The Egyptian mythologists, in order to account for animal worship, said that the gods, pursued by the violence of earthborn men, who were their enemies, had formerly been obliged to disguise themselves under the semblance of beasts. —The Natural History of Religion, David Hume
In 1875 the Indian tiger (Panthera tigris) was rechristened the Royal Bengal Tiger—first by the Calcutta press and then by the rest of the world—in honor of the enthusiasm shown by the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, in hunting it during his eight-month tour of India. If naturalists seek a single event that doomed the fate of this species they could point to Edward’s expeditions. Of course, Edward alone cannot be blamed. Tiger hunting had always been a colonial favorite, and the Victorians (who devoured publications like The Oriental Shooting Magazine, The Bengal Sporting Magazine, and The Indian Sporting Review at clubs around India) had turned it into a rite of passage. Like any good politician or celebrity, Edward was merely stamping with approval a widely enjoyed sport. After Edward’s trip, however, a regrettable fashion took hold. While the Indian tiger had merely been hunted, the Royal Bengal Tiger was massacred.
Perhaps the recent widespread availability of George Eastman’s cumbersome but portable camera also had something to do with it. Suddenly, all around the subcontinent, Victorians were eager to be photographed with their feet proudly planted on “Stripes.” What is sport without measurements and records? Rowland Ward’s The Sportsman’s Handbook to Practical Collecting, Preserving, and Artistic Setting-up of Trophies and Specimens (first published in 1880 with new editions almost every year through the end of the century) carried instructions on how to arrange the tiger’s carcass for measurement. The dead beast was to be tugged (at the nose and tail) to a straight line before fixing the four pegs: the tip and root of the tail, the nape of the neck and the nose.
Decades before the ramifications of such excess could be realized and lamented, however, a grisly development captured the public’s attention. The ineptitude and impatience of the average hunter resulted in large numbers of injured tigers. Record-sized tigers became less newsworthy than the growing numbers of maimed, disabled, and, consequently, cattle- and man-eating felines. During the age of “maneaters”—peaking in the 1920s and ’30s—thousands of people were killed and eaten by these ghostly, crafty, but, invariably, maimed shaitans (devils). In 1922 alone, more than sixteen hundred Indians were killed by tigers. Shutting down entire districts, further isolating already isolated villages, terrorizing unarmed railway crews and paving crews stuck at remote roads, the lore of the maneater reigned supreme while the popular imagination was fueled by first-hand accounts of encounters with ghost tigers.
Our relationship to a historical narrative is likely to be influenced by the circumstances of our first encounter with it. Anglophone Indian schoolboys like myself, living urban lives and attending schools in the 1970s (a time when curricula all but ignored the natural world), took our first instruction on the Indian wilderness from cheap editions of the stories of Jim Corbett—that famous scourge of the shaitan—whose books are in print even today. The more grotesque the maiming, the more inept the feline became at dispatching its prey, the greater the numbers of failed, or partly failed, attacks on humans, the greater the terror. One of Corbett’s maneaters had changed its diet after its canines were shot off. Another, shot in the shoulder, recovered to a twisted limb. While Corbett was not an easy act to follow, many tried. Kenneth Anderson, one of Corbett’s latter day cousins in south India, showed greater flair for his craft—if not the hunting, at least the writing. The titles of Anderson’s episodic chapters—“The lame horror of Peddacheruvu,” “The dumb maneater of Telavadi,” “The novice of Manchi”—reminded us city dwellers about the eccentric vileness of the hinterland.
If we quickly outgrew the simple satisfactions of such stories, it was partly because of the multipronged efforts of Project Tiger. Initiated by Indira Gandhi in 1973, backed by the World Wildlife Fund, and led by the first generation of conservationists, Project Tiger created tiger sanctuaries around the country and splattered “Save the Tiger” posters and other literature across India.
Tigers and tiger hunting did not intrude into my interests again until two decades later, when, as a writer living in New Jersey, I was researching colonial history at the New York Public Library. I was interested primarily in the life and times of Tipu Sultan, the general of the South Indian kingdom of Mysore, whose predatory nom de guerre—the “Tiger of Mysore”—reflected both his harsh dealings with late-eighteenth-century British colonizers and his fetishistic use of the tiger as an emblem of state. Following its final victory over Tipu, the East India Company had even issued medals embossed with the iconic British lion winning an oversized cat fight with a tiger. It was the beginning of the tiger’s career as a trope for colonial conquest. In fact, as the historian Linda Colley has remarked, “the tiger became synonymous in British minds with India itself.” By a remarkable anthropomorphic sleight, in the fertile pre-Victorian imagination a firm parallel took hold between tigers and the various Indian rulers who were grappling with British expansion. This description of the tiger, which Colley pulls from an eighteenth-century diary—“stately and majestic in appearance, yet cowardly and artfully cunning in his actions; never openly facing his prey, but springing upon it from ambush”—could have been applied without altering a word to the likes of Tipu.
