The Kosi Maneaters
The Kosi Maneaters
Sometime in the 1990s, the New Scientist, a British journal that had long been open to my way of thinking, asked a number of scientists what their favorite books are. I had no trouble answering: Good Morning Blues—The Autobiography of Count Basie by Albert Murray; and Maneaters of Kumaon and The Maneating Leopard of Rudraprayag, both by Jim Corbett.
I had learned about Basie, his bands and his music, as well as Corbett’s exploits as the hunter of man-eaters terrorizing hill villagers in northern India, from my father. Basie’s work was the early focal point of my love of jazz; Corbett’s work, with its revelations of the inner workings of the jungle, and the relationships between its denizens and the people of the hills, introduced me to ecology and the as-yet-unnamed science of biodiversity. Together with evolution, these have been my driving passions since I was a teenager in the 1950s.
Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaon was first published in the United States in 1946. I have no idea how a copy managed to find its way to my father’s bookshelf. He was an avid reader, especially of the novels of Nabokov, Updike and other, predominantly American writers. But he also loved nature—taking his older two sons out to fish, collect wild strawberries and generally bask in the outdoors of the many semi-wild places that still survived in Westchester County (NY) in the mid-20th century. My brother and I were as fascinated with Corbett’s exploits as our father had continued to be.
Our father lived a largely vicarious life—in the sense that his travels came mainly through books. And though I had always thought about one day going to the Himalayan foothills of northern India to see the land, the people, the birds, deer—and of course especially the tigers—time slipped by as time will do, without it ever happening. My colleague Kumar Krishna, a termite expert at the American Museum of Natural History, long ago told me of his ancestral home in Dehradun, which turns out to have been a well-kept compound—a true vestige of the British days of the Raj. From there it was less than two hundred miles to Corbett National Park (aka Corbett Tiger Reserve)—India’s first national park (starting out as Hailey National Park in the 1930s, and later renamed for our hero).
We had made a stab at going to Corbett, organizing an ecotourism jaunt to India’s most famous wildlife destinations—only to see it cancelled in the wake of 9/11—the opening event of what was to prove to be a long hard decade of paranoid saber rattling in which our own country played a leading role.
But when an invitation came to speak at a conference in Berlin in early 2011, realizing that it would take us half way to India, my wife and I saw that if the Corbett-inspired pilgrimage were ever to take place, we should seize the moment and go for it. The Krishnas were going to be there at their place in Dehradun, and planned a superb week that saw us spending three nights along the Kosi River in the eastern “buffer zone” that rims the Corbett Tiger Reserve.
All along I had wanted to go to one place where Corbett had actually killed a maneater. Rudraprayag up in the Himalayas seemed ideal—and Kumar had said that would be no problem. “Prayag” refers to the junction of two rivers, in this case the Alaknanda and the Mandakini; not far below Rudraprayag, at Devaprayag, the Alaknanda joins forces with the Bhagirathi to form the Ganges, India’s sacred river. When we landed at Dehradun’s airport, Kumar, his wife Valerie and driver Ravi met us—and whisked us away, not to their home, as expected, but rather to the Ganges, where, turning northwards, we took the main road on the right bank of the river towards Rudraprayag.
Rudraprayag back in the 1920s had few visitors save the bare-foot pilgrims who were on their way to the shrines at Kedarnath and Badrinath—some of whom numbered among the 125 victims of that particularly wily maneating leopard. Though modern vehicles can now get to Rudraprayag and the holy sites that lie beyond it, it still promised to be a rather small and remote destination. But we didn’t have a chance to find out: Turns out the distance was too great and the road too washed out (and in any case apparently closed to traffic below Rudraprayag) for us to make it all the way to and from Rudraprayag that afternoon. We contented ourselves with spectacular views of the cloudy greenish gray waters of the Ganges (its color the product of its ice melt sources, not the infamous pollution that permeates the river down on the plains)—and stopped to gawk at the holy city of Rishikesh, awash with temples and ashrams, their ranks of the devout swollen with westerners as they had been at least as far back as the days of the Beetles.
So, my goal of actually going to a place that lent its name to one of Corbett’s maneaters was stymied at the outset. I wasn’t really sure why I had had this as a goal—or how important it was to me. It just seemed like the thing to do. But going up the right bank of the Ganges had given me the idea of the terrain—so my thoughts shifted over to the trip to Corbett Park.
I had not done my homework. I was ignorant of the topography, geology and geography of the region. I had of course heard of the Shivalik Hills (for Shiva, god of the Himalayas; outside of India, “Siwaliks” is more commonly seen): I’ve been a paleontologist for nearly fifty years—and am well aware of the important fossils that have come from the Tertiary sediments in the Siwaliks—including bones of species intermediate between land-living mammals and actual full-fledged whales, and the fossil primate Ramapithecus. But my work has been focused for the most part on much older fossils—especially marine trilobites hundreds of millions of years older than the Siwalik fossils. So I really did not know much about the Siwaliks—including where they actually were (I had always associated them with Pakistan). It turns out they run along outside and parallel to the Himalayas for a considerable extent in India—and were always thought of basically as the Himalayan foothills. And some impressive foothills they turn out to be—in places rising to an elevation of 4000’.
As we landed at Dehradun, nestled as it is in the valley between the Siwaliks and the Himalayas proper, we had crossed over a heavily forested ridge—apparently devoid of significant human habitation. Looking down, I told myself there were sure to be leopards in there—and sure enough, the Dehradun papers had recently been full of local leopard encounters with the human populace.
Driving to Corbett Park, which lies to the east of Dehradun, we intersected the Siwaliks where the Ganges cuts through, and where Hardiwar, another famous holy city, sits. The route towards Corbett then turns directly eastward and soon we began seeing signs telling us to be careful, as we were passing through a wildlife corridor with, among other things, wild elephants. Sure enough, not long past the first such sign, there was a single magnificent tusker on our left, quite close to the road. A little further on, we began to find small groups of the gorgeous Sarus crane—the tallest flying bird in the world. Wildlife abounds in northern India, and often is found living cheek-by-jowl with the ever-expanding blowsy villages, towns and small cities that dot the route between Dehradun and Ramnagar—the jumping off point to Corbett National Park.
