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Some Lessons from the Greatest Hunter/Tracker turned Conservationist of the 20th Century

I first read Jungle Lore  by Jim Corbett when I was studying tracking years ago. Jungle Lore is considered to be Corbett’s autobiography.  Most people know Jim Corbett as the killer of man-eating tigers and leopards.

Jim Corbett

Between 1907 and 1938, Corbett tracked and killed 33 man-eaters that were preying on people in the villages of the northern Indian region of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. They were said to have killed over 1200 individuals.  Corbett tells these stories in his book Man-Eaters of Kumaon.  Corbett found that the majority of these tigers and leopards had severe wounds that prevented them from hunting their customary prey–gunshot wounds or embedded porcupine quills.  A few of these animals simply got a taste for humans after human plagues and diseases caused massive regional deaths where bodies were piled up outside villages.

Tigress in Jim Corbett National Park, India

Corbett grew up in the Kumaon region, learning from an early age about the ways of the jungle.  He loved India, was a champion of the poor, would not kill a tiger or leopard without first confirming it was a man-eater, and worked tirelessly to protect tigers.  The first national park in India bears his name.

Because Corbett was able to do what no other human or even army could, many in India consider him a sadhu or holy man.  His books are worth reading.

Corbett explaining to villagers about man-eating tigers

What I want to concentrate on in this blog entry are a few gems in his book Jungle Lore.  Corbett as a youth, learned to identity every sound in the jungle–every bird and animal.  He was a consummate tracker.

A dog barks, and all who hear it know it is barking to welcome its master; or barking with excitement at being taken for a run; or barking with frustration at a treed cat; or barking with anger at a stranger; or just barking because it is chained up.  In all these cases it is the intonation of the bark that enables the hearer to determine why the dog is barking.

When I had absorbed sufficient knowledge to enable me to identify all the jungle folk by their calls, ascribe a reason for the call, and imitate many of them sufficiently well to get some birds and a few animals to come to me or to follow me, the jungle took on an added interest, for not only was I able to take an interest in the surroundings within sight but also in the surroundings to the limit of my hearing….

Having acquired the ability of being able to pinpoint sound, that is, to assess the exact direction and distance of all sounds heard, I was able to follow the movement of unseen leopards and tigers.

Most of us don’t think of ‘listening’ as well as looking during our walk in the woods. Many of us can identify birds by their song, but being able to identify the nuances of animal calls is a highly trained tracking ability that probably few people have thought to try to acquire.

In the book Corbett talks about his love of nature, how the jungle cannot be learned from textbooks, but must be absorbed little by little–a process that builds upon itself over time; an open book of great interest that has no ending.

…for the time I spent in the jungle held unalloyed happiness for me.  My happiness, I believe, resulted from the fact that all wild life is happy in its natural surroundings.

The reason I reread Jungle Lore revolves around a personal story for me.  In the summer of 1972 I was backpacking in Waterton-Glacier National Park with two friends. We made camp by a beautiful lake, hung our food, and built a fire. As dusk settled in, we noticed a large bear coming through the woods towards our hanging food sacks. Seeing these sacks were out of reach, the bear continued towards our camp. In those days, bear advice consisted of banging on pots and pans, climbing trees or jumping into lakes. With the surrounding trees limbless stilts, and the lake glacier-fed, we banged on pots till they were mangled. Unfazed by our noise, the bear rummaged through our nearby backpacks.

We built our fire to a roaring blaze, watching speechless and dumbfounded. This bear’s behavior appeared odd. Nothing perturbed or frightened him. Instead, he approached us, smelled our down jackets, stretched his head between us to investigate the fire–only to burn his nose–and tried tasting my friend’s leg. When she yelped, he leaped back in surprise, leaving her only bruised. He proceeded to explore our tents. Using an old trick, I threw rocks into the woods and the bear left to inspect them.

The next morning we hiked to a backcountry ranger cabin.  The ranger told us the story of  ‘The Night of the Grizzlies’, an incident where in one night 2 women were pulled out of their sleeping bags by two different grizzlies and eaten.  At that time the Park officials felt the connection had been both of these women were menstruating, but that has since been proven false.  Both of these bears, as well as the large black bear that entered our camp, were human-fed bears, habituated to people because of open dumpsters and dirty campgrounds. The Craighead brothers had just finished their 10-year study in Yellowstone and were advising closing of the dumps.  Park policies were beginning to change, but the bears didn’t know that yet.

Our bear was simply curious and meant us no harm.  He was looking for a food hand-out, probably something he’d been rewarded with before and for sure something his mother had taught him.  Bears, both black and grizzly, had been dumpster- fed for many decades in both Yellowstone and Glacier.

For many years after that I wondered about my emotional response.  Even though that bear had nosed his way, literally, right between me and my friends, I had remained calm and unafraid.  I was more curious than afraid.  I wondered if my cool response was because I was unadapted to the dangers in that environment. Sure, I thought to myself, if this had been a bad neighborhood in a city, and that bear had been a strange man approaching us, I would have registered fear.  So why wasn’t I afraid?

Years later I read a passage from Jungle Lore which explained everything.  In this passage, Corbett, as a youth, was walking down a back road with his dog Magog. Corbett heard voices of men shouting, and then suddenly a leopard ran from the brush and stopped on the road only 10 yards uphill.

This was the first leopard that Magog and I had ever see, and as the wind was blowing up the hill I believe our reactions to it were much the same–intense excitement, but no feeling of fear.  This absence of fear I can now, after a lifetime’s experience, attribute to the fact that the leopard had no evil intentions towards us. Driven off the road by the men, he was quite possibly making for the mass of rocks over which Magog and I had recently come, and on clearing the bushes and finding a boy and a dog directly in his line of retreat he had frozen, to take stock of the situation.  A glance at us was sufficient to satisfy him that we had no hostile intentions towards him.  And now, satisfied from our whole attitude that he had nothing to fear from us, he leapt from his crouching position and in a few graceful bounds disappeared into the jungle behind us.

With that one simple statement, Corbett unveiled my instinctual response.  And that I believe is the key to how to approach living with large predators in our midst.  We must stay alert, awake, and aware, yet most of all trust our own instincts, for they will guide us.

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear