In The Last White Hunter, the recently released autobiography of Donald Anderson, the son of hunter and writer Kenneth Anderson, he narrates the rules a “licensed hunter” in 1960s India had to comply with:

  • No hunting allowed from a machan or at a waterhole
  • Hunting is not allowed before sunrise or after sunset
  • Shooting of tiger or panther with 100 yards from a road or track is not allowed
  • Shooting of all creatures are prohibited inside a wildlife sanctuary and only allowed in reserved hunting block
  • The licensed hunter cannot carry more than two weapons at any time
  • The hunter must go hunting only with a licensed shikari guide registered with the Nilgiri Wildlife Association.

Donald, for obvious reasons, lived in the shadow of his more famous father. His autobiography is a collection of vignettes from his life, and for a reader of shikaar literature, the more interesting bits are the ones where he talks about his father, and how his own hunting sensibilities developed. Donald is brutally forthcoming in assessing himself: “I will not defend my hunting some of the larger animals as some sort of service I did to protect people, but the truth of the matter is that tigers, panthers, and wild dogs were treated as vermin in those days, and hunters were rewarded for killing them...hunters like me, indulged in hunting based on the strict rules laid down by the forest department, although one could always question our conscience for the acts we committed.”

Donald Anderson with panther | Wikimedia Commons (Licensed under CC by 4.0)

The intriguing rules Donald lists were meant to regulate the booming practice of organised hunting, which was prevalent in India until the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Before Independence, shikaar was a royal pastime, pursued with equal vigour by royals of the subcontinent “disallowed from taking up arms in the battlefield except in the service of the Raj”, and by the British, who first saw the wild as vermin “to be exterminated” and issued bounties, and later, as a masculine “sport” that individuals were encouraged to pursue. As historian Mahesh Rangarajan writes in India’s Wildlife History: An Introduction:

The tiger was the prime example of a lawless beast, whose conquest was held to be among the greatest blessing conferred by Pax Britannica…[hunts] were deeply symbolic of the logic and rhetoric of empire, of brave white men defending hapless mothers whose children fell prey to wild beasts.

The mass extermination of the Indian subcontinent’s wildlife in the 19th century, leading up to the middle of the 20th century, is one of the greatest ecological crimes in world history. But it also gave birth to a thrilling form of literature that finds new readers into the modern day – starting from Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson, whose works captured the forests of the Raj in all their romantic beauty. With hunting outlawed or regulated after Independence, the genre is now practically defunct, hence Donald’s assertion that he is “the last white hunter”. With the absence of new literature, and the popularity of the existent ones, we’ve also seen adaptations, such as the the recent novel In the Jungles of the Night, a fictional rendition of Corbett’s life, that carry the legacy forward.

But readers of the genre are faced with a dichotomy inherent in the narrative: while these stories introduced many readers, including me, to the beauty of the Indian jungle, the deeply engrossing writing often masked the terrible ecological consequences of hunting, despite the regret (and the prescient calls for conservation) many writers displayed in their works.

W Jardine, Natural History of Pachydermes | Wikimedia Commons (Licensed under CC by 4.0)

There is obviously a boy’s adventure club association of courage, bravery and machismo to be drawn with the genre. The act of shikaar was a man’s sport, borrowed from royals, and a representation of military valour in its primal form. “Stalking” big game required as much courage as on the battlefield, or maybe more. Sher Jung, an ex-Army man, writes in the preface to his memoir Tryst with Tigers: “People are said to make tryst with destiny. I made mine with tigers...This sounds a bit pompous but it is not meant to. For tiger hunting has been an old pastime in my family, reaching back to quite a few generations… (sic)” Then later in the text, “Those were the days when I was in my early youth, and life consisted only of guns, horses, and dogs for me.” Or Ajaikumar Reddy, a professional hunter who wrote in his book Man Eating Tigers of Central India, “In an endeavour to attain hundred percent success I exposed myself to great risks, escaping death several times...Since then I have never looked back.”

Shikaar books are deeply engrossing, a Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” played out in all its intensity, and when you throw a man-eater into the mix, the tension reaches extreme heights. Consider this from Corbett: “The nearer we approached the edge, the more of this field became visible, and then, when only a narrow strip remained in shadow from the torches, the leopard, with a succession of angry grunts, sprang up the bank and into full view.”