If I hadn’t known the whereabouts of the Siwaliks, or the possibilities of seeing wildlife like elephants en route, I was even more in the dark about Corbett Park itself. I had vaguely supposed that Corbett Park lay outside the mountainous terrain, in mosquito-infested flat grasslands. It turns out that there are indeed some grasslands, and, in season, plenty of malaria- and dengue-fever delivering mosquitoes; but much of the park is in the actual Siwalik Hills. Corbett Park lies in the eastern sector of that same forested series of Siwalik ridges that run, unbroken, between Dehradun and the Tiger Reserve itself.
A couple of months before we left for Germany, and on to India, the Krishnas had begun emailing us reports of the depredations of a man-eating tiger active at Corbett Park starting in November 2010. I at least knew enough about the Reserve to realize that it is immense (some 500 square miles)—and I simply assumed that this tiger was in some remote sector attacking the people of one or two out-of-the-way villages—more or less as Corbett had experienced when there was no Corbett Park.
Wrong again. The tiger was operating, sometimes in daylight hours, on the main road leading from Ramnagar up along the eastern margin of Corbett Park itself. The road is in the “buffer zone” outside the portion of the park where paying visitors are allowed to go (there is an additional, inner “core area” where only government foresters and other caretakers are permitted to go). By the time it was killed in late January, 2011, it had claimed six human lives—possibly seven. When we arrived in the first week of March, it had been dead only a month.
This was far more than we had bargained for: it is one thing to go to a conserved “wild place,” check out the wildlife and maybe catch a glimpse or two of a tiger—all the while taking a look at a far wilder history of maneaters from the previous century. It is quite another to be in a place where maneaters are still operating. The sense of oneself as a routine prey item of at least some of the tigers in the vicinity has a horror all its own—one that I suddenly remembered from reading Corbett’s books as a kid. Kids love dinosaurs—but they are safely dead—and I used to think how great it was that, with the Pleistocene saber tooth cats, cave bears and dire wolves that populated eastern North America safely long gone, nothing is hunting and eating us now.
But, then again, North America lost its last great predatory carnivores only some 10,000 years ago—and our experiences in Corbett, where the “jungle” is actually subtropical woodland at about the same latitude (29-30 degrees north) as Gainesville, Florida, were in an ecological setting, superficially at least, not all that different from home. Since coming back from India in mid-March, 2011, I have looked at the woodlot behind our suburban New Jersey home with a renewed sort of respect. For that matter, we did have a small black bear pass through a year ago—and the deer, skunks, raccoons, and foxes are at levels reminiscent of the “wilder” days of my Westchester youth. With recent addition of what may actually be a new species of wolf/coyote—pack hunters that take down deer, from the Adirondacks south through the Appalachians, the ecological/evolutionary ante has actually been raised since my earlier days.
Nor, of course, are there no other dangers lurking in other wild corners of the world. Elephants are a peril in Africa as well as India. And hippos and old bull buffaloes kill far more people than lions do each year in Africa.
And then there are the snakes—of which Corbett Park has a particularly horrific selection. When I asked about the huge, aggressive king cobras, I got a glassy stare from one of the guides sitting in the front seat of the safari vehicle. I was told that they are rarely seen except in the rainy season—when the Park is shut down to tourism because the nullahs, normally dry watercourses that cut across the terrain, become raging torrents and make the roads impassable. He told me that, of the two king cobras seen the previous year, one was in the commissary of a hotel. It was 12’ long. There are also “normal size” Indian cobras, the smaller kraits (which kill more people than any other kind of snake, as they lie in the dust and go largely unnoticed, until they strike a barefooted passerby), and Russell’s vipers—the “speckled band” of the Sherlock Holmes story.
Dangers abound—but death by snake, by elephant, by rhino, buffalo and hippo—are all accidents: someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even death by tiger often occurs by accident: in a famous incident in Corbett in 1985, a British birder, leading a tour in the Dhikala area, within sight of the rest stop, hopped out of the car to pursue a bird and accidentally disturbed a tigress who was lying down with her cubs. With one swat, she broke his neck—and no one is allowed out of their vehicle anymore.
But some tigers do track, stalk and kill--hunt—humans for food. Jim Corbett, pointing out that humans are not a usual staple of a tiger’s diet, used to swear that it was almost always a matter of injured or old and sick animals who became man-eaters: tigers with suppurating sores formed around porcupine quills, or with debilitating gun shot wounds, or with broken teeth and other injuries accrued during a long life making a living and just plain surviving in the jungle. Some, though, had their cubs hunting for them—and some maneaters (especially leopards) were thought to have developed a taste for human flesh after great epidemics, when so many people died that there was no way to provide the full Hindu rites of cremation for all of them: at such times in the hills, a glowing ember was placed in the mouth, and the body simply sent over a ravine where the wildlife would of course encounter them.
On the other hand, large cats have been consuming primates—including species in our hominid ancestral lineage, for millions of years. Bob Brain convincingly showed a few years back that some of the fossil bones of one of our australopithecine progenitors excavated at Swartkrans, an old limestone cave in South Africa’s Transvaal, had been killed by leopards; their remains had apparently fallen from the tree where they had been stashed above an opening to the cave system. These early hominids were, in Brain’s opinion, the hunted, not the hunters.
The real question, then, is why are humans not--or at least no longer—a regular item in the diets of leopards, tigers, and lions? The answer, of course, is that over the course of hominid evolution, we turned the tables and became the hunters. Nor is it just a matter of our not tolerating being eaten any longer by large cats (though the tolerance of officialdom for the recent killings at Sundarkhal Village at Corbett Park belies a certain indifference to the fates of the poor villagers in face of the task of saving the big cats themselves)—prompting us to grab our modern weaponry and destroy the maneating culprit. The tables were turned long before guns were invented.
In Africa, where our own species eventually emerged, just watch a single file procession of humans crossing the savannah on a game trail. The herds of wildebeest, zebra and other herbivores simply seem to melt away: our transition to hunting (while of course retaining gathering) happened at least 2 million years ago when the earliest species of Homo first appeared. Africa has lost far fewer of its species of large mammals than any place else on earth—and I think the reason must be that we and our immediate ancestors, as increasingly efficient hunters, grew up with Africa’s wildlife—they adjusting to us as we were learning to hunt them.
