Who Was Jim Corbett?
Edward James Corbett CIE VD (25 July 1875 – 19 April 1955) was a British hunter, tracker, naturalist, and author who hunted a number of man-eating tigers and leopards in India.
Corbett held the rank of colonel in the British Indian Army and was frequently called upon by the Government of the United Provinces, now the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, to kill man-eating tigers and leopards that were preying on people in the nearby villages of the Garhwal and Kumaon regions.
He authored Man-Eaters of Kumaon, Jungle Lore, and other books recounting his hunts and experiences, which enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success. Later on in life, Corbett became an avid photographer and spoke out for the need to protect India’s wildlife from extermination.
Early Life & Childhood
Corbett was born of Irish ancestry in the town of Nainital in the Kumaon of the Himalaya (now in the Indian state of Uttarakhand). He grew up in a large family of sixteen children and was the eighth child of Christopher William Corbett and his wife Mary Jane (née Prussia) who had previously married Dr Charles James Doyle of Agra, who died at Etawah in 1857. His parents had moved to Nainital in 1862, after Christopher Corbett had quit military service and been appointed the town’s postmaster. In winters the family used to move to the foothills, where they owned a cottage named “Arundel” in the village now known as Kaladhungi.
Mary Jane was very influential in Nainital social life among Europeans and she became a kind of real estate agent for European settlers. Christopher William retired from the position of postmaster in 1878. He died a few weeks after a heart attack on 21 April 1881. Jim was then aged six and his eldest brother Tom took over as postmaster of Nainital. From a very early age, Jim was fascinated by the forests and wildlife around his home in Kaladhungi. Through frequent excursions, he learned to identify most animals and birds by their calls. Over time he became a good tracker and hunter. He studied at Oak Openings School, which merged with Philander Smith College in Nainital (later known as Halett War School, and now known as Birla Vidya Mandir, Nainital). Before he was nineteen he quit school and found employment with the Bengal and North Western Railway, initially working as a fuel inspector at Manakpur in the Punjab, and subsequently as a contractor for the trans-shipment of goods across the Ganges at Mokameh Ghat in Bihar.
Life As a Hunter
During his life Corbett tracked and shot a number of leopards and tigers; about a dozen were well documented man-eaters. Corbett provided estimates of human casualties in his books, including Man-Eaters of Kumaon, The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, and The Temple Tiger, and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Calculating the totals from these accounts, these big cats had killed more than 1,200 men, women, and children, according to Corbett. There are some discrepancies in the official human death tolls that the British and Indian governments have on record and Corbett’s estimates.
The first designated man-eating tiger he killed, the Champawat Tiger, was responsible for 436 documented deaths. Though most of his kills were tigers, Corbett successfully killed at least two man-eating leopards. The first was the Panar Leopard in 1910, which allegedly killed 400 people. The second was the man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag in 1926, which terrorized the pilgrims on the holy Hindu shrines Kedarnath and Badrinath for more than eight years, and was said to be responsible for more than 126 deaths.
Other notable man-eaters he killed were the Talla-Des man-eater, the Mohan man-eater, the Thak man-eater, the Muktesar man-eater and the Chowgarh tigress.
Analysis of carcasses, skulls, and preserved remains show that most of the man-eaters were suffering from disease or wounds, such as porcupine quills embedded deep in the skin or gunshot wounds that had not healed, like that of the Muktesar Man-Eater. The Thak man-eating tigress, when skinned by Corbett, revealed two old gunshot wounds; one in her shoulder had become septic, and could have been the reason for the tigress’s having turned man-eater, Corbett suggested. In the foreword of Man Eaters of Kumaon, Corbett writes:
The wound that has caused a particular tiger to take to man-eating might be the result of a carelessly fired shot and failure to follow up and recover the wounded animal, or be the result of the tiger having lost his temper while killing a porcupine
Corbett preferred to hunt alone and on foot when pursuing dangerous game. He often hunted with Robin, a small dog he wrote about in Man-Eaters of Kumaon.
Hunter Turns Naturalist
Corbett bought his first camera in the late 1920s and—inspired by his friend Frederick Walter Champion—started to record tigers on cine film. Although he had an intimate knowledge of the jungle, it was a demanding task to obtain good pictures, as the animals were exceedingly shy.
A popular misconception is that Corbett never killed a tiger without confirmation of its killing people. For example, Corbett killed the unusually large and most widely sought after Bachelor of Powalgarh, even though this tiger had never killed a human.
Corbett took to lecturing groups of schoolchildren about their natural heritage and the need to conserve forests and their wildlife. He promoted the foundation of the Association for the Preservation of Game in the United Provinces and the All-India Conference for the Preservation of Wildlife. Together with Champion, he played a key role in establishing India’s first national park in the Kumaon Hills, the Hailey National Park, initially named after Lord Malcolm Hailey. The park was renamed in Corbett’s honour in 1957.
Corbett deeply empathized with the poor living in and around the Corbett village or Kaladhoongi in the United Province (now Uttrakhand). As a railway contractor, he employed scores of Indians at Mokameh Ghat. While dedicating his book My India to “…my friends, the poor of India”, he writes “It is of these people, who are admittedly poor, and who are often described as ‘India’s starving millions’, among whom I have lived and whom I love, that I shall endeavor to tell in the pages of this book, which I humbly dedicate to my friends, the poor of India.”
Last Days of His Life
Jim Corbett resided in the Gurney House along with his sister Maggie Corbett. They sold the house to Mrs. Kalavati Varma, before leaving for Kenya in November 1947. The house has been transformed into a museum and is known as the Jim Corbett Museum.
Jim also spent a short time in Chotti Haldwani, a village he had adopted and which came to be known as Corbett’s Village. Corbett and the villagers built a wall around the village in 1925 to keep wild animals out of the premises. The wall still stands, and according to villagers has prevented wild animal attacks on villagers since it was built.
After 1947, Corbett and his sister Maggie retired to Nyeri, Kenya, where he continued to write and sound the alarm about declining numbers of wild cats and other wildlife. Corbett was at the Treetops, a hut built on the branches of a giant ficus tree, as the bodyguard of Princess Elizabeth when she stayed there on 5–6 February 1952. That night, her father, King George VI died, and Elizabeth ascended to the throne. Corbett wrote in the hotel’s visitors’ register:
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.
Corbett died of a heart attack a few days after he finished his sixth book, Tree Tops, and was buried at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Nyeri. His memories were kept intact in the form of the meeting place Moti House, which Corbett had built for his friend Moti Singh, and the Corbett Wall, a long wall (approximately 4.5 miles (7.2 km) built around the village to protect crops from wild animals.
Man-eaters of Kumaon was a great success in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the first edition of the American Book-of-the-Month Club being 250,000 copies. It was later translated into 27 languages. Corbett’s fourth book, Jungle Lore, is considered his autobiography.
The Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, India was renamed in his honour in 1957. He had played a key role in establishing this protected area in the 1930s.
In 1968, one of the five remaining subspecies of tigers was named after him: Panthera tigris corbetti, the Indochinese tiger, also called Corbett’s tiger.
In 1994 and 2002, the long-neglected graves of Corbett and his sister (both in Kenya) were repaired and restored by Jerry A. Jaleel, founder and director of the Jim Corbett Foundation.