July 29 is celebrated as International Tiger Day as a way to
raise awareness about the magnificent but endangered tiger. The day was founded in 2010 at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit, when the 13 tiger range countries came together to create Tx2—the goal to double the number of tigers in the wild by the year 2022. While this deadline is only two years away, it is reported that the current number still far from the goal. It is estimated that the total number of tigers in the wild in the world is 3900.
India is one country which has been showing a significant rise in its tiger population. Last year on International Tiger Day, the results of the Tiger Census 2018 were announced to reveal that the total population of the Royal Bengal Tiger in India is 2967, which is more than double that of 2006. India is also now officially one of the biggest and safest habitats of the Tiger.
As someone who is more comfortable with stories rather than statistics, all the tiger talk took me to the story of Jim Corbett—a teller of many a tiger tale.
James Edward Corbett was born on 25 July 1875 into a family of English ancestry in Nainital, in what is now Uttarakhand; he was one of twelve children. His father who was the postmaster of Nainital died when James was only four years old, leaving his widow to raise the large family on a meagre pension. The young James, or Jim as he was called, had to start earning at an early age to help out the family.
Jim was a wanderer from the time he could walk, and he spent his childhood exploring every nook and corner of the nearby forest, observing the plants, animals and birds. In those days, hunting was a part of everybody’s life. When he was just 5 years old Jim was taken by his brother on a hunting expedition. He was handed a gun and asked to report if he sighted a bear. Much later Jim wrote in one of his books, Jungle Lore, that that was the most frightening experience of his life. But this experience also laid the foundation of Jim’s life-long link with forests.
The fear of the jungle combined with the desire to know more about it led Jim to be observant but also careful. He learned to be silent, which places to avoid, and which to explore further. By the age of 7 he began to be totally absorbed in the natural world around him, appreciating it, trying to understand it, and even attempting to classify animals he saw by the functions they performed. For example, different kinds of birds. He wrote in his diary:
Bird’s that beautify nature’s garden: In this group I put minivets, orioles and sunbirds.
Birds that warn of danger: drongos, red jungle fowl and babblers.
Birds that perform the duty of scavengers: vultures, kites and crows.
Having sorted the jungle birds and animals according to his own classification, Corbett began to study them in detail, tracking them, understanding their calls and pugmarks, and learning to mimic their many sounds. In one of his books he shares this mystery and magic thus: “There is no universal language in the jungles; each species has its own language, and though the vocabulary of some is limited, as in the case of porcupines and vultures, the language of each species is understood by all the jungle-folk.”
Honing all his senses to recognise the signs and movements of wildlife, the observant and fleet-footed young Jim soon became a shikari in the true sense–a person who is one with the environment in which he hunts, and with the hunted. Shooting his first leopard at age eight, Corbett went on to become an excellent hunter, and gained fame for killing several dreaded man-eating tigers. But history has it that he has never killed any big cat without confirming that it had harmed a human.
Over the years, Jim’s love for animals translated into wildlife photography. Inspired by his friend, Frederick Walter Champion, he started to record tigers on film. In the mid 1920’s, when he was in his fifties, Corbett completely gave up shooting with a gun and turned to shooting with a camera. He felt that “far more pleasure was got from pressing the button of a camera than is ever got from pressing the trigger of a gun.”
Jim Corbett spent his remaining years in writing about his hunting adventures and jungle experiences, and promoting the cause of conservation. In November 1947, Corbett and his sister left for Kenya, where he lived till his death in 1955. Jim Corbett’s entire life was a testimony to his close connection to nature, and the joy it gave him. As he wrote: “The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end. Open this book where you will, and at any period of your life, and if you have the desire to acquire knowledge you will find it of intense interest, and no matter how long or how intently you study the pages, your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”
But what makes Corbett so special is that he became one of the first champions of the conservation movement in India. Using his influence over then Provincial Government, Corbett played a key role in the establishment, in 1939, of Hailey National Park, India’s first national reserve for the endangered Bengal tiger. In 1957, the park was renamed Jim Corbett National Park in his honour. In 1968, one of the five remaining sub-species of tigers was named after him as Panthera Tigris Corbetti, or Corbett’s Tiger.
For us in India, tiger tales and Jim Corbett are closely linked. And today, his words are as true as they were when he wrote them in 1944:
“The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated–as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support–India will be the poorer, having lost the finest of her fauna.”