Few Britishers returned to Europe without some tiger parts—soft pelts, claws or teeth set in gold or silver, and (most treasured of all) head trophies. For the last, Rowland Ward recommended that the most “noble” have “the mouth partially open, showing the teeth and the tongue, but the lip not raised.”
Any reader journeying through colonial era writing, or writing on the era, cannot escape this single-character sideshow. The tiger was a cliché of colonial life, his prostrate form before calmly posing sahibs a metonym for colonial power, the extent of his feline ubiquity mystifying and incomprehensible. The abundant lore about the tiger’s cunning and cowardice, however, I took for Victorian propaganda, which bore a close resemblance to the propaganda of imperial expansion. Seeking, then, to clear the tiger’s name, I sought evidence to debunk this lore. This quest led to the discovery of some remarkable instances of farce and deception in colonial hunting and in the colonial hunting narrative.
When it comes to sheer orchestration, few tiger hunts can outshine the one arranged for Charles John Canning, Viceroy of India. Because of his forceful moderation—key to containing the bloodthirsty hysteria following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857—Lord Canning has admirers on both sides of the colonial divide. After the end of all punitive action, as the months slipped by, British insecurity sought ever more convincing demonstrations of a return to normalcy. In 1861, his final year in office, Canning embarked on a tour of the Indian provinces. This was no ordinary tour. The Viceroy traveled from one princely capital to the next in an entourage of eighty elephants, a thousand camels, and hundreds of bullocks, in a camp of twenty thousand humans. It’s estimated that this caravan occupied twenty-four miles of road. Nothing like this had been seen since the Moguls in the seventeenth century. From here on, Mogul-style pomp—in ever more elaborate arrangements—would be routinely reenacted in the service of the Victorian Raj.
In Jubbulpore, a Central Indian British cantonment which was on Canning’s route, the admired outdoorsman Captain James Forsyth was enlisted to arrange a tiger hunt for the Viceroy’s entourage. Tigers were abundant in the region, but because the Viceroy chose the most pleasant weather for his tours (it was winter) tigers were difficult to locate and track; the abundance of prey and water allowed them to travel. For a ceremonial hunt like this, however, nothing could be left to chance. A worthy beast had to be located and kept in the area. In his memoirs, Forsyth recollected his role in this prestigious event:
I mounted a sentry over that beast for nearly a week, girding him in a little hill with a belt of fires, and feeding him with nightly kine, till half a hundred elephants, carrying the cream of the vice-regal camp, swept him out into the plain, where he fell riddled by a storm of bullets from several hundred virgin rifles.
Forsyth, atop one of the elephants, does not mention if he discharged his rifle at the doomed beast. But bullet holes on the sides of his howdah confirmed that the Viceroy’s staff may have harbored some first-time sportsmen.
Buffalo at Bay, by Samuel Howitt and Thomas Williamson.
Even classics of the Colonial era reveal grave deceptions upon closer scrutiny. Captain Thomas Williamson’s Oriental Field Sports (London, 1807) is an example. Addressed to the young British men who were considering careers with the East India Company, Williamson’s book was to remain a revered source for the rest of the century. Drawing from his twenty-year tenure in the sticks of the Empire’s Bengal Presidency—where, cut off from the European society of the large presidency towns, one was likely to feel the “want of other more social, and of all public amusements”—Williamson arranged his two volume book into forty chapters with descriptive titles like “Chasing a tiger across a river,” “Driving a bear out of sugar canes,” and “Peacock shooting.” Each chapter is illustrated by a watercolor hunting scene by Williamson’s collaborator, the British artist, hunter, and outdoorsman Samuel Howitt. The chapters are full of stirring descriptions of early colonial life in India. As the century advanced, the Victorians grew ever more sentimental about the early days of the Empire: it’s not hard to see how the book became a classic.
The checkered and deficient résumé of Howitt, whose illustrations were a significant part of the book’s appeal, offers the first clues to the book’s questionable veracity. Once a landed gentleman in Nottinghamshire, upon experiencing a midlife loss of fortune, Howitt turned towards sketching and engraving for books on farm life, hunting, and angling. The last two decades of the eighteenth century had witnessed (all around the British Isles) a strict, often draconian, enforcement of laws on hunting and fishing on public lands. The “sporting” life—and all the glamour attached to it—had in recent years become the exclusive province of the propertied country gentleman. Howitt probably drew on his upper-class connections to land sketching and engraving assignments for Sporting News—England’s premier sporting magazine—a credential which no doubt got him Williamson’s attention and the commission for which he is best known.