This was a leopard that had killed 400 people. A little while ago, it had tugged on the thorns on a tree where Corbett had been waiting for it to turn up. And now, after injuring it, Corbett had gone on foot, in the dark, with a few frightened villagers holding nothing but pine torches, to hunt for it!

Tiger Hunt by Lord Reading, Viceroy of India | Wikimedia Commons

In many instances, however, the hunt featured not a lone hunter as is imagined through these books, but a massive hunting party often consisting of Indian royals, Empire officials, bureaucrats and administrators, servants, and elephants. In The Temple Tigers and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon, Corbett wrote, “Shooting from the back of a well-trained elephant on the grasslands of the Tarai is one of the most pleasant forms of sport I know of”. In The Talla Des Maneater, he recalls a shikaar party in the plains of Bindukhera that featured 17 elephants and nine guns, at the end of which they had shot 66 birds and five animals.

But none of these were as grand as the hunts by the British aristocracy. “Seven hundred elephants were employed in beating the jungle, and the Prince [Albert] shot no fewer than six tigers [in one day],” noted a chronicle about the 1876 hunting expedition of the British heir to the Nepali terai. The 1911 Nepal hunting expedition, part of the grand coronation celebrations of King George, saw 18 rhinos, 39 tigers and four sloth bears being killed, topped by the 1938 hunt with Lord Linlithgow, viceroy of India, which saw 120 tigers, 27 leopards, 15 bears, and 38 rhinos being slaughtered.

It was not just the British. The subcontinent’s royals were equally complicit; one of them, Nripendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, the maharaja of Cooch-Behar, records a tally of 365 tigers, 311 leopards and 207 rhinos, among others, in 26 years (another royal claims 1150 tigers!).

Jim Corbett with the slain "Bachelor of Powalgarh" | Wikimedia Commons

The genre of shikaar literature then does not provides us a full picture of the state of affairs at the time, but a blinkered individualistic view, analogous to a Cold War spy thriller purporting to explain how espionage functioned at the time.

What then explains the continued fascination, and the love, for shikaar literature, even among conservationists? Ullas Karanth, the noted tiger scientist, has said he’d grown up “on stacks of nature books and Jim Corbett’s tales of man-eaters”, while leading wildlife biologist and author of Field Days, AJT Johnsingh read a Tamil translation of Corbett in his childhood that he said “stimulated my inherent interest in wildlife”.

A possible explanation could be the deliberate ambivalence, as a recent paper suggested, that hunters like Corbett and Anderson presented in their writings – between that of a white colonial hunter and of a “rescuer” who sympathised with locals and projected man-eater hunting as a “nobler undertaking”. While this explanation holds true, there were others who hunted man-eaters, and wrote about it, such as Ajai Kumar Reddy, Sher Jung and Donald Anderson. Why aren’t they considered the equals of Corbett?

A tiger hunting party, 1876 | Wikimedia Commons

The one difference between Corbett and all the other shikaar writers may simply boil down to empathy. This is not to discount the other hunter-writers as being solely motivated by themselves to pursue the hunt, but Corbett is placed on a pedestal above others not just because his narratives are better written, but also because they display a concern for the animal who he is consigning to death, and for the locals on whose behalf he has undertaken the hunt. Other writers hunted man-eaters as well, but one doesn’t get a sense of the “nobler undertaking” from their narratives: “My perfect shot killed it on the spot, and soon, the glorious morning sun bathed my first man-eating tiger and me in soft light and created an unforgettable memory,” Donald wrote. Contrast this with Corbett, writing after he shot his last man-eater: “There have been occasions when life has hung by a thread...but for all the occasions I am amply rewarded if my hunting has resulted in saving one human life.”

Corbett hunted mostly in eastern Kumaon, towards the Indo-Nepal border. And what the Kumaoni villager was for Corbett, the indigenous tribes of south Indian forests were for Anderson, as his close association with individuals such as Byra the Pujari and Ranga the erstwhile poacher shows. Going beyond the Nilgiri Wildlife Association’s “rules” for hunters by creating their own code of honour, these two white men represented the apogee of the Indian hunter – a lone man, braving dangerous man-eaters in beautiful but dangerous forests all by himself, all for the sake of others. An incomplete picture certainly, but no doubt a picture that inspired many, like me, to vividly imagine these thrilling narratives whenever we step out into a forest.