Consider, in contrast, what happened when the several waves of hominids leaving Africa for Eurasia, and eventually for points beyond, began around a million years ago. Especially dramatic is the story of the diaspora of our own species, arriving in locales increasingly distant from Africa in earnest perhaps 40,000-50,000 years ago. Invariably, whenever and wherever Homo sapiens showed up, large mammals, including carnivores, immediately began to disappear—to the point of outright extinction. My favorite example lies in the mute, yet eloquent, testimony of the “footprint fauna” discovered recently along the shoreline of Bahia Blanca in northeastern Argentina. The huge deep footprints, with the unmistakable claws of the big toe of Megatherium—gigantic bipedal ground sloths—made me feel I was still in their presence, far more than seeing their bones mounted in a museum display—yet they are utterly, irrevocably extinct. As are the species of horses, mastodons, glyptodonts (giant versions of armadillos) and many other species of mammals and birds whose trackways intersect in a riot of ancient mudflat diversity. “Pug marks” galore!
Among these trackways are a few distinctly human footprints—in one dramatic instance extending into a trackway parallel to the tracks of a lumbering Megatherium. The trackways at this one particular spot along the beach are dated at ca. 12,500 years—the usual date given for humans showing up in large numbers—not only in South America, but the New World in general.
A little further up the beach, a younger layer also bearing footprints is exposed—this one dated at ca. 7500 years ago. By now, human footprints are in profusion—and far the most common species recorded by their feet. In fact, there is no evidence of the Pleistocene megafauna there: the only other footprints belong to rheas (the South American “ostrich” still living, if endangered, in the vicinity) and a cloven-hoofed mammal—possibly belonging to guanacos, who also maintain a tenuous existence in the pampas-turned-farmlands of this sector of Argentina.
That the Pleistocene megafauna is thoroughly extinct—beastly dead—in the Americas goes without saying (though there are occasional fantasies of Megatherium still holding out on the margins of the Pantanal marshy grasslands rimming the eastern Andes; Charles Darwin heard those rumors when he arrived in Bahia Blanca in 1832). That the demise of all these species is correlated with the arrival in force of human beings starting 12,500 years ago is also without question—though whether we hunted each of them down, one by one ‘til there were no more, or if our arrival set off other shockwaves of ecological disturbance that also played their roles, there is little doubt that we would still have mastodons and mammoths in our “New Jersey” woodlands had humans not arrived.
One of the great ironies in biological evolutionary history is that Charles Darwin, who started thinking about evolution in earnest in 1832 as a 23 year old fledgling paleontologist as he explored the fossil outcrops, laden with the bones of extinct megafauna (and rodents—the most crucial of his evidence) that lay just a few tens of kilometers westward where the Beagle had anchored along the Bahia Blancan shoreline, never saw those footprints. This was nearly three years before he reached the Galapagos. Darwin returned home convinced of the truth of the suggestion of the Italian geologist Giambattista Brocchi: that the births and deaths of species are analogous to the births and deaths of individuals, and that both are explicable in terms of natural causes. Darwin also agreed with Brocchi that species, like individuals, die natural deaths of old age, unless accidentally cut off before by some environmental event or other. Had Darwin seen those two sets of prints lying just eastward along the beach, I feel pretty sure he would have seen that the extinction of the megafauna was indeed an environmental cataclysm—at the hand of man.
And so riding in an open vehicle along dirt roads in a game park anywhere in the world will reveal less diversity—especially of those large and impressive mammals—than can still be seen in Africa. This is as true of Corbett Park, rich as it is in birds and mammals, reptiles and amphibians, fish (the much sought after giant Mahseer still attract fishermen from all over the world long after Jim Corbett’s day), insects and, of course, plants (Corbett marveled over the profusion of orchids when he was hunting the Mohan maneater). We are lucky to see this before it all, inevitably, goes.
Six iconic Corbett species. Tiger (Courtesy Sanjay Chhimwal); Langur monkey; Rhesus monkey; Crested Kingfisher (Courtesy Sanjay Chhimwal); Jungle Fowl; Kaleej Pheasant (Courtesy Sanjay Chhimwal).
"Tiger food": left to right, male Chital (spotted deer); Kakar (barking deer); female Sambhar
Ramnagar, in the southeast corner of Corbett Tiger Reserve, is the administrative seat of the Park itself. From there, you can go west and enter the relatively new tourist area of Jhirna. For the rest, you take the road north along the Kosi River, passing by the Amdanda gate leading into the Bijrani game drive area, and heading on up towards the village of Garjia. On the way you see some tethered elephants at roadside, waiting for tourists to take a ride—or perhaps to be used in an old-fashioned tiger shoot: the old way for princes, politicians and visiting hunters to bag a tiger was to use beaters to herd the animal toward a waiting group of elephants, the hunters safely ensconced in the howdahs on the elephants
’ backs, well out of reach of even an angry tiger. Corbett hunted afoot.
Most of the hotels are right around Garjia—as was the Forest Rest House where Jim Corbett slept (on the grounds outside) on his way to hunt down the Mohan maneater. Garjia had been the furthest south that the Mohan maneater had claimed a victim.
A few miles further along is the small village of Sundarkhal—site of the most recent maneater killings. Mohan lies just a few miles still further on to the north—where the river, in map view, swings eastward in a big arc—leading to the region where the Mohan maneater had made its first kill on the cliffs above the Kosi, and where it finally was put down near the town of Kartkanoula (now Kath ki Naw) on the ridge on the other side of the river above Mohan.
The Kosi has seen its share of maneaters over the years. Sanjay Chhimwal, our able and affable young guide, in essence explained why this was so: in the dry season, when tourists are about, there is little standing water in Corbett Park. The Kosi on the east and the Ramganga and Mandal Rivers in the north—plus the Ramganga Reservoir formed when the river was dammed up in the 1970s—are the main sources of water. Along with most other species of animal life living along the eastern buffer zone of Corbett Park, the half dozen or so tigers routinely leave the woodlands and, heading east, cross the two-lane highway and go another 100 yards or so to slake their thirst in the Kosi. They do this mainly, though not exclusively, at night. Often they approach the river by coming down the dry nullahs such as the one near Sundarkhal.
