For a Throwback Thursday, we’ll roll the time back 110 year ago, when India was a big-game hunter’s heaven on Earth. Deer and blackbuck antelope, ibex and ram, wild buffalo and gaur, leopard and tiger, the Indian Shikar was the principle jewel in every international hunter’s crown.
Today there’s no hunting in India, as everyone knows. Well, not quite. “Hunting”, in the strict sense of the word, is forbidden by law. But farmers whose crops are damaged by wildlife, can get cull licenses and employ other people to combat the depredations. They say that quite a few fields are only planted to have legit reason to apply for a cull license. Even though gun permits are hard to obtain, there’s still a small but stubborn gunmaking industry, with small shops building double and single barreled shotguns the traditional way. And the game rangers have to track down man-eating tigers and leopards just as Jim Corbett did in the last century.
The hunting ban is there, according to the official version, because Indians used to live in harmony with the nature until the White Man arrived, and taught the Maharajas to hunt for sport. Then the colonizers together with local collaborators destroyed the tigers, leopards and rhinos.
This idyllic vision does not quite explain why, after half a century of hunting ban, the tiger along with a large share of other Indian wildlife, is still endangered. Nor why, under the facade of vegetarian Hinduist paradise, people still have to kill animals – out of necessity and for sport, that’s not always easy to tell apart. And as for how much the official politically correct half-truth matches the historical fact, let’s turn to just one shikar book, Thirty Seven Years of Big-Game Shooting by Sri Nripendra Narayana, the Maharaja of Cooch-Behar (1862-1911).
In Cooch-Behar, Sri Nripendra is still honored as the best ruler of the state ever. His reign saw numerous advances in all areas of life from railroad construction to education and women’s liberation. The only thing that might mar the image of this multicultural and enlightened prince – not in our eyes, of course – was that he was an avid hunter. In the best traditions of the Raj his “shooting parties” featured dozens of elephants acting as drivers and guests included the Viceroys of India. The elephants – “one always requires a line of at least 40 Elephants to do any good in the jungles I have shot over” , he wrote – were a necessity rather than a luxury, as the “jungle he has shot over” is not the rainforest you see in Disney’s Jungle Book cartoons, but a level plain, intersected by a network of rivers and marshes, and covered by grass and reeds tall enough to conceal an elephant!
On a tour to Britain Sri Nripendra became friends with the cream of the British shooting public, headed by the future King Edward VII, and so impressed them with his stories that they persuaded him to publish them as a book. It runs for nearly three hundred pages, covering methodically almost every beast ever bagged by the Maharaja’s shooting parties – a treasure trove for a researcher – but I fear you, dear reader, are getting bored, so before we turn to the big question, let’s recount a few cases of the Indian classic: a close call with a tiger.
We found a real good fighting Tigress close to camp on the 9th. The day before, we had seen a dead cow and we started operations by inspecting the place. I saw pug marks and fancied they belonged to a Tiger and not to a Leopard as some thought. The first two beats were blank, and we then tried a small patch on the other side of the nullah, out of which a Tigress came out to Ezra. He fired, and on receiving the shot she charged at once, Ezra’s elephant swinging round and making off. The Tigress then swam the nullah and Burgess and Ashton got shots at her as she was crossing. Believing the beast was wounded and meant mischief, I only sent on four guns as stops, joining the line myself with Smyth, Perree and Ashton. We hadn’t gone very far when I heard a roar, and the next moment Elephants were flying round in all directions. Unfortunately she had singled out a pad elephant on which to wreak her vengeance and she got well home on him, giving him a nasty bite over the eye. The Elephant carried her on his head for a few seconds and then chucked her off. She next began charging the Elephants indiscriminately and presently came in my direction.
I had her carefully covered with my ‘450, and was just on the point of firing when my Elephant suddenly turned tail and went for dear life, I holding on all I knew. After a bit the mahout managed to get my beast back, and as I did not want any more Elephants mauled, I called in all the howdahs, and forming line moved towards the place she was last seen. I was beginning to wonder if she had managed to sneak off, when, with another roar, she went for Perree and actually scratched old “Sagaria” on the trunk before Perree dropped her; for her size, 8’-4 1/2″, she certainly took a lot of beating as a fighter.
The Mahajara was keen on every novel invention in hunting guns, although on a few occasions he found himself wishing he’d stuck to older technology.
Khubber of Tiger, which proved good, was brought in on the 12th, and just at the end of the beat she walked out to me and I bowled her over, first shot. She rolled about a good bit, and I kept pulling at the trigger to finish her, not realizing till too late that I was not using a single-trigger gun. Suddenly recovering herself, she dashed down the bank out of sight. I knew she was badly hit, and on the line coming up, told Jemadar Asgar to take it in and, if dead, to pick her up or let me know if she was inclined to be ’ ugly. ” I was standing on the top of the bank at this time, and “Tangru” called out that the Tiger was lying on its side. I shouted out to them to back out the Elephants and let me have a look at the beast. The words were hardly out of my mouth when the Tigress drove out the elephants and charged home on the Jemadar’s mount. Her teeth were fastened on the pad, and the Jemadar, by the greatest piece of luck, was just clear of her. I told the Jemadar and mahout to jump off, which they did, and I put two shots into the Tigress while still hanging on to the pad. The second one finished her, and as she dropped off dead, the Elephant set to work pounding her. The men, especially the Jemadar, had a very narrow squeak, but, beyond a scratch in the ear, the Elephant was uninjured. I found my first bullet, a 12-bore Paradox firing 4 drams of powder, had hit her exactly on the right spot, and why it did not kill her dead I cannot understand.
Reading the book, it’s evident that Nripendra wasn’t just monkeying his British “superiors”. He was a true hunter at heart, and second to none in the game – one of the hardest, the Oriental splendor notwithstanding. Try hitting anything with a bullet from a rocking howdah as the elephant is making full steam to or from the quarry it justifiably fears! But the biggest question we have to ask here is, were his hunts responsible for the decline in Indian wildlife?
Thirty-Seven Years of Big-Game Shooting comes with a complete list of trophies by year, and sometimes by trip. If colonial hunts were so devastating, one would expect the number and size of trophies decrease over the years. In fact, the “game book” proves quite the opposite. The years with the record bags are those at the beginning of the new century, but they are intermixed with ‘bad’ seasons. In fact, there’s very little variation in bags over the time frame, and those that are there correlate with time spent hunting, and the usual factors such as weather and plain bad luck.
In short, the Maharaja’s hunts were totally sustainable. As Nripendra himself writes, concluding the record for the year 1902:
We had by this date completed exactly a fortnight’s shooting at Lahapara, and though from 19th to the 22nd little or nothing was bagged, taking the whole 14 days together, thirty-three head of big game were killed. With such a bag one would naturally expect the country to be depleted of beasts worth shooting, but this was not so. So far as one could judge, the district remained full of big game, including a fair number of Tiger.
Indian maharajas could have continued hunting the tall grass jungle for centuries, without any noticeable effect on rhino, tiger, and other wildlife. As is the case in much of the world where wildlife is depleted, it was destruction of the jungle to make room for tea plantations that did the animals in. Wish anti-hunters gave it a thought each time they pour themselves a cup!