It takes no deep insight to discover the book’s first categorical deception: anatomical absurdities and errors in proportion abound in Howitt’s watercolors. Howitt had never been to India. His brush, and his vision—trained on bucolic English oddities like bat fowling, heron hawking, and badger hunting—were clearly overwhelmed by Williamson’s descriptions of the tropical jungles of East India. Howitt’s elephants are gamboling, cuddly mastodons. His buffaloes—in an attempt to observe ferocity in an ungulate—are stegosaurian. There is no evidence, either, that Howitt had tried to hone his craft, and to ameliorate his ignorance, by visits to menageries in London (two of the most prominent of these, the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London, and Polito’s Royal Menagerie, stocked with Indian animals, would during these years inspire the paintings of the future Victorian icon Edwin Landseer).
Howitt’s shoddiness taints Williamson’s text as well, because it’s clear that the ignorant and inexperienced artist was permitted to influence the writing. It was on Howitt’s prompting that Williamson stressed “the absence” in India “of those restrictions regarding preservation, so rigid in England.” Besides, Williamson does little to bring his allegedly vast Indian experience to bear in dispelling any of the popular misconceptions of his time. The tiger, Williamson reports, finishes off its prey in “an operation similar to that of a hammer . . . raising [its] paw and bringing it down with such force as not only to stun a common sized bullock . . . but often crushing the bones of the skull.” It is clear that Williamson had never observed a tiger make a kill.
Shikar—as colonial era hunting, especially of the tiger, came to be called even in English—took on an especially malignant intensity when the Indian royals, who were all beset by social, racial, and political insecurities, entered the field. The Maharaja of Udaipur hunted and killed at least a thousand tigers. Other royals claimed even higher tallies. But, in terms of the truly obsessive and spectacular, Nripendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar (a small kingdom in northeast India), was second to none. His hunting diary—Thirty-seven years of Big Game Shooting in Cooch Behar, the Duars and Assam. A Rough Diary (1908)—is a fastidious testament to how many Indian royal families sought to soothe their insecurities by a mindless oversubscription to European fashion.
Nripendra’s ancestors had acceded early to the British. For almost a century, Cooch Behar had languished as a backward, outlying protectorate of the Bengal presidency. By Nripendra’s generation, however—encouraged in no small part by direct communications from the British royal family and by mingling with visiting British nobility—many Indian ruling families had begun to see themselves as stakeholders in British rule and had begun to eagerly imbibe European mores and culture. Prince Nripendra was educated as a ward of the British Governor of Bengal. He was tutored in British law and custom and then sent to England. All this grooming produced only a wide-eyed courtier who measured his self worth by the infrequent honors and invitations doled out by the courts of Victoria and Edward VII. It also showed him the one foolproof way to gain popularity in the upper echelons of Victorian society: in shikar circles, Cooch Behar became the byword for the best organized and most elaborate hunts in the British Empire.
Nripendra’s patrimony included more than a thousand square miles of pristine wilderness—a marshy Eden that borders the present-day sanctuaries of Manas and Kaziranga. His shooting camps were luxurious “little towns of canvas” which, for thirty-seven years, played host to viceroys, earls, counts, rajas, and princes from all over Europe, and British officers from around the Empire. He hunted in all seasons, breaking only for the months of the monsoon. But Cooch Behar was principally marshland, a vast floodplain for the mighty Brahmaputra, with the grass often rising fifteen feet high. In addition, there was fasan, quicksand, an “insufferable nuisance to sportsmen.” To counter these inconveniences, Nripendra employed methods that gave Cooch Behar’s hunts their signature distinction.
Nripendra’s guests hunted from the backs of elephants, expensive and massive tuskers chosen for their steadiness and courage and often already tested in Nepal, where elephant fighting was a popular sport amongst the nobility. The battues that Nripendra arranged—hundreds of beaters thrashing the bushes and the grassland, and elephants crashing through dense jungle—evoke the parallel of an infantry advancing under the protection of armor. The terrain was sifted and scoured, with the shikar elephants advancing, sometimes twenty yards apart, beating through the same piece of grassland up to four times, flushing everything but the smallest of mammals. Sometimes the game was driven towards a stationary line of elephants, separated by as little as five yards and backed up by a strategic arrangement of stops to account for the game that made it through the line. Tigers, leopards, bear, gaur (Bos gaurus, the Indian bison), buffalo, deer (the barasingha, the twelve-pointed swamp deer), rhino, large pythons—almost anything flushed from the grasslands was shot.