After hearing Sanjay talk about this natural collision between wildlife—especially tigers—and humans, we found ourselves after dark having pre-dinner cocktails, sitting outside the hotel restaurant, a roaring fire to our backs (it was still chilly in early March, in Garjia as in New York) and watching a rather riveting film called something like Maneaters of India. The sky overhead was jet black and full of sparkling stars. Just to our left, only about 25 feet away, the Kosi River gurgled away. And then—way late—it hit me: we were crazy to be sitting here watching a film—an artificial, if effective, depiction of a particularly horrific aspect of human/tiger relations—when we were outdoors, literally between the forest and the Kosi—and only a few miles from where a tiger had been killing people, day and night, up to a scant month ago. Come to that, when we were visiting a posh encampment on the eastern edge of the Kruger Game Park in South Africa some years ago, the wait staff would come to everyone’s tent to accompany them to dinner: it seems that a lion had taken a previous guest on her way to dinner only some three months previously.
Yet the tiger was dead—and Sanjay had confirmed that human remains had definitely been found in its stomach. They had shot the right one—despite some strong misgivings by the Project Tiger people and other conservationists whose great priority is the conservation of Corbett’s tiger population. No one seemed alarmed anymore—life had (as Corbett used to report as well) virtually instantly reverted to normal as soon as the tiger had been killed. No longer were people afraid—and they walked the road, day and even at night—and ventured into the forests to cut grass and gather leaves from the curry trees.
The second victim (December, 2010) had been a woman working in a small party alongside a nullah on the eastern side of the road. She had been collecting curry tree leaves when she was attacked from behind and dragged off—just as Corbett had described the initial attack of the Mohan maneater.
It took the deaths of six people finally to see the governmental authorities take some concerted action. The people of Sundarkhal are poor peasants—and there is a dearth of electricity, hence running water and decent sanitation. The people eke out a living from their crops and livestock—and take firewood, fodder for their animals and some comestibles from the forest which is mostly across the road to the west in the Corbett Park buffer zone.
Images of Sundarkhal Village where the killings took place. Kosi River and Himalayas in background
Reading the desultory and often conflicting newspaper reports perspicaciously gathered by Valerie Krishna before we arrived, and supplemented by online postings read later, there was much confusion surrounding these events. For starters, was this the work of one tiger or two?—for gauging the sex and age of the animal by examining its paw prints—its “pug marks”—which old Jim Corbett used to do with, he claimed, a high frequency of accuracy, is a skill apparently mastered by few in the modern world. From the pug marks, the tiger who had made the initial killings was generally thought to have actually been a tigress. Not so, though, said others—and doubts arose if there really was maneating going on, and, if so, not only if the culprit was male or female—but even if possibly two tigers indeed were involved.
Some indignant writers to newspapers said the people of Sundarkhal had no business being in the park in the first place—and that being there was provocation enough for a tiger to kill. But these locals were no city-slicker birdwatching guides accidentally stumbling on, and enraging, a protective mother. They were being stalked. And they were being eaten.
I’ve seen the pictures.
And as far as their “right” to be there, and to harvest what they need from the forest to maintain their rather modest economies, well, villagers have “always” been there. Besides, as one Sundarkhal man was quoted as having rather eloquently put it to a newspaper reporter: “Are we not people too?” So the discussion over the maneater’s sex and age quickly turned into a fight over whether or not the State should rid the people of the maneater or not; and, if so, how to do it. There is a large tiger cage perched at the side of the road at Mohan, that village just to the north of Sundarkhal that had already lent its name to one of Jim Corbett’s tigers. It was pressed into service—with the thought that the tiger could be released elsewhere—but to no avail.
Finally, in late January, a young man who had been riding on a motorbike during the day, stopped on the side of the road. Evidently going to the bushes to relieve himself before visiting relatives in the village, he was actually walking along a known tiger path. He was attacked, dragged off down very close to the river, and eaten. By the time he was found the next day, all that was left was the lower “portions” of his two legs. The tiger was lying up, as tigers will, nearby.
I am told (by Sanjay—my most excellent informant) that the field where the young man had been killed—as well as the area near the Kosi where the tiger had eaten his body—had been covered with lantana bushes—an “alien invader” plant that has long plagued India. Unlike most such invasive species, though, much of the wildlife seems quite comfortable with these lantana thickets—tigers the more so because it provides excellent cover. That’s how this particular tiger got to stalk some of its victims by day—unseen. And that’s how the body lay hidden with its killer—until a determined effort was made to find it. By the time we saw this field, it was wide open: the people of Sundarkhal, understandably if belatedly, had removed all the lantana in February.
After the killing of the young man, the people turned to the streets. Literally. Poor people the world over have little or no political power. But these villagers realized that the economic lifeline of the eastern region of Corbett Park—where virtually all tourists who come from Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, London and New York—must pass, is not the Kosi River, but rather the narrow two-lane strip of road that separates Sundarkhal and the Kosi from the eastern forested margin, the “buffer zone,” of Corbett Park.
So they took to the streets and shut that road down. Power to the People!
And it worked. The next day, mahouts and shooters rode seven elephants to that spot of lantana in that field just beyond Sundarkhal—and one of the shooters shot the tiger. And yes, the tiger was indeed male; and yes, some of that boy’s body still lay inside that tiger’s stomach.
The tiger shot dead, January 27, 2011. Photos courtesy of Sanjay Chhimwal
That would be that—but it is literally never over ‘til it’s over. A week after we left, arriving home weakened with “Delhi-belly,” we heard from Valerie and Kumar. A woman had been attacked in the same place—and was hospitalized in Ramnagar. The next day, we heard—and Sanjay instantly confirmed via email—that a man had been killed. He was also a Sundarkhal villager.
Once again the villagers shut down the road—not waiting this time for more people to be killed. They marched south along the road—past our hotel and, much more significantly, past the hotel where international guests had gathered for a meeting of Project Tiger—to celebrate the success of tiger conservation efforts at Corbett Park and elsewhere in India—preparatory to the March 29, 2011 New York Times announcement that 20% more tigers are now living in India than five year’s ago census had revealed. Justly famed wildlife biologist and conservationist George Schaller is reported to have been among those guests thwarted from attending the day’s celebratory meeting by the justly-inflamed throng of villagers once more clamoring for action to be taken.
So there had been two tigers after all. After hearing nothing more for a week or two, I wrote Sanjay. He told me that that trap lying beside the road in Mohan had been once again pressed into use. The tiger was captured unharmed—and has presumably been released—far, one hopes, from its Sundarkhal beat along the highway and the Kosi River.
