Tigers at the Gate

Whenever a man-eating tiger ran amok in India a century or so ago, the authorities knew where to turn for help. Jim Corbett, the quiet, nondescript son of a low-ranking functionary in the British Raj, was the most celebrated tiger hunter of his time. Between 1906 and 1941, he tracked down and shot nearly 50 rogue cats that altogether had dispatched some 2,000 people. A single tiger, the so-called Champawat man-eater, had killed 200 men, women and children in Nepal and 235 more in India.

When Corbett got on a man-eater’s trail, it was usually still hot—a pool of blood, a tangle of human hair in a blackthorn thicket, torn clothing, splinters of bone, a leg cleanly severed below the knee and still oozing warm blood. And when he confronted the killer, it was often at great personal risk in terrifyingly close quarters. Once, after using up the cartridges in his own rifle, he borrowed a companion’s gun and finished off his quarry with one last shot.

These days the tiger’s huge popularity as a poster boy for endangered species stands in sharp contrast to its grim image in earlier times as the incarnation of evil. "The historical record overwhelmingly favors the view," asserts Dutch scholar Peter Boomgaard in his new book Frontiers of Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600-1950 (Yale University Press), "that the tiger was mankind’s most implacable enemy."

In the 1850s, tigers killed 600 people a year in Sumatra and Java. Entire villages were turned into fortresses and others were abandoned altogether. In India, tigers did away with nearly 1,000 people annually throughout the late 1800s; they killed 7,000 there over a five-year period in the 1930s.

Enter Jim Corbett. Because of his track record, he enjoyed an almost godlike status in India, but Corbett had grown up poor in the northern hill country not far from Nepal. His father died when he was 5, leaving his mother to care for 12 children.

Young Corbett hunted to put food on the table. He became known far and wide for his uncanny shooting skill and immense knowledge of the jungle, which led to requests from villagers and local British officials to eliminate tigers and leopards that were preying on people. Corbett agreed to do so on two conditions: he would not accept a bounty, and other hunters had to leave the designated area. "I am sure all sportsmen share my aversion to being classed as a reward-hunter," he explained in his best-selling Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944), "and are as anxious as I to avoid being shot."

His courage and stamina were legendary. He often trekked through the hills at an exhausting clip, eating nothing for days at a stretch. He pursued the Tala Des man-eater while suffering from a pierced eardrum caused by a rifle going off accidentally. During the several weeks it took to run the tigress down, an abscess paralyzed his head and neck. It burst while he was staked out in a tree, waiting for the cat to appear. "Not into my brains as I feared it would," he later recalled, "but out through my nose and ear."

In his later years, Corbett, who died in 1955 at the age of 79, exchanged his rifle for a camera and became a conservationist. He campaigned to preserve India’s dwindling forests and helped found the country’s first national park, which is now named after him.

Although tigers are scarce today, man-eating is by no means a thing of the past. Attacks remain a problem in the Uttar Pradesh region of northern India, in the Sundarbans Delta on the Bay of Bengal and in Nepal’s RoyalChitwanNational Park. Last year, tigers were responsible for 19 deaths in and around Chitwan. One tigress in the SurungValley accounted for five of those. After the tigress ambushed a couple in March, killing the woman, the husband drove her off with a stout stick. A few months later, she pulled her most recent victim out of a tree, killed him and ate much of the body. At this writing she remains at large.

Why do some tigers become man-eaters? Because they’re crippled, or too old and enfeebled to pursue deer, boars and other wildlife. Or because their natural prey has become scarce. Diminishing tiger habitat and booming human populations increase the likelihood of encounters, and in certain situations people can present almost irresistible targets of opportunity.

Following the latest spate of tiger attacks outside Chitwan last fall, representatives of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, Nepal’s leading environmental group, interviewed people who live in the area. They expressed a degree of forbearance unthinkable in Corbett’s day. A teacher at a primary school said the man-eaters should not be killed but, rather, "rehabilitated" in captivity or released deep in the park. Resident Surya Prasad, who has been active in a community-forest project, said: "If the tiger had come to our home and killed us, it would be appropriate to kill the tiger, but since that’s not the case, it would not be appropriate."

Such sentiments reflect an acceptance of nature with the bark on, so to speak, at which many in the West can only marvel. But the fact is, those who live cheek by jowl with tigers every day of their lives understand far better than the rest of us that, in the long run, a world with them is infinitely preferable to a world without them. It may be as simple—and as complicated—as that.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.