This April I had the pleasure of joining a two-week overland adventure into Kumaon, Colonel Jim Corbett’s mountainous home country in Uttarakhand State, Northern India. Planned by John Rigby & Co. Managing Director Marc Newton, it was a tour designed to honor Corbett’s legacy and to donate an anti-poaching 4WD vehicle to his far-sighted initiative of Tiger Conservation.
Our itinerary visited historic sites where that unassuming hunter had killed the dreaded “Man Eaters of Kumoan” in the early 1900s. It included a public ceremony at National Parks headquarters where Marc presented the 4WD to Director Samir Sinha. Reported by more than 50 Indian newspapers, the timely donation delivered vital aid to Corbett Tiger Reserve from funds raised at SCI’s 2016 Convention by auctioning the Rigby World Heritage Rifle Package.
At the Convention, Rigby’s superb replica of Jim Corbett’s own famous Rigby .275 caliber rifle and its Auction Package realized a new record price in the SCI World Heritage Rifle Series honoring hunting in Asia.
With the rifle, Rigby also donated a solid walnut display cabinet made by Julian & Sons, a special limited edition of Corbett’s hunting memoirs and my original oil painting depicting his 1907 kill of the rogue tigress that had eaten more than 400 people in Eastern Kumaon.
The painting, titled “Last Moments of the Champawat Man Eater,” appeared in an article about my wildlife art in the July/August 2015 SAFARI Magazine. Featured in the same issue, Rigby & Co. celebrated finding and acquiring Corbett’s legendary Rigby .275, which he was awarded after shooting the Champawat Tiger. The rifle’s history and beauty prompted Marc Newton’s idea to replicate and donate it to the auction, and then deliver the proceeds to tiger conservation in Corbett country.
With our mutual admiration for the amazing Jim Corbett, I jumped at the chance to support the project by donating the Champawat Tiger canvas. It meant I could help to save those beautiful big cats in their own domain. And the tour was ideal for finding out more about this remarkable man who was my hero from boyhood, and who continues to impress me the more I learn about him.
It was the first time in India for all foreigners in our group, and I relished being able firsthand to study its landscapes, wildlife and all-important light for my new series of paintings based on Corbett’s writings. At first, I found the extremes of wealth and poverty nearly overwhelming. While I couldn’t wait to see Kumaon hills and jungles, I can only describe travel on Delhi’s madly crowded roads as a mix of terror and exhilaration. Thanks to our skilled drivers, our small 4WD convoy still managed to dodge and avoid all kinds of vehicles and life forms by inches as it snaked its way out of the city.
In nine hours, we crossed the Ganges Plain, climbed into the Himalayan foothills and arrived at a wilderness camp near Ramnager on the edge of the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Adding to the trip’s sense of pilgrimage, India’s Government allowed Marc to bring the original Rigby .275 rifle on tour.
With growing media coverage of our visit’s theme and conservation donation, it became immensely clear that Jim Corbett was still a greatly venerated, respected person. Everywhere people were in awe of the rifle and praised its humble owner, who besides being a famous “Shikar,” had continually served local communities and shown great love and respect for Indian people.
We used all remaining free time to visit sites and areas recorded in Corbett’s writings. Mohan, Kanda, Muka Teswar and Powalgarh are all places in his hunting stories that became real landscapes in our travels. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to see all such places. To visit Eastern Kumaon, where Champawat, Chowgarh, Thak and Talla Dess are familiar names to Corbett readers, would have taken another week including hiking through extremely rugged terrain. It would be a fine trek to consider in future, but way beyond our present time constraints.
Consequently, I was glad when the Champawat and Chowgarh scenes I had painted were approved by historians who met the tour, and who had found the exact sites of those famed hunts. It was very satisfying that my research for those tiger and leopard works produced accurate scenery. This is because while striving to accurately keep to a written narrative, an artist must also use a degree of license and perspective to create a gripping scene, otherwise the image can lose its impact, or the story that the picture tries to convey can be lost--especially when not all viewers know about Jim Corbett or have read his books yet!