And the “beat”—literally and figuratively, goes on. What caused this marauding pair to start killing and eating people? No one, of course, is sure. Both tigers were apparently in the prime of life and quite healthy when they embarked on their new careers. Sanjay tells me that there is some speculation that the first victim was actually a mentally disturbed woman who habitually roamed the highway, day and night. India is no different from New York in that regard: it tends to ignore its mentally ill population—who are often released onto the streets and left to their own, often all too inadequate, devices. One day in late 2010, this woman simply disappeared. Her body was never found.
And, of course, I had been right to be a bit alarmed when it finally dawned on me that we were sitting between tigers and their drinking water as we watched that maneating thriller on the movie screen. More right than I knew, of course, because there still was a maneater in the neighborhood.
We saw Sundarkhal, the field where the boy was killed and eaten, and the nullah beside which the second victim was killed—the woman out with her friends to collect the leaves from the curry tree—one beautiful afternoon en route to Mohan and beyond. That trip, more than anything else, united the recent horrors with Jim Corbett and his story of the Mohan maneater.
Cliffs, sometimes hundreds of feet high, composed of the light tan sedimentary rocks of the Siwaliks, occur all along the eastern bank of the Kosi River. They are clearly visible from our hotel—and excitedly (but once again wrongly) I felt that these might be the very ones that figure in the opening lines of Corbett’s saga of the Mohan Maneater. True, that tiger had killed as far south as Garjia (where we were)—but the cliff in this incident was further to the north and east. Yet those cliffs alone were redolent of the drama—even if they weren’t exactly those very same cliffs Corbett was talking about.
Corbett’s Kosi cliffs were the vertical drop-off from a grassy slope where, in the by now familiar scenario, a group of women were out cutting the delicious grass used as fodder for their livestock. A tiger “suddenly appeared in their midst”—and in the ensuing hub-bub, an older woman lost her footing and disappeared over the cliff.
Corbett has occasionally been criticized for seeming a bit, shall we say, overdramatic in his descriptions—perhaps occasionally embellishing a bit here and there for the sake of his story line. In retrospect, I find that The Mohan Maneater is really one of his very best yarns—if the vignettes I so clearly remember from my boyhood reading are any indication. Perhaps these vignettes are rendered a bit vivid by his writerly legerdemain. One such was this opening scene along the Kosi, with the woman falling over the cliff.
She did not plunge to her death hundreds of feet below in the river bed. Instead, her fall was quickly broken (as, unfortunately, was one of her legs and some of her ribs) as she landed, rather miraculously, on a narrow ledge “some distance below” the cliff edge. The rest of the women started to leave for their village to get help—but the injured woman called out and begged that someone stay behind with her. That someone who volunteered was a 16 year-old girl.
When the rescue party arrived, they found the injured woman and a few splashes of blood. Nothing else. The injured woman said they had been talking in whispers, but
“suddenly, gave a gasp and the girl, seeing the look of horror on her face, and the direction in which she was looking, turned her head and over her shoulder saw the tiger, stepping out of the rift in the cliff onto the ledge…… little imagination is needed to picture the scene. A rock cliff with a narrow ledge running partly across it and ending in a little depression in which an injured woman is lying; a young girl frozen with terror squatting on the ledge, and a tiger slowly creeping toward her; retreat in every direction cut off, and no help at hand.” And “…all that was left of the brave young girl…were a few bits of bone and her torn and bloodstained clothes.”
Great stuff! I doubt anything near as good was published in the men’s adventure magazines of the mid-twentieth century. Yet Corbett’s story, as sensational, heart-rending and terrifying as it is, nonetheless carries an aura of verisimilitude that is hard to deny. No wonder I was enthralled as a teenager in the 1950s.
But there are other memorable moments in this story of the Mohan maneater—phrases and scenes that have kept coming back to me long after I had forgotten precisely from which Corbett saga I had gotten them. Take for instance “and as the moon was up and light good enough to avoid stepping on snakes…” Yikes!!! More than once I have thought of this line as I trudged from the canteen back to my sleeping tent in safari destinations around the world—or for that matter in the Adirondacks where (at least where I tend to be) there are no poisonous snakes whatever to be feared.
A biographer has said that Corbett himself was deathly afraid of snakes—and felt he had to kill one to ensure success each time he set out on the tracks of a maneater. Indeed, his story of the Kanda maneater—another destination within the modern Corbett Park boundaries, just above the Ramganga River, to the west of Kartkanoula near where he finally shot the Mohan tiger, begins with just such a tale—a particularly horrific story that shows, if anything, that Jim Corbett was on occasion at least borderline certifiable. He spotted a 13’-14’ long hamadryad (king cobra) drinking in a small pool at the bottom of a little nullah. Corbett writes:
“It was the most beautiful snake I had ever seen. The throat, as it faced me, was a deep orange red shading to golden-yellow where the body met the ground. The back, olive-green, was banded by ivory-colored chevrons, and some four feet of its length from the tip of its tail upwards was shiny black, with white chevrons.”
“One hears many tales about hamadryads, their aggressiveness when disturbed, and the speed at which they can travel. If, as it seemed about to do, the snake attacked, up or down hill I should be at a disadvantage, but across the shale scree I felt that I could hold my own. A shot at the expanded hood, the size of a small plate, would have ended the tension, but the rifle in my hands was a heavy one and I had no intention of disturbing the tiger that had showed up after so many days of weary waiting and toil. After an interminably long minute, during which time the only movement was the flicking in and out of a long and quivering forked tongue, the snake closed his hood, lowered his head to the ground and, turning, made off up the opposite slope.”
Whew! A close call, an attack by a king cobra, narrowly averted! All’s well—but wait, is it really? No! Corbett’s reckless obsession took control, and…
“without taking my eyes off him I groped with my hand on the hillside and picked up a stone that filled my hand as comfortably as a cricket ball. The snake had just reached a sharp ridge of hard clay when the stone, launched with the utmost energy I was capable of, struck it on the back of the head. The blow would have killed any other snake outright, but the only, and very alarming, effect it had on the hamadryad was to make it whip round and come straight towards me. A second and larger stone fortunately caught it on the neck when it had covered half the distance between us, and after that the rest was easy….I was elated at having killed the snake. Now, for the first time in many days, I had a feeling that my search for the man-eater would be successful.”