In Nripendra’s bleak hunting diary, very few animals escape. Every creature mentioned is either already dead or will soon be dead. Tigers were the most sought after, but opportunities to admire the sublime idealistic beauty of the big cats were rare and fleeting. Instead of awe—in the only breaks from the record-book monotone of the Diary—we get tasteless amusement at some desperate and unnatural eccentricity of a doomed animal. After one hunt in 1885, Nripendra records, “We bagged a tigress and two cubs . . . one of the latter giving great fun.” At another shoot, a tiger shot multiple times “performed a ridiculous kind of war dance, first on his head and then on his feet, before we finished him.” Genuine exultation is reserved only for record-sized game—in the case of the tiger, anything approaching five hundred pounds or ten feet in length. Modest-sized game were judged by their “sporting qualities”: their aggression, their canniness, or the amount of gunfire they could absorb before succumbing.
The map of Cooch Behar from the time shows around a hundred hunting camps, some only a few miles apart. But nothing suggests an entire kingdom and its machinery turned into an instrument of sport more than Nripendra’s use of khubber, intelligence. Each day’s itinerary was determined by khubber, gathered and sorted by the king’s hunters. This reliance on intelligence lends to these outings the aura of huddled stealth one would normally associate with a military operation. In a previous age, a khubberia (an informant) might have arrived at the palace or the hunting camp with grave news about an enemy’s incursion or with a report on the extent of damage from some natural disaster. But now the only intelligence the king sought pertained to the movement of game around his kingdom. The khubberia arrived with news about cattle lifters, or an attack on a human, or with reports of the low moaning call of a tigress in estrus—an event predicting the arrival of large male suitors to the area. The khubber, matched against the requests of the king’s guests, determined the strategy for the day.
My undergraduate days in the 1980s were spent in the South Indian city of Mysore, the old princely capital of the kingdom of Mysore and, until independence, the seat of the Wodeyars, the kingdom’s ruling family. Mysore is also a couple hours’ drive from Bandipur, Mudumalai, and Nagarhole, three tiger sanctuaries which, sharing borders, represented a sylvan petri dish of habitat preserving a sample of what, a century earlier, had been a vast forest encompassing the tropical hilly regions of the Nilgiris, Coorg, and Wynad, flowing into the drier scrub jungles of the old Kingdom of Mysore. During these years reports in the local press of poachers captured with tiger pelts were hardly uncommon.
One of the highlights of those college years was making the acquaintance of Ullas Karanth, who would go on to become one of India’s leading tiger conservationists. At the time, however, Karanth was only a local figure. Intense, moustachioed, and boundlessly energetic, he was a one-man campaign to enlighten my generation on the glories of the wilderness close at hand. He organized birding competitions. He lectured all around town showing slides and film footage of local wildlife. He rallied student volunteers to help with the tiger census in the sanctuaries. About a generation older than the small group of us undergrads who had recently formed a nature club, he was a heroic figure. After taking his degree in engineering, he had somehow found his new—in our opinions, far more worthwhile—passion. We knew little about the bumpy road he must have traveled, nor did we pause to consider it, but he seemed to embody all the suppressed and unrequited idealism simmering just below the surface of our own regimented lives. As we slogged our way through engineering and medical colleges (the only educations worth pursuing, according to the dictates of our own, and our middle-class society’s, insecurities), Karanth’s presence meant more to us than he could ever have imagined.
For years after I left India to attend graduate school in Austin, Texas, I followed Karanth’s career in the Indian press. He had started a radio-collaring program in the tiger sanctuaries, the first comprehensive evaluation of the health of the region’s dwindling tiger population. He had written papers to debunk the primitive method of counting pugmarks, a census method which forest officials could easily manipulate. His work had landed him in trouble with local officials—who were almost certainly in cahoots with poachers—and with the state’s politicians. One accuser had claimed that the radio collars were CIA devices communicating directly with American satellites.
A decade passed before I met Karanth again. He was now an internationally known, and well-funded, conservationist, a reputation that had moved him out of the reach of many of the corruptions and failings of the Indian establishment. We met at his upscale apartment in Bangalore. He had lost none of that steely intensity, and I felt a return of that old admiration as I drank in his mini-lecture about the state of the Indian wilderness. He told me that the only way to measure the health of the Indian jungles was by the health of the tiger—its top predator. Towards the end of our meeting—perhaps repeating a statement he had made often to the press but which to me sounded like the wise synthesis of decades of careful thought—he said, “2 percent, that’s all we need, 2 percent of the land to be set aside for the tiger.”
