Sir Edward James Corbett was born in 1875 in Nainital, Uttarakhand. The surrounding dense Kumaon jungles fascinated him as a young boy and led to his lifelong attachment with the people, flora and fauna of the Himalayas. He held the rank of Colonel in the British Army and also worked as a railway and shipping contractor in various parts of India – but his heart always remained in the luscious forests filled with majestic beasts where he had spent his formative years.
His initial fame was as a hunter. His powers of tracking and identifying the fauna were legendary and self-taught. Jim Corbett cemented his reputation by killing the famous man-eater tigress of Champawat who was responsible for 436 documented deaths. Over time, his reputation grew and he was called upon in dozens of situations where a tiger or leopard was threatening the local population in Garhwal-Kumaon region.
Corbett noted that, “Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers, and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds or old age that, in order to survive, they are compelled to take to a diet of human flesh.”
Conservationist, Naturalist and a Writer
A dedicated pursuer of the big cats, Jim Corbett was also a committed conservationist and naturalist. He gave up his rifle in favour of a camera and it was largely through his efforts that a protected area in Nainital was established as India’s first National Park in 1936. The Hailey National park was later renamed as Jim Corbett National Park in his honour by the Indian government in 1956 and it was here that the ‘Project Tiger’ initiative was first launched in 1973.
His precise and detailed descriptions of mountains and valleys where he hunted have generated a cult-like following among wildlife enthusiasts. He championed the conservation of Indian tigers and had famously remarked, “…a tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and when he is exterminated – as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support – India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.”
India is home to 70 % of tigers in the world. In 2006, there were 1,411 tigers, which increased to 1,706 in 2011 and 2,226 in 2014. According to latest statement by Environment Minister, the count had gone up to 2500 in 2016.
Corbett was also an excellent writer and wrote six books including Man-eaters of Kumaon, Jungle Lore, and My India. His knowledge of folklore only adds authenticity to his impressive accounts which may be slightly embellished as all hunting accounts tend to be. Stephen Alter, in the introduction of one of Corbett’s books, writes, “The vivid imagery of Corbett’s prose remains as crisp and clear as a spring morning in the foothills of the Terai.”
Jim Corbett moved to Kenya and died there on 19 April 1955, having lived a accomplished life and leaving behind a cherished legacy. Several biographies and films were made based on his life and exploits. In 1968, a subspecies of the Tiger was named after him, Panthera tigris corbetti, the Indochinese tiger, also called Corbett’s Tiger.
Perhaps the best way to remember Jim Corbett would be by protecting the environment and also instilling a sense of wonder and excitement towards nature in our next generation. This sentiment can be described in his own words: “The book of nature has no beginning as it has no end. Open the 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 immense 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.”