Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Book review: the Jim Corbett Omnibus

First up on this one - a little history:

Jim Corbett was a hunter/wildlife photographer/ultimately conservationist in India mainly between 1907 and 1932. India's Corbett National Park is named for him and many of the locals in the areas he worked in regard him as a Sadhu which should tell you a little about his life. The important thing to understand though if you're the sort of person who reads this blog and is interested in this book is that it is, fundamentally, about killing animals - specifically tigers and leopards. That is, obviously, something that is not cool today. From my perspective it really wasn't cool in Corbett's day either but it was something people did. Where Corbett differed from most "Sportsmen" of his age is that he targeted animals very specifically and in a very unusual way. He hunted alone for the most part without the large teams of assistants many used and he targeted almost exclusively man-eating animals at great personal risk.

If, like me, your only experience with tigers and leopards is through the TV and behind zoo bars its rather sobering to be introduced to a world where a single man-eating cat can paralyse whole regions in fear but 80 years ago that was pretty much the situation. There is, to this day, an annual fair to celebrate the killing by Corbett of the man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, an animal with over 100 confirmed human kills and whose depredations were so severe questions were asked in the UK Parliament about it.

Corbett's narrative is never boastful and fairly stark and it doesn't need to be. The combination of old school English derring-do and Corbett's fascinating explanation of the nature of the animals in question and why they do what they do is more than enough. In addition these are fascinating historical documents, explaining both local culture and that of the English gentry in India at the time. Corbett is clearly conflicted and saddened by every kill and yet what really rings through the book is an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Throughout the book one gets an impression of a tremendous weight on his shoulders; he knows that outside the villages in the darkness of the forest, a killer is lurking and he knows that sooner or later someone will be forced by need of food, fuel or water to enter the forest. No-one else was willing or able to address the issue and so the responsibility fell to Corbett. You can sense he is accutely aware that every day matters to the villagers. In spite of this pressure and the horrible sights he sees, the author's respect for the forest is what ultimately shines through.

The Omnibus itself is a collection of 3 books; each of which relate several individual episodes and I whole heartedly recommend it to anyone with an interest in India or big cats.


Camera Trap Codger said...

Corbett's stuff still makes for a great read, and many young naturalists in India were weaned on his writings. A different kind of book is "My India" in which he wrote about his other experiences and rural people.

Beej said...

Corbett is a big legend here in India. Our largest national park and tiger reserve is named after him. In Rudraprayag, one of the towns in the foothills of the Himalaya along the course of the mighty Ganges, stands a memorial in his name. Rudraprayag is where Corbett shot the infamous man-eating leopard that had terrorized the village. The tree from which he shot the leopard has since fallen. Corbett's account of this episode is one of his more famous adventures and you should find that story in the book. And if you ever visit India, you must go to Rudraprayag just to see the memorial.