The image of human dominance over the tiger maintains a powerful hold on the British and Indian imagination, however, in part because of the stories, paintings, and photographs associated with it. Of the thousands of extant photographs and paintings of the colonial posing over his tiger, one of the most perfect—of Lord and Mary Curzon—is also the most revealing. A complex historical character—too complex to summarize here—Lord Curzon has been called the last imperial viceroy. When he took office in Calcutta (then the Indian capital) on a January morning in 1899, colonialism was at its unchallenged peak. The imperialist purpose had never been more unquestioned, never seemed so infallible. Britain’s relationship to her “jewel” was that of an enlightened parent to her dependent child. And few men were able to imbue the imperialist point of view with loftier ideals than Curzon.
India, that empire within an empire, that supreme test of our dominion and race . . . It is part of the dispensation of a higher power which for some good purpose . . . has committed the fortunes of these hundreds of millions of human beings to the custody of a single branch of the human family . . . [The empire] is with us. It is part of us. It is bone to our bone and flesh to our flesh . . . We cannot deny our own progeny. We cannot disown our own handiwork.
Lord and Lady Curzon in Camp, Warangal District, Hyderabad.
Curzon left his paternal mark on India. He charted reform and modernization in government and civil administration, which in many cases survives unchanged to this day. He traveled, with great ceremony but tirelessly, around the subcontinent. He was a crusader in the cause of restoring India’s historical monuments. His intimate involvement in the minutiae of his job was legendary. He personally chose a lamp to improve the lighting inside the Taj Mahal.
More than a century old, this iconic photograph looks like it could have been captured yesterday. Such was the technical excellence of the pioneering and celebrated Indian photographer Lala Deen Dayal, who was often in the employ of the Nizam of Hyderabad, the province in which this shikar was conducted. Indian nationalists at the time might have scoffed at the photograph. Semioticians today may point out its banality: what it reveals, they might say, does not surprise, does not constitute an exposé. Nonetheless, it is a striking historical artifact with whorls of concealed meaning.
What is not concealed is the raw charisma of the viceregal couple. Curzon had an imposing presence and was photogenic with movie-star good looks. In his early forties, he was India’s youngest viceroy and was married to a beautiful American heiress. Together, they are magnetic: she, slim-waisted and exquisitely delicate and feminine with that coy tilt of the head, and he, the brawny epitome of commanding masculinity. Together—and not just by the exceptional conjugal camaraderie suggested by her presence, if not participation, on such an adventure—they seem to exceed the sum of their individual auras.
The dead tiger impresses by its bulk, the only thing it has left to impress us by. It is indeed an animal worthy of a viceregal hunt, so padded with muscle and fat that one is almost certain a few buffalo had been sacrificed to it in the months preceding Curzon’s attentions. Many components of the photograph—and this is what makes it so “successful”—from the residual ferocity emanating from the gaping dead beast to the luxurious dhurrie on which the future trophy rests, serve only to augment the stature of its human hunter. Even the lack of clutter in the picture—that the field of the camera has been cleared of the hundreds, if not thousands, of humans engaged for the arrangement of the hunt—serves this end. In the years since I first viewed the picture, it has “grown” before my eyes to reflect the great clarity of its age and to convey the self-assurance of the imperial purpose—it represents imperial pretensions far more simply (what could be simpler than a man and a woman standing over a dead animal?) than images of the most opulent Victorian durbars.
Curzon delighted in tiger hunting. He hunted all around the subcontinent with luminaries of every race. At Cooch Behar he had two memorable shikars with Nripendra Bahadur. He even went hunting with General Kitchener, the commander in chief and his archrival in the affairs of empire. The image Curzon sought to cultivate entailed bruising hardship and challenge. In his indefatigable tiger hunting, Curzon aspired to set a standard as high as the one he sought to establish for paternal governance. But there is something that we now know about Lord Curzon, something that neither Lala Deen Dayal nor anyone else involved in the arrangement of this set piece knew. Only after his death did it become widely known that Curzon had lived in constant physical pain. A series of childhood injuries had broken his body: When he was twelve he fell off a wall. At fourteen he was thrown off a horse. At fifteen, playing football, he broke his collarbone. At eighteen he developed a curvature in his spine. For the rest of his life he wore a steel waistcoat (or, at easier times, a leather vest). That Lord Curzon, protean exemplar of the imperialist, would set so high a price—in valuable time away from the affairs of state, and in the immobilizing pain that kept him in bed for days after—says much, perhaps as much as can be said, about the role of the tiger hunt in Victorian life.
