Excerpt: The Last White Hunter by Donald Anderson with Joshua Mathew
The joy of sitting in an Indian jungle is an indescribable feeling and if you truly love the wilderness and all its creatures, an evening can provide you more entertainment than any cinema, and the best part is it will be like no other evening you’ve seen before, even if you’ve done it a thousand times already. Like my dad, I too started to enjoy the thrill of doing this over time, and towards my last days of hunting, I never felt disappointed if I did not shoot anything. The feathered species are the first ones to announce the lengthening of shadows. The red jungle fowl and the peafowl give their distinct cries as they settle in for the night. Most birds are diurnal and their gossip and song at the end of the day are replaced by the more somber notes of the owl and nightjar family. The owls give a low eerie lament while the soft “chuck-chuck” of the night jar increases its tempo till it sounds like a small machine and then gradually ceases. The mammals have theirown signature sounds—the bell of the sambar as he warns his herbivorous brethren that their nemesis is about, echoed by the sharp cries of the spotted deer. The sound of breaking branches are often the only giveaway as otherwise elephants are silent feeders. Unless mating, tigers and panthers are extremely silent, and the sounds thatbears, hyenas and jackals make are not that loud to be heard over great distances.
When camping out in the jungle, one must know how to recognise these calls of the animals that will tell him if a carnivore is on the prowl. The belling of the sambar, the shrill call of the spotted deer or the hoarse bark of the muntjac—all point to a predator. These herbivores also call at panthers but only an experienced hunter caneasily tell by the extent of excitement and uneasiness conveyed in their cries, especially that of the sambar, as to whether a tiger or panther has been the reason for their cries. Jackals too give a high pitched unearthly “wheaanwhhhhh” as they spot danger.
A better sighted ally is the langur sentry, who will never fail to show his excitement with his hoarse bark. Birds such as peafowl and jungle fowl are less reliable as they will sound an alarm for even a mongoose, but every sound is invaluable feedback.
While these sounds can certainly get you excited, it is no match for the feeling that will overwhelm you when see an animal, any animal, come close to where you are sitting. Of course, if it’s a tiger, panther or elephant, your adrenalin will shoot through the roof,but even a wild boar, snorting and complaining, looking for food, if right under your tree, makes for a most exciting time. There is magic in the air, and to those who have never experienced it, I would say that it’s a loss that cannot be made up for. It would be unfair to even hint that animals are the only source of interest in the jungles. Far from it. Trees that are hundreds of years old, some still standing, while others have crashed to the forest floor. Vines and parasitic creepers that lie entwined, wild flowers that grow on shrubs and bushes, fruit trees like figs that provide sustenance for the herbivores. Dry river beds and sandy nullahs, rock precipices and deep caves, desolate waterholes and green jungle pools. These are all part of the mystery and excitement you come across while on foot, and no two days can be alike, not even the experience with the same animal.
Many people who have had the good fortune of hunting in India will unanimously agree with me that this sport is one of the most exciting, thrilling, and enjoyable things in the world. However, contrary to what most people think, my jaunts in the jungles were not always about shikar. Even as a young boy, who was confident about handling a powerful gun, I still enjoyed the trips where I just appreciated the wildlife I got to observe. I did not need anyone preaching to me nor talking to me about conservation. There were times when I would ride up to Devarabetta on my bicycle, leave it at the rest house and sit at one of the three waterholes all night long just to enjoy the solitude and enjoy nature at its best. The rest house was a fair distance from the village and so I had no choice but to take packed food with me—usually vindaloo with chapattis—which lasted two days, and that is all I would have! Butter in those days was available in tins, but once opened would spoil quickly in the hot weather, so I would finish a whole tin in a single day! I have lived a decadent, selfish life, taking and doing what I wanted. It may sound as if I am gloating, but I am merely putting on record the way I lived my life—the rules I made for myself, the absolute lack of respect or concern I had for any other living creature other than myself. When I was out in the jungle with my rifle, I attained a state of nirvana, for I felt like God. I was so confident about my skill as a hunter that I knew no creature could ever hurt me, and I took some really extravagant risks during those times. I have no explanation as to why I do not have even a scratch to show from those days. My parents, too, seemed to believe that I was invincible, and they never said stuff like “be careful”. I will not call it luck or karma, or attribute it to my shikari guides or even my own skills either as a tracker or as a hunter handling a firearm, for there is no logical explanation. Going by the law of averages, I should have had at least a dozen serious injuries, but I never had even one. I had my rules as a hunter: I never shot females or young animals or stole eggs from nests. This does not absolve me from what I did, because I realise that the only difference between hunting with a license and without one, is a piece of paper and the number of lives taken.