Every stage of our trip confirmed that local reverence for the modest hunter has never waned. Our first place of interest, Haldwani village, was built on land Corbett bought for his workers and their families. Even after Indian independence in 1949, his move to Kenya and until his death, he still paid the land rates and taxes for Haldwani.
We met the original headman’s descendant who still owned the ancient muzzleloader Corbett had given to his ancestor and the villagers so they could protect their crops. We also visited the house that Corbett built for his gun bearer, hunting companion and friend, Mothi Singh.
We then visited Kaladhungi and Corbett’s winter house, now a museum. The next day, a breathtaking, twenty-mile drive took us to six thousand feet and the town of Naini Tal. We were kindly shown into Corbett’s summer home, “Gurney House,” by private owners who have carefully kept some trophies from his hunts in India and East Africa alongside other family belongings.
The species rarity, diversity and world value of the Corbett Tiger Reserve is unquestionable and irreplaceable. Returning to National Park headquarters, we found an experienced guide who took us to watch Bengal tiger, a wild Asian elephant herd, sambar and chittal deer, and other species. After a comfy night at Dhikala Forest House inside the Reserve, we saw an equally diverse, teeming wildlife display while riding elephants. The next day, we drove through picturesque, rough terrain to Kanda Forest Rest House, where Jim Corbett stayed when he shot the Kanda Man Eater. A typically well-tended monument with clear text marks the kill site.
Uttarakhand has the highest human-wildlife conflict statistics of any state or province in India. Villages surround this National Park and so that conflict is inevitable. Poachers had killed two tigers just before we arrived, and a tiger had eaten a Park guard. Added to our visit, these events made a testing week for the Director. At night, we could hear “noise cannons” booming randomly across fields in an effort by farmers to deter elephants and deer from leaving the Park and raiding crops. And while tigers are extremely rare due to poaching, leopards are smaller, can adapt to more diverse habitat, and are comparatively plentiful even outside government-protected lands.
Today, India allows no hunting and its laws protect nearly all animals. The dominant Hindu religion also regards a great many wild and domestic animals as sacred. This means only a precarious existence for those who can survive in the few pristine areas left. Tigers in Corbett National Park are continually threatened by expanding human settlements and by poaching for their skins and body parts.
The tour’s final visit was to remote Rudraprayag. The village perches at eight thousand feet on steep hills around the confluence of two streams that form the headwaters of the Ganges River. Its notoriety began when a man-eating leopard took to preying on pilgrims who visited that site of their holy river. The area was in a state of terror for years until Jim Corbett finally hunted and shot the rogue animal in 1926 after attempts by others had failed.
Unfortunately, not all the group could stay for this trip, so six of us with guides and drivers made the six-hour drive on one-lane roads that looped skyward in a constant trail of hairpin bends. Apparently, this journey took Corbett ten days in 1926 on foot and with packhorses. The spot where he killed the leopard is marked by an impressive monument. Even the mango tree from which he shot it still stands, just twenty yards from the monument where we were welcomed as honored guests to another public ceremony.
The local Pundit or Mayor, whose great-grandfather survived an attack by the same man-eater, spoke at length with several other officials in honor of Jim Corbett and his good deeds. Afterward, we were invited to barracks by the Commander of the local Kumaon Man Eaters Regiment where we enjoyed their hospitality and the steep, beautiful view from their headquarters to the remote valley below.
When I asked the Commander if there were still leopards in the vicinity, he said that just recently he had watched a leopard pluck a dead peacock on the lawn below his house, while her two cubs played like typical kittens with loose clumps of plucked feathers tumbling in the breeze. Imagining that scene and the rugged Himalayas as its distant backdrop, I knew that it was a painting I would have to do to remember this extraordinary land, and its tough mountain people who co-exist with the unique and fierce wildlife.
On a somber note, the commander said that villagers were still attacked occasionally and stock losses from marauding leopards were a constant problem for Forests and Conservation departments. We left with the regimental pipe band playing us out to go to our night’s accommodation.
Knowing our Kumaon adventure was ending, we made a last visit to the mango tree and the monument. We took photos of Corbett’s iconic rifle and the monument together, and paid our respects to this truly remarkable hunter and conservationist.--David Southgate