As Indian royalty began to reclaim some of its prestige, and some of its political power, it was obligated to emulate the Victorian passion for shikar. In the 1860s, the British began to take seriously the frequent requests by the Hindu ruling family of Mysore—the Wodeyars—for reinstatement. The requests were sent to England in the hands of sympathetic British officials, accompanied by expensive gifts, and addressed directly to the court of Victoria. History—recent and distant—favored the supplicants. Not only had the pious Wodeyars demonstrated exemplary loyalty, in speech and action, during the recent difficulties of the Mutiny, but history had placed them on the same side as the British during the tumultuous late-eighteenth-century decades when the East India Company had struggled to overcome Tipu Sultan. On May 4, 1799, when British forces had overrun Tipu’s citadel of Srirangapatna (ten miles from Mysore), along with the last few British prisoners Tipu was holding, British troops had freed many members of the Wodeyar family who had been imprisoned for decades.
The Wodeyars were asked to put up a candidate to be the ruler of Mysore. They held up a five-year-old prince—Chamarajendra—who would become the first of three fondly remembered rulers of Mysore. The three Kings of Mysore, who would see the kingdom through to independence, were paragons of sobriety and assiduity compared to many other Indian rulers at the time. British administrators at Bangalore, and the governor at Madras, immediately set into motion a rigorous curriculum of princely and manly education for the future leader. After the boy turned ten, as part of this regimen, he went hunting twice a week.
Royal hunts were cumbersome, time-consuming affairs. In addition, the prince’s weekly itinerary included riding lessons, tennis lessons, polo, cricket, and English and violin classes, all of which were deemed essential for him to mingle with white society. The logistics of arranging a royal hunt twice a week under such restrictions led me to consider the prevalence at the time of big game around the city of Mysore, the layout of the forests close to which I knew well. In response to my inquiries, a librarian at the Oriental Research Institute in Mysore—housed in an elegant building which had been commissioned by Chamarajendra in the 1890s, now the main repository for papers and manuscripts from the Wodeyar era—insisted, without being able to point me to any documentary evidence, that the prince hunted at the Kakankote reserve forest, some thirty-five miles from Mysore. While the Kakankote forests seemed a possibility (and there are many records of grand shikars being organized for visitors of state there), the absence at the time of motorized transport, and even paved roads, made it still, logistically, impracticable for routine hunts.
In approaching the question of Chamarajendra’s hunting lessons, I soon discovered that I had failed to apply the appropriate historical lens. After Tipu—he had died defending the fortress of Srirangapatna—the Empire’s attention, and the Empire’s resources, had turned away from Mysore. For the next seventy years—till the time of Chamarajendra’s reinstatement—the kingdom languished as a backwater. The British ruled the kingdom from their cantonment at Bangalore, where a European town would begin to flourish. Mysore remained a medieval Hindu town, neither expanding nor modernizing. The rare British traveler to Mysore during these decades spoke about a small, dirty town where malaria was endemic and where outbreaks of cholera claimed a seasonal harvest. Most of the town sat on the banks of a lake, Doddakere (literally, large lake). Across the lake, which was no more than a mile or two wide, was dense jungle where, especially in the evenings, herds of wild elephant and bison could be seen coming to water. Residents on the edges of town had to build nightly fences to keep marauding tigers away from their cattle and from their own shacks. The conundrum about Chamarajendra’s hunting had this simple resolution: he would not have needed to travel more than a few miles for his biweekly lessons. For me, this realization was a powerful confirmation of my longstanding disquietude about the retreating wilderness around Mysore.
Setting Priorities for the Conservation and Recovery of Wild Tigers: 2005-2015 (I refer to the 2006 edition published by the WWF and the WCS), produced collectively by the global tiger conservation community, is a massive collaborative effort that attempts to establish a uniform, informed, and technology-savvy method to tiger conservation worldwide. Its occasional sparks of optimism—for instance, the goal of 100,000 wild tigers by the year 2100—seem misplaced in the face of unpredictable politics, natural calamity, poaching, and a preceding decade that had seen a depletion of 40 percent over most of the tiger’s habitat.
The most striking aspect of Setting Priorities, however, is that it makes no mention of the tigers themselves. Instead, it turns their shrinking world into Tiger Conservation Landscapes (TCLs): a Class I TCL, for example, is a “habitat greater than 1,000 square-kilometers that has had periodic surveys over the last 5 years and [has shown] consistent confirmed evidence of tigers over that period.” It is a shift in conservation philosophy from counting tigers to that of the conservation of “tigerness”—a shift which, the authors argue, follows naturally from the accrued experience of decades of conservation efforts. To the nonspecialist reader, however, it might seem far from natural. Such a reader might just as easily take this shift to be a recalibration of goals in the face of abject failure in realizing past goals, or a pragmatism based on an irreversibly disintegrating wilderness. The same reader might detect in the document’s lavish jargon—“Adaptive sampling methods,” “Stratified sampling,” “detection probability,” “dispersal zone,” “Human Influence Index”—the frenzied efforts of passionate and dedicated conservationists in denial.