I will not defend my hunting some of the larger animals as some sort of service I did to protect people, but the truth of the matter is that tigers, panthers, and wild dogs were treated as vermin in those days, and hunters were rewarded for killing them. Bears and wild boar were not considered “gameworthy” and shooting them did not particularly interest anyone. Elephants inexplicably, have been protected since 1873, and unless declared rogue, one would get into serious trouble if one shot them. Again, I will not pass judgement on policy, but the fact remains that hunters like me, indulged in hunting based on the strict rules laid down by the forest department, although one could always question our conscience for the acts we committed.
Today, everything is done from the safety of cars and jeeps and I am not talking just about tourists who visit the jungles, but even those who work for the forest department. I remember a time when the officers who worked for the department either rode on horseback or walked the area they were responsible for. It is hard to explain but like the oldtimers, I can vouch that one will feel a deeper connection to the jungle and its dwellers only on foot. …
Let me follow that up with the story of the first man-eating tiger I shot near the village of Gajnore, many years later. Even in those days, the land between Ubrani and Gajnore never held any thick forest, but was adesolate country filled with stunted bamboo, date palms, and thorn trees. The villages were few and were found mostly along the banks of a river that meandered through this area. The Mysore government had issued a notification and reward for hunters with licenses to kill the man-eater that had become a menace. It was supposed to be particularly cunning and had avoided the hunters at the expense of two of its brethren who had been mistakenly shot. Its modus operandi was to carry off travellers on the highway between Chitraldoorg and Shimoga town. The tiger never had the courage to charge a cart but would always sneak on these groups of people when they stopped for a break. Of course, stories are grossly exaggerated and it was not long before the rumour that it would jump on to bullock carts and carry away victims became extremely popular and practically brought all traffic to a standstill between dusk and dawn. On every occasion that it made a kill, it would leave the bullocks and only carry off humans, a frightening prospect, for, at minimal risk, it could have killed the tied bullock which would have given him a larger meal. Instead, it chose humans, making it a connoisseur of human flesh, and I wondered how I would ever get it, considering I had never done this sort of thing before. A long period of immunity had encouraged such confidence in the tiger that it even made occasional raids into the town, sometimes not even waiting for nightfall. Apparently, there was a reason for the tiger’s impunity. The villagers believed that its behaviour was punishment being meted out by the gods who wanted to teach the villagers a lesson for abandoning ancient values and giving in to temptation from the bigger towns.
I landed up at the travellers’ bungalow about ten miles from Gajnore. The country was open for several miles on all sides of the bungalow, the forest beginning some four miles west where the road descended a kind of ghat into the valley leading to the Bhadra river. It was this spot that the man-eater was said chiefly to frequent. For once I could not afford to tie baits hoping for it to turn up—I knew that it would not take baits and I did not want to kill another innocent tiger. However, on two nights, I sat up on machans at likely places, yet no tiger came. When I was at Gajnore, I would hear of its exploits at Ubrani, and when I would go there, obviously a couple of days later, it would have moved on. It was frustrating. I had taken a week off, and my time there was drawing to a close. On Friday morning, the luck that had so far eluded me, changed. Unfortunately, it ended the life of a young man, who was taken fromthe field where he was working. If I could have convinced the distraught relatives to leave the body where it lay, I might have got a shot when the man-eater returned to complete his meal. However, I did not know anyone from this village, and I did not have such single-mindedness as to ask them to leave the body as bait. However, I vowed to avenge the death of the man and was racking my brains to find a way to do this. Clearly, the man-eater would come back, but how soon would he discover that the body had been removed? Would it come close enough to give me a shot? After much deliberation, the only solution I could think of was to get the meat of a goat (the cheapest option) and wrap it in clothes in the hope that this would at least convince the tiger to approach the kill. Knowing its penchant for human flesh, the first mouthful would perhaps give the game away, but then, I hoped I would have had enough time to get it within my sights and give a satisfactory response. My idea was met with such scepticism that some of the elders even laughed. “Yejmanre, this is not an ordinary tiger, but the devil himself. Taking away the body would be acceptable but attempting to fool it…will bring immeasurable misfortune upon us.”
