierce imagines the original poacher who set off the deadly chain of events to be a poacher who set off to kill a tiger, Jim Corbett does name the person a poacher but refrains from further judgment and speculation. Given the Champawat was injured by a gunshot to the mouth, there is no doubt it was a poacher for who else would set out in the jungle with a gun? But it could have just as easily been someone hunting for game birds or the deer who inhabited the jungle, and having been surprised by the tigress, shot her in terror and self-defense, and then took off as fast as he could.  

Both authors, however, agree upon the danger of leaving a wounded animal in the wild. Jim Corbett is more explicit on the irresponsible actions of a hunter who does not end an animal’s suffering.  

An accidental shooting would explain why no attempt was made to follow the tigress after wounding, but it just as easily could have been an irresponsible hunter. Either way, it had dire consequences for those who lived in the Himalayan foothills. One does have to wonder if this person did become one of her victims. Note: I assert the poacher was a male not just because both authors do but because hunting was a decidedly male task.

Dane Huckelbridge asserts the Champawat Tiger had her own name in Nepal, from the village of Rupal where she killed her Nepalese victims. He takes a very idealized view of Nepal and Indian society in the area, which must be taken with some reserve because every society has a dark side.  

While at times Dane Huckelbridge adopts a condescending tone towards those who lived during the events, the tone changes by the end of the book. Especially towards Jim Corbett who early in the book he insinuates is a fame-seeking social climber, but by the end, his tone has changed to neutral or even some admiration.  

If anything, reading the books written by Jim Corbett show him to be a truly humble and self-effacing man who downplayed his merits such as his extraordinary skill in tracking and his remarkable marksmanship. He was universally reputed to be humble, honest, and well-liked by all who knew him, although also a solitary man.  

I believe his pursuit of material comforts was driven by wanting to provide for his family and having suffered from deprivation as a child, he would naturally seek financial security. This is a normal human instinct. He had a special relationship with his sister Maggie, who I am guessing was close in age with him and one of his many siblings he was closest to. By special I am not insinuating anything other than his sister Maggie was also his best friend.  

Reading the books by Jim Corbett himself are pleasant reads despite the rather unpleasant subjects of his story.  Through the stories, you get to know the man himself. It’s easy to understand why the Indian Government after his death named a national park after him. Today the Jim Corbett National Park is a safe haven in north India for the Bengal tigers he so admired.

Critique of Two Books About the Champawat Tiger: Man-Eaters of Kumaon and No Beast So Fierce
I. Reid is an insatiably curious, overeducated homo sapiens-sapiens who much to the dismay of family and friends has never outgrown the why phase (or how phase if applied to how a thing works). As I. Reid is gainfully employed and considered a productive adult in polite society, I. Reid guest blogs on occasion guided by whatever is the curiosity of the nanosecond. Find her on the Wise Owl Site at https://www.thewiseowlfactory.com/guest-posts-by-i-reid/


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