The prologue of Setting Priorities is by George B. Schaller, a founding father of modern large mammal conservation. In the 1970s, Peter Matthiessen had tagged along on one of Schaller’s expeditions into the Himalayas—a journey that formed the basis for Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard (1978), a haunting, midlife quest for peace of mind after the death of his wife. Schaller and Matthiessen were not chummy travel mates. Matthiessen said about Schaller: “he refuses to believe that the Western mind can truly absorb nonlinear Eastern perceptions, he shares the view of many in the West that Eastern thought evades reality and therefore lacks the courage of existence.” It was the spiritually receptive, and emotionally fragile, writer’s estimation of the impervious scientist. The chairman of the Save the Tiger Fund Council, and the chief author of Setting Priorities, John Seidensticker, closes the two-hundred-page report—which otherwise never wavers from its scientific and factual pitch—with this appeal to an authority that transcends both mystical Eastern and Enlightenment-buttressed Western thought: “a world without tigers is a world without hope—like a clear night sky without stars.”
Each year, over the past years of my immersion in colonial history, I’ve returned to Gopalaswamybetta, a hillock in the old kingdom of Mysore, both for its solitude and for the view it offers of one of the last pristine landscapes in south India. The Kannada word betta is suffixed to the names of many hills in Mysore. The suffix is used rather indiscriminately. Even the most insignificant hillock—and the Mysore plateau is dotted with inselbergs—might, on the insistence of local farmers, carry this designation. Gopalaswamybetta—a few miles off the halfway mark on the highway that runs between Mysore and Ooty—may not seem impressive if one has already caught glimpses of the hulking Nilgiris ahead. Rising a few hundred meters off the farmland leading up to it, however, it is no ordinary hill. It lies within the Bandipur tiger sanctuary—parked like a watchtower on the northern border of a Class I TCL of “global priority” with a “high conservation effectiveness score.”
One corner of the grassy knoll at the top of Gopalaswamybetta is taken up by the omnipresent hilltop temple. The temple is not well known; most of the vehicles that drive up the extra miles from the highway are drawn to the view. Across the knoll from the temple, a trail leads into the tree-clad Bandipur sanctuary. During my favorite time of year, late into the monsoon season, the sanctuary resembles a verdigris lake flowing into the horizon, with light flashing off its edges on the slopes of the Nilgiri mountain range twenty miles away. More than once I’ve watched bison feeding at the trailhead. The bison of the region used to be of legendary size. In 1902 Lord Curzon had hunted for a bison trophy less than a dozen miles from that spot.
If one turns one’s gaze even a few degrees in any direction from the lushness of the sanctuary, the contrast can be disorienting. The rest of the view consists of treeless farmland, scratched at regular intervals with patches of red tile-roofed villages. From Gopalaswamybetta, the forests had once extended in all directions and as far as the banks of the Doddakere lake fifty miles away in Mysore, a lake that has been dry for seventy years now and whose bed, over the past few decades, has played host to cheap, and often illegal, housing. Now, from that same hillock, one can see, as simply as on a line drawing, what remains of Chamarajendra’s patrimony.
Recent estimates claim that there are as many as 250 tigers (almost a sixth of India’s wild tiger population) left in these three conjoined sanctuaries. It is fragmented by villages and resorts and crisscrossed by busy highways, but, in the imagination of conservationists, this “meta-TCL” could someday be returned to its pristine primordial wholeness. Skeptics, however, point to the overpopulation of leopards—skulking out of the forests all the way to Mysore’s suburbs to live off dogs and goats—as one sign that the real figure is far lower. Each year, instead of driving to Bandipur’s park headquarters and joining the line of out-of-state and foreign visitors for whom the park personnel arrange short, escorted wildlife-viewing trips, I’ve come to the betta’s aerie heights to stare through my binoculars at the edges of the quadrant of surviving forest. Of course I always hoped to spot some wildlife that might have strayed out of the confining sanctuary, but I also worried about the frayed edges of the forest line and searched for signs of permanent damage.
