This July we celebrate the birthday of a fearless hunter who turned a saviour for tigers in India. I came across this story while I was sitting on the shore of the Kosi River of Uttarakhand.  A few days ago, I had gone to the Namah Resorts in Dhikuli, at Jim Corbett Park. I was interested in the lost temple of Vairapattana, which was supposed to have been sited around this resort. I stayed there for few days, enjoyed the impeccable hospitality, and kept enquiring about the lost Shiva Temple. They pointed me in a particular direction and surprisingly, at a mere 300 steps, I found the remains of the ancient Shiva Temple.  My mission was complete, but during my discussions with the staff and the naturalists present at this resort, I also learned a few more things about the area.  Sharing those newly learnt nuggets of information here for the benefit of our readers …

One of the resident experts at Namah Resort asked me if I knew of and about Jim Corbett.  I replied with a smile, “Yes! You made us interact with Mr. Imran Khan, one of the best known naturalists in Jim Corbett National Park.  He told us everything about the flora and fauna.”  The expert averred, ‘No Sir, I meant, James Edward Corbett’.  I was quiet.  I have heard of him of course, but wondered why this gentleman was emphasising him so much. He was all praise for Jim Corbett and we retired to our room appreciating the spectacular sunset view across the Kosi river.  As I reached my room, I picked up a book I had about Colonel James Edward Corbett of the British India Army and started reading.

Colonel Corbett was born in Nainital in the year 1875, to the postmaster of Nainital William Christopher Corbett.  He spent his entire childhood in the region. During the winters, James Corbett, along with his parents and his 15 other siblings used to stay in their family home downhill, what we now know as Corbett’s Village or Kaladhungi.  After schooling, he took to employment with the Railways.  He was so well versed with the jungle that he could identify most animals and birds by their sounds alone.  Soon, he became famous as the hunter who would save locals from man-eating tigers and leopards.  His most famous kill was the tiger known as the ‘Bachelor of Powalgarh’.

Powalgarh is a connected reserve near Ramnagar.  We were taken to Powalgarh the next day to see the very site where Corbett killed this tiger. We also have the largest tree trunk of this region in the vicinity.  Corbett later authored a book titled ‘The Man Eaters of Kumaon’.  He mentions several kills that he made and how he accomplished those feats.  Interestingly, the only one to accompany him was his favourite dog ‘Robin’.  His expeditions were all on foot. His book talks about the strategies he formulated to hunt out the man-eaters in Champawat, Thak, Muktesar, Chowgarh, Rudraprayag, Kanda, Pipalpani and many more.  The Panar Leopard was known to have killed as many as 400 people before falling to Corbett’s bullet.

When Corbett analysed his kills, he found out that most of the man-eaters had porcupine quills embedded deep in their feet. Some even had unhealed gunshot wounds.  While I was discussing this with our nature expert at the Namah Resort, he explained that years of research has revealed that the porcupine is the most common reason for a tiger’s pain and unrest, forcing him to target slow moving and easy targets like humans. Jim Corbett, when realized this, turned into a saviour of animals. He bought a camera and started filming tigers.

I had the opportunity to meet up with James Champion a while ago. He is son of Frederick Walter Champion, companion of Jim Corbett in his expeditions to understand and save tigers. He gave me several insights on how Corbett turned into a conservationist and led campaigns to protect tigers. Corbett and Champion established India’s first nature reserve, the Hailey National Park in 1936. It was named after Lord Hailey, the then governor of the United Provinces (now Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh) from 1928 to 1934. His efforts laid the foundation of Project Tiger of the Government of India, which helped us realize the reducing number of tigers and forced both administrations and people to take measures to save them.  Today, his Hailey National Park covers 520 square kilometres of hill area near Nainital (It was originally 323 sq. Km).  It houses around 110 tree species, 50 species of mammals, 580 bird species and 25 reptile species.

Initially, the proposal was to make it a Game Reserve, where the British could come and enjoy hunting as a sport while animals move freely. The Princely state of Tehri-Garhwal had already cleared most of this forest to save themselves from the invading Rohillas.  When land came completely under the British and restoring the forest was under-way, Jim Corbett played an important role in ensuring that it stays a Nature Reserve and not become a Game Reserve. He emphasized on protecting the Tigers. He forcefully got across the fact that careless hunting activities are in fact turning tigers into man-eaters.  His efforts were fruitful and the park was established. Later, in 1954, it was renamed as the Ramganga National Park. But within 3 years, the Independent Indian Government gave credit to Jim Corbett where it was due, and renamed this oldest national park of India as the ‘Jim Corbett National Park’.

Until 1947, Corbett and his sister lived in Gurney house in Nainital. This house was later sold to Mr. Sharad Prasad Varma, which is now passed on to his granddaughter, Ms. Nilanjana Dalmia.  The Corbetts retired to Kenya, where Jim Corbett kept up his good work in protecting wildlife. He was escorting Princess Elizabeth of England during her Kenya visit and they were staying in the Tree Tops Hotel, when King George the Sixth passed away. Next morning, when Elizabeth was told about this, she came down from Tree Tops and left for England as a Queen.

Corbett wrote the famous lines that day in the visitor log book of Tree Tops:

For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess, and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience, she climbed down from the tree the next day a Queen — God bless her.

He passed away on 19th of April, 1955.  We celebrate Corbett’s 231st birthday every 25th of July.

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