I wonder if Sandy Koufax or Mariano Rivera could have thrown not one, but two, stones so accurately under such conditions. And with such deadly force. Yet that is Corbett’s story—and I guess I believe it, perhaps simply because I am caught up in it, or maybe just want to believe it. I am, I confess, a fairly gullible person. Believe it or not.
The snakes Jim Corbett avoided stepping on in the moonlit nighttime a few years earlier had been in Garjia—the town where our hotel lay between the road and the Kosi River. Turning right from the hotel’s driveway, you soon come to the well-preserved Garjia Inspection House—where Corbett ordinarily would have spent the night after walking with his men the seven miles up to Garjia from the train station in Ramnagar. But Jim Corbett seems to have been a very proper (and by all accounts, fiercely loyal) Brit—despite the fact that he and his kith and ken were “domiciled”—meaning they were born in India and not therefore of the same upper crust formed by the government agents and businessmen who showed up in India for a limited period of time. Corbett had left in haste to pursue the Mohan maneater—and had not had the time to write for, and receive, permission to sleep within the Garjia Inspection House. So, instead, he slept outside on the grounds.
The Inspection Bungalow where Corbett slept en route to Mohan. Right: Cliffs across the Kosi opposite.
During the night he was awakened by the noise of what he thought were stones falling of the cliff across the Kosi River on the other side of the road. The sound bugged him so much, he had to go see what it was—and as the light was sufficient to avoid stepping on those snakes—he crossed the road to investigate. There he found “that the sound was being made by a colony of frogs in a marsh by the side of the road. I have heard land-, water- and tree-frogs making strange sounds in different parts of the world, but I have never heard anything so strange as the sound made by the frogs at Garjia in the month of May.” Corbett’s penchant for describing both the usual—and occasionally the unusual—sounds, sights and even smells of the Indian forests around him enlivens his stories—and even here, we were out-dramatized, as the frogs we heard one March evening at the hotel just down the road along the Kosi—which I so wanted to be those very same frogs that got Corbett to wander across the road in the middle of the night—were, alas, just the local version of tree frogs after all.
Driving past the Garjia Inspection House, it is, at least by Corbett’s reckoning, some twelve miles to Mohan—a distance he covered (again, with his men, who were burdened by his camping equipment, food and accoutrements) in a single morning’s walk. We drove, of course—making frequent stops to see and photograph Sundarkhal village, the spot where the boy was killed and, down by the river, devoured, and also the place on the east side of the road where the second person to be killed—the woman who with her friends were collecting curry tree leaves—was attacked by that first tiger.
We crossed over several “Irish bridges” –small barrages that let water flow over them in the rainy season, but which stem the torrent up to a point allowing traffic to pass over the nullah unless the flow becomes impossibly, impassably high. We saw Mohan from a curve on the hill—perched down along the western bank of the Kosi River—with the hills surrounding it, on one of which lay the village of Kartkanoula (now Kath ki Naw). It was a Saturday, and the roadside bazaar was in full swing—with itinerant merchants selling meats, vegetables, spices, clothing and utensils—the staples of the simple village life of rural India. The nearby houses seemed, if anything, even more modest that those of Sundarkhal; some of them seemed nothing more than mere hovels.
Views of Mohan: from upper left, the Kosi River swings south down toward Garjia.Mohan is at the bend in the river. First ridge of the Himalayas, with the town of KartKanoula somewhere up on the ridge line; scenes of a Saturday market; a typical house in Mohan; and the Durga Devi Gate up in the hills.
We started to climb up the ridge immediately after leaving Mohan—going several miles until we reached the Durga Devi gate into Corbett Park. The forest was dark and dense throughout that climb. It remained so as we entered—this time into a zone that is not marked “tourist zone” on the map, and a place where we apparently did not need to pay a fee or produce our passports—both of which took place before we could enter Jhirna or Bijrani—through the attentive minstrations of Sanjay Chhimwal. At Durga Devi, Sanjay stopped the car and went in to talk to the guys in the small guard house—and in due course someone emerged with a key and unlocked the gate. We were free to go in—only promising we’d be out by 6:00 p.m.
Corbett Park has a good system: no matter which gate you enter, provided that your papers are in order and your fees paid, you line up with the other open field vehicles at the gate—and at the assigned time (once in the morning, once in the afternoon) you drive in. There is a strict limit to the number of cars that can go in through a particular gate in the morning or afternoon. And that number is far smaller than anything you are likely to encounter in Africa’s famous game parks—even in some places in Botswana’s Okavango Delta—otherwise the closest place to Eden that I think still exists on earth. The beauty of this particular afternoon sojourn into the forest through the Durga Devi Gate was that we were the only car we saw the whole time. That and the hypnotic true beauty of the Sal forest that we were quietly driving through.
Sal trees are kind of tall and skinny—and partially deciduous—meaning they tend to drop their leaves in the dry season—towards the end of which we were in. They are highly prized for building, as the trees are straight and their wood is hard. They need protection—and of course, they were indeed protected where we were. It is ironic that Jim Corbett spent 25 years of his life working for the railroads—and part of his assigned tasks, especially early in his career, was organizing labor forces to cut forest timber for rail road ties and for fuel—one of the reasons he became such an ardent conservationist later in life. He saw that the key to the loss of tigers, elephants and other iconic “game” was simple habitat destruction—rather than the admittedly formidable depredations by “sportsmen” (such as himself) and villagers who, by the 1930s, were increasingly armed and dangerous—to the surrounding wildlife—which they took mainly for the “pot.”
The Sal forest road from Kartkanoula (now Kath Ki Naw) down to the Ramganga River
Looking at the Sal forest pictures I shot that day along the Durga Devi route we took, everyone agrees that it looks much more like a typical North American woodland than anyone’s fantasy of what a thick “jungle” should look like—the sort of thing Darwin had been dying to see for years before he finally got to walk through a chunk of the Atlantic Tropical Rainforest when the Beagle arrived in São Salvador da Bahia, Brazil in 1832. Darwin had not been disappointed, writing in his Diary that evening that “the mind is a chaos of delight.” Here, in the northeastern sector of Corbett Park, what we saw were tall trees producing a high, rather thin canopy, not much undergrowth, and lots of leaf litter. The only mammal we saw that afternoon was a kakar—a barking deer, not all that far from the gate, and no longer there when we returned.