When I drove to Gopalaswamybetta last year, however, the betta had lost much of its luster. I had to acknowledge the changing times, but I also realized the pointlessness, even childishness, of my cursory inspections. My optimism had finally been defeated by the misgivings expressed by the authors of Setting Priorities in their use of Landsat satellite imagery. This latest technology to be enlisted in the service of tiger conservation, it turns out, makes no distinction between tiger habitat and “empty forests” or plantations. Also, the betta was no longer a place where one could expect solitude. The Forest Department, recognizing the value of the hill as a viewing spot, had installed a gate at the bottom of the hill and had begun to collect a hefty entrance fee—a step that accelerated its reputation as tourist-worthy. One could expect to flash past tourist cars and SUVs barreling up and down the hill’s road. I knew it was the last time, at least for a while, that I would be returning to the betta. As I drove back to Mysore that day, the sense of loss—which I had tried to assuage each year by trips to the betta—was especially strong. Soon after, I began to write this essay as an expression of that feeling. I had but one consolation after all these decades: I’d finally learned how to read Jim Corbett.
By the time Corbett and his ilk reached for their pens, years after they had dispatched the worst of the shaitans in the early years of the twentieth century, the story of the tiger hunt—almost by ontogenetic necessity—demanded a dramatically, and politically, satisfying conclusion. The countryside that the shaitans had ravaged was destitute and desperate for succor. Once again, the natives were incompetent. All of civilized India withdrew from the scene of terror. The white savior arrived at the impoverished hamlet—many days’ march from civilization—where the residents had stopped tilling their land, stopped leading their livestock out to fodder. The remains of their kin—scraps of bone and clothing—lay ignored in the wilderness around. He led the fearful out of their shacks to collect remains. He led these quaking poor into the jungle to collect firewood to perform quick cremations. Weeping, they fell at his feet. He calmed them before appropriating some livestock and setting out the bait. Then, with thermos and hunting rifle, he waited in the dark.
Colley, Linda. Captives. NY: Pantheon Books, 2002. By reexamining eighteenth-century accounts of Tipu Sultan’s alleged brutalities—in Captives and elsewhere—Linda Colley is one of the historians who has attempted to unshackle this crucial period of colonial history both from the crowing of imperial historians and from the equally biased Indian nationalist accounts which often declare Tipu to be India’s first “freedom fighter.”
Forsyth, Capt. James. The Highlands of Central India. London: Chapman and Hall, 1889. This is arguably the most representative of what amounted to a genre that grew around memoirs, all rich with experiences of the “sporting lifestyle,” from the generations of young Victorian officers who looked forward to “quitting the bondage” of parades and fleeing to the “free life of the forest.” The illustrator of this book, Robert Armitage Sterndale, is perhaps better remembered than Forsyth. Sterndale’s books (also on life in the jungles of central India) were deeply imbibed by a young journalist named Rudyard Kipling, who would later draw from them for The Jungle Book.
Gilmour, David. Curzon, Imperial Statesman. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003. Gilmour’s book is exhaustive, but the much smaller The Glorious Fault: The Life of Lord Curzon by Leonard Mosley (Harcourt, Brace, 1960) is more insightful. A stirring sample of Curzon’s speeches can be found in Subjects of the Day; Being a selection of Speeches and Writings by Earl Curzon of Kedleston, edited by Desmond M. Chapman-Huston (Allen & Unwin, London, 1915).
Ward, Rowland. The Sportsman’s Handbooks to Practical Collecting, Preserving and Artistic Setting-up of Trophies and Specimens. London: Rowland Ward & Co., Seventh Edition, 1894. Rowland Ward was the son of the legendary Edwin Ward who worked with John James Audubon. The company he founded (based today in South Africa) designed and installed dioramas and other complex installations around the world and standardized and popularized the collection of trophies far beyond the Empire. Their myriad publications (Sportsman’s Handbooks, but also “knapsack manuals” and record books) instructed amateurs on every aspect of trophy collecting. From species-specific information on where to deliver the bullet and of what caliber, to field preparation of the future trophy, to an introduction to taxidermal chemicals, to tips to the most remote hunting districts of the Empire, the Ward publications guided beginners and inspired veterans. Of all the “hunting fields” of the world covered by their books, India was a favorite because “the condition [of] British occupation” assured “grand sport” with “seasonable convenience.”
Williamson, Capt. Thomas. Oriental Field Sports; Being a Complete, detailed, and accurate description of the Wild Sports of the East. London: Edward Orme, 1807. It is fitting that this is dedicated to George III. The book’s page-long subtitle (“The Natural History of the Elephant, the Rhinoceros, the Tiger, the Leopard . . .”) can be read as a compendium of the conquests in the natural world that had been concluded under the reign of that monarch. Samuel Howitt was too crude to be considered a real animal painter (especially not in the abutting epochs of George Stubbs and Edwin Landseer), but, as demonstrated by the plates he prepared for The British Sportsman (F.J. Mason, London, 1834), he was an adequate sketcher.