The tigress was now so close that I could hear the intake of her breath each time before she called, and as she again filled her lungs, I did the same with mine, and we called simultaneously. The effect was startlingly instantaneous. Without a second’s hesitation she came tramping with quick steps through the dead leaves, over the low ridge and into the bushes a little to my right front, and just when I was expecting her to walk right on top of me, she stopped, and the next moment the full blast of her deep-throated roar struck me in the face and would have carried my hat off my head had I be wearing one. A second’s pause, then again the quick steps; a glimpse of her as she passed between the two bushes and then she stepped right out in the open, and, looking into my face, stopped dead.
By great and unexpected good luck the half-dozen steps the tigress took to her right front carried her almost to the exact spot at which my rifle was pointing. Had she continued in the direction in which she was coming before her last call, my story—if written—would have had a different ending, for it would have been as impossible to slew the rifle on the rounded top of the rock as it would have been to lift and fire it with one hand.
Jim Corbett was a British Army India man who developed a career of hunting down man-eating tigers and leopards for the Indian government and in 1944 was good enough to write his adventures as a series of stories, aimed at boys just like me. A marvellous observer of the jungle and its ways, and a splendid writer of the sort that only the British could produce with a fine skill for understating their own courage to just the right level, each story tells of another man-eater, of the unfortunate circumstances that caused it to turn on man, and of how Corbett stalked it and killed it as only a man who loved tigers above all else could. In 1952, Oxford Uni Press enhanced the planet by republishing the Man-eaters of Kumaon with stunning illustrations by one Raymond Sheppard. There are no finer books in my collection.
Deep in the night, you lay in ambush, secluded beside Spot’s kennel, watching the fence-line against the moonlit sky. The big cat came, stalking stealthily along the palings, and Spot raised his head to growl, but settled when you touched him to let him know you knew the danger. You watched the man-eater move into range. Carefully you aimed. You’d fitted your shanghai to a wooden frame to make a sort-of crossbow, and for ammo, U shaped nails. The big cat paused for a moment, as if sensing the danger—it was all you needed. Wham—and the man-eater went yowling into the night, mortally wounded.
From the place to where he had retreated at the very back of his kennel, Spot stared at you with horrified eyes.
“Someone shot the Laski’s cat,” your mother said conversationally. “They had to take it to the vet. It had some sort of nail in it. The terrible things some people do. I don’t know what the world is coming to.”
You dismantled the frame and stuck to inanimate targets after that. To this day you are still searching for someone to confess to who might possibly be able to understand.
Jim Corbett’s other great tiger hunting book is The Temple Tiger, in which five more man-eaters are brilliantly tracked down in the author’s superb style, the 1957 edition once more breathtakingly illustrated by Raymond Shepherd. He tells of the one that got away, of the one he had to kill by disabling it first with a cowardly shot necessitated only because it, like the others, was a serious man-eater, and finally he tells of a botched hunt in which he wounded a tiger several times and had to track it on foot and finish it off in one of the most nervy exercises imaginable.
Following the success of his man-eater stories, Jim Corbett attempted a full length tale of how he hunted a particularly elusive man-eating leopard, and for a time became prey rather than hunter. Because leopards hunt at night, they pose the problem of trying to shoot something you can’t see. The only problem for me was the title—The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag—try saying that when you are describing the book to friends in a great state of excitation.