Otherwise, we saw tons of birds and some termites—in one instance in a huge nuptial flight that had the birds all excited. We did hear, at one point, the bell of a sambhar deer—warning us (as Jim Corbett was wont to say) of the presence of a tiger or a leopard. Sanjay did not say which.
This was the road—or rather the western extension of it—on which Jim Corbett explored and then staked out a young buffalo—as he closed in on the Mohan maneater. Starting high on the ridge at Kartkanoula, the road goes down in a series of hairpin turns, for miles until it reaches the Ramganga River at the former town of Chaknakl—at the junction of the Ramganga and Mandal Rivers. We crept slowly down along that road, taking those hairpin turns, stopping as the occasion arose for a spot of excellent birding, as the route descended down to the wild Ramganga—home to Mahseer fish, several species of kingfishers—and to the lesser fish eagle we had the great luck to see taking a bath on the Mandal River a few yards upstream from where these two rivers meet.
Corbett's end-paper map of the Kumaon District as modified by Sanjay Chhimwal showing the locations of Sundarkhal (scene of the recent man-eating episodes) and Kath ki naw (modern name of Kartkanoula), where Corbett shot the Mohan maneater. Chhimwal added dashed lines from Kath ki naw to connect with the forest road shown in photos above), leading down to water's edge where the Ramganga and Mandal Rivers meet. Note that Corbett depicted Gargia on the wrong side of the Kosi River. Sundarkhal is also on the western side of the Kosi.
Jim Corbett once said the very greatest pleasure he had from his outdoor life was fishing in wild submontane streams—for Mahseer and other game fish. He wrote “Fish of My Dreams” as a little drop-in essay in his first and most famous book Maneaters of Kumaon. It was the fishing and the fish—but far more than that. There were pythons in the pools, occasional leopards and tigers coming to drink, calls of the wild—and wonderful bird life to behold. Sometimes the action was fraught—fast and furious encounters with large, strong fish who would take the line and reel it off seemingly endlessly—only to have the line go slack in apparent success at having thrown the spoon—then only to find the fish taking off once again after it had rested and regained a measure of strength. But these times were also supremely peaceful as well. And it apparently was here, along the Ramganga just after it merges with the Mandal (see map above)—downstream a bit just below where Corbett killed both the hamadryad and the Kanda maneater, that the entire idea of having a nature reserve—a tiger reserve—apparently came to Jim Corbett and his fishing and hunting buddy, Sir Malcolm Hailey, then the Governor of Uttar Pradesh province.
First named for Hailey, and then, for a time after independence, the “Ramganga National Park,” the park was of course ultimately to become Corbett National Park. Judging by the understated quiet and beauty of the place, it is perhaps easy to see why and how this wonderful protected area came into being.
The Ramganga River at low water in March 2011. "The Fish of my Dreams."
So, once again, it was thrilling on several levels simply to be on that dirt road winding its way down to the Ramganga’s edge. Was this the road, really, that led from Kartkanoula to Chaknakl—the latter village depicted on Corbett’s sometimes inaccurate map as being near the Mandal-Ramganga junction? Chaknakl, it seems, has given way to two other nearby villages. And, if this really was the road, where was Kartkanoula—itself morphed into the still-extant village of Kath ki Naw? For Corbett himself says he explored the deserted road, looking for the tiger, for only a few miles from the village.
Corbett says he could see the Forester’s Hut—where he was to be staying while hunting down the maneater—high on the ridge north and a bit east of Mohan. The dirt track we had been on was indeed part of that old road—but the part that plays such a prominent role in Jim Corbett’s story lay further up the ridge, before the track descends down to the Durga Devi gate, where we had picked it up and gone to the west down by the riverside.
Corbett had checked out that road the day after he arrived at Kartkanoula. He marveled at the white butterfly orchids—with which he said that virtually every other tree had bedecked itself. And he took special interest in his first sightings ever of what turned out to be Mountain Crag Martins—a species of swallow that, he tells us, could fly rings around all others, including the Tibetan swallow that spends the winters in Kumaon.
I had forgotten these tidbits from the story—but one thing Corbett said about that road had stuck vividly in my memory. Corbett’s superstitions—like the need to kill a snake before a hunt for a maneater could come to fruition—seem to have mirrored more those of the local hill villagers than what he had once called the superstitions, presumably including religion, inculcated into British children. And he was convinced he had a sort of sixth sense: he could feel a tiger’s presence, perhaps feel those watchful eyes on him, when a moment before he had felt pretty safe—though aware of the potential danger. Nowhere does this come to the fore more in Corbett’s accounts than one day along that road leading down the ridge from Kartkanoula.
The first time Corbett set out to explore the upper reaches of that road, he soon came upon a large rock, some ten feet high, hanging out over much of the road’s width. From the town side, he could see a small patch of grass on the flat top of the rock; when he returned a bit later up that road, he saw that the top of the rock was not in fact visible from its other side. A perfect place for a tiger ambush.
Corbett had brought two young buffaloes from Ramnagar to serve as bait. One of these he tied out on the road. Twice a day, at dawn and again at dusk, he stalked the buffaloes—finding them either sleeping peacefully or munching the grass he had provided them with. On the fourth evening, after visiting the buffalo on the road:
“…as I came round a bend in the road thirty yards from the overhanging rock, I suddenly, and for the first time since my arrival in Kartkanoula, felt I was in danger, and that the danger that threatened me was on the rock in front of me. For five minutes I stood perfectly still with my eyes fixed on the upper edge of the rock, watching for movement. At that short range the flicker of an eyelid would have caught my eyes, but there was not even this small movement; and after going forward ten paces, I again stood watching for several minutes. The fact that I had seen no movement did not in any way reassure me—the man-eater was on the rock, of that I was sure; and the question was, what was I going to do about it? The hill, as I have already told you, was very steep, had great rocks jutting out of it, and was overgrown with long grass and tree and scrub jungle. Bad as the going was, had it been earlier in the day I would have gone back and worked round and above the tiger to try to get a shot at him; but with only half an hour of daylight left, and the best part of a mile still to go, it would have been madness to have left the road. So, slipping up the safety-catch and putting the rifle to my shoulder, I started to pass the rock.