I gritted my teeth and explained that things could not get any worse than having a man-eater around. Luckily, money is an expedient in most situations like this, and I managed to get help to set up a machan as well. It was an uneventful night, although several times I got up with a feeling that I was being watched. It was just paranoia, but it was a horrid feeling, and despite the rifle by my side, I felt very vulnerable. Early next morning, feeling dejected, I got off from the machan and started trudging back, when all of a sudden in the distance I saw a dark shape. It was looking straight at me, and I froze. I do not know why, but I started to shiver, and it was not because of the cold. Then, with a small shake of the head, it trotted off. It was a jackal! I nearly sat down in relief. Clearly my nerves were on edge!
By mid-day I knew why I had not seen the tiger that night. A mile away from the bungalow, it had killed a small girl who had gone to edge of the field to answer the call of nature. I was informed that the girl had been eaten completely so there was no point waiting for it there. Then, for the next two days, there were no kills, and I had to get back to Bangalore. The man-eater then disappeared for a bit, and it was believed that it had wandered off or died, and people were relieved. Their joy was temporary, for within a month it struck again, repeating its tactics of sneaking upbehind a bullock cart that had halted for a break, carrying off the lone cart man, who apparently believed that the man-eater was no more. As the incident had happened close to the village, the tiger did not get the opportunity to finish its meal. The place where the body was found was just beyond a culvert that went over a small stream. Perhaps it was fate, but I had decided to visit the place on the same weekend, and I had no sooner got off my bike than I was informed about the incident that had occurred that morning. Needless to say, the body had been taken away for the last rites, but I was sure that the tiger would return. Although the man had been killed on the main road, his body had been dragged for some distance into the undergrowth. It suited me fine, for I was able to find a ficus tree close to the spot and, with help from the locals, to put up a machan. There was no cadaver, and I had no choice but to get a buffalo to satiate the man-eater’s hunger, and again hoped that it would not get too perturbed about the switch. The machan was a small charpoy (a traditional bed slung with rope) fastened securely to the branches of a tree, and surrounded by a screen of boughs, while below me was the unfortunate bovine at a spot where two jungle paths intersected.
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Soon, the last rays of the day disappeared and the moon began to cast spectral shadows as it rose from the earth, bringing out the sandy road in pallid clearness amongst the shadows. It started to grow cold and quiet at the same time, the birds of the forest having gone to rest till the morning. Far away, I could hear the faint bark of the village dogs, and the only other sound was that made by the tree crickets. Soon it became so dark that I was resigned to spending the rest of the night dependent on my hearing, not my sight. I have neither acquired the patience my dad had nor his ability to stay awake through the night, and, embarrassing as it may sound, after a while, I fell asleep. I got up with a start — a distant roar from the east had woken me up. I gripped my rifle, but there was silence, and then I heard it again, this time from a different and somewhat nearer point, and then again, betraying the tiger’s zigzag course. I was hoping that it would come on to either of the paths and see my buffalo, or at least hear something worth investigating. Judging from the last sound, it was still a furlong away, so I took a chance and shone my torch at the buffalo, and realised that it was fast asleep! It had not heard the roars, so it was either a heavy sleeper or tone deaf, and neither suited me. I wanted it to give itself away, so I used a rather unsporting method of throwing a couple of my cartridges at it, hoping to wake it up. I do not understand buffalo too well, but its low grunt in response seemed to say, “Just go back to sleep, you two-legged moron.”
Famous last words, for that perhaps betrayed its presence and in less than a minute came the sound of the tiger’s rush and then, in almost complete silence, it killed the buffalo. All I could hear were the sounds of its legs kicking out, furiously at first, and then feebler and feebler till it completely stopped. The day had not dawned, and my watch showed the time as 5:10. For a few minutes the situation remained as I have described, and then I heard the unmistakable sound of a heavy body being dragged along the forest floor. Under the trees, it would have remained veiled from my sight, and had it dragged the body in another direction it might have retreated into the jungle, but on the light-coloured mud road, there were no shadows, and the pre-dawn light gave me that one small window of opportunity to silhouette the tiger, and I did not miss. My perfect shot killed it on the spot, and soon, the glorious morning sun bathed my first man-eating tiger and me in soft light and created an unforgettable memory.