The road here was about eight feet wide, and going to the extreme outer edge I started walking crab-fashion, feeling each step with my feet before putting my weight down to keep from stepping off into space. Progress was slow and difficult, but as I drew level with the overhanging rock and then began to pass it, hope rose high that the tiger would remain where he was until I reached that part of the road from which the flat bit of ground above the rock, on which he was lying, was visible. The tiger, however, having failed to catch me off my guard, was taking no chances, and I had just got clear of the rock when I heard a low muttered growl above me, and a little later first a kakar went off barking to the right, and then two hind sambur started belling near the crest of the hill.
The tiger had got away with a sound skin, but, for the matter of that, so had I……”
Corbett shot the tiger the next day; after failing to kill and devour our intrepid hero, it had killed the buffalo on the road and dragged him off for a meal. And though Corbett’s final stalking of the tiger is fraught with the usual drama, nonetheless it comes as a bit of an anticlimax that he shot it while it was sleeping the deep sleep of one who has dined fully and well. Corbett himself was sheepish about the tiger’s end—as shooting a sleeping animal is hardly sportsmanlike.
Yet the tiger was a killer of humans, and that was intolerable—so, of course, he shot it where it lay. The tiger barely flinched—and the villagers were put out of their own brand of utter misery.
Corbett is famous for having forsaken his rifles for his cameras. He saw earlier than most that habitat destruction engendered by an expanding economy and an ever-growing human population, coupled with their more or less unfettered slaughter for food and trophies, threatened the existence, not only of tigers, but of all the other living components of these ecosystems of the northern Indian hills.
Long before he died (in Africa—where he and his sister settled after Indian independence), Jim Corbett famously remarked:
“The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and when he is exterminated—as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support—India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.”
In the end, of course, this entire saga—highlighted by episodes both old and new—of deadly encounters between tigers and their human victims+killers, is a simple story of conservation—especially of the pragmatic difficulties in protecting species that, however iconic, produce occasional individuals who like to eat humans.
Man-eating, of course, can only flare up when people and tigers meet. In Corbett’s time, and before and for awhile afterwards, maneating usually occurred in small remote villages—perhaps triggered, as Corbett thought—in most cases by injury, disease or old age diminishing a tiger’s ability to stalk and kill its usual prey. When people show up in large numbers; and when tigers and leopards are being protected and their numbers are steady or even increasing: that’s when there is a dangerous mix. The two tigers who, in tandem or seriatim, claimed the victims from Sundarkhal along the Ramnagar-Garjia-Mohan road in late 2010 and early 2011, seemed to have been perfectly healthy specimens.
The babble of often confused and conflicting rhetoric in Indian newspapers and on the internet sparked by the killings of the Sundarkhal villagers, is in itself fascinating. Most arresting—and disturbing—was the suggestion by some conservationists that the peasants had no right to extract resources from the park—even in the buffer zone where the forest often comes down to the very edge of the road. The attitude too often expressed is that there are already far too many people, and far too few tigers, to take the peoples’ side in this collision between man and beast. Nor was this the attitude simply of wealthier Indians involved in conservation generally, and perhaps in Project Tiger in particular. I heard that very same view expressed, matter-of-factly, by a young woman at a dinner party in New York, not long after getting back from this hypnotically riveting trip.
At heart, I suppose that this is “just” another conservation story—albeit one literally “with teeth.” The real moral of the story is that conservation efforts cannot possibly succeed unless the economic (in this case, amounting to pure physical survival) of the local people, who are almost always there, no matter how remote the setting seems to be to the rest of the world, are explicitly addressed. Imperious orders from afar don’t work—whether in Corbett Park or in the Adirondack Park.
The real hero of this story is Sanjay Chhimwal—and others like him. A young man in his thirties, Sanjay told us he was born and educated locally. His English is excellent; his knowledge of the local fauna and flora superb (he is one of the best birders we’ve ever had the pleasure to be with)—and he knows the story of Jim Corbett as well (which, I am told, is a bit unusual). He is better than I at editing digital maps and sending them via the internet ether half way around the world to an often confused enthusiast wanting to understand where he had just been. Sanjay, more than anyone or anything else, integrates the Corbett world and man-eating events with the current scene on the ground in Corbett Park and in Sundarkhal village.
Sanjay Chhimwal sees both sides of the story. He is working as a guide in the ecotourist industry—so of course has a stake in the success of Corbett Park, Project Tiger, and all other conservation efforts in his domain. But he is also part of an active, knowledgeable population of young, smart, educated local professionals who take up the cause of the tiger while not abandoning the people of which they remain a part—by sharing their deep knowledge at the same time keeping city-slickers from harming, or being harmed by, the wonders they came to ogle—and which they too hope to see conserved.
Coda: "What a Beautiful Place"
We went back to India--and to Corbett Tiger Reserve--in 2012. Our team consisted, as before, of Kumar and Valerie Krishna, and Niles and Michelle Eldredge, but joined now by dear friends and comrades Ian Tattersall and Jeanne Kelly.
We decided to spend a night down the Durga Devi road in a remote tourist encampment along the banks of the the Ramganga. The road, it turns out, had been washed out as it approached the Ramganga crossing. We all had to walk down to the river, and then cross the Ramganga by boat and rock steps--all of us, save one (myself) whose back would not allow such an adventure. So I got to ride an elephant instead.
Kumar walked across the river and up the steep incline to the camp on the far side. He was the last to arrive. His health had not been good, and we were all worried about his state of mind when he showed up, exhausted.
Kumar took a few steps towards the edge of the hill overlooking the Ramganga. None of us will ever forget what he said:
" What a Beautiful Place!"
This is what Kumar saw when he arrived in camp: A Most Beautiful Place:
The photo of Kumar at the head of this essay was taken a few hours later.
That was Kumar. He was the world's foremost expert on termite systematics and evolution. But, far more, he was a wise man of great depth who added much to my own enjoyment and appreciation of life in recent years. Thank you Kumar, for convincing us to come to India--and most especially, for just being you!
I also wish to acknowledge the power of my father, Bob Eldredge's, suggestion that Corbett's India was well worth exploring--in Corbett's writing, of course, but also in person. I am deeply grateful, as well, to my anthropological mentor Marvin Harris, who also loved India, and told me on more than one occasion (after our paths had diverged and I went on to paleontology) that I had nonetheless been having genuinely valuable ethnographic experiences even though I did not formally pursue a career in anthropology. I believe both of these men would have enjoyed this tale of the Kosi Maneaters.