The Man-Eating Tigress of Chowgarh


In a remote region of Chowgarh state, India, goats were causing a problem. They got into fields where crops were growing and, being goats, ate whatever they could reach. The farmers who owned the crops wanted satisfaction, and they knew where to go for it. The man who owned the goats lived high on a hill. He should have kept them away from crops. The farmers climbed the hill to tell him so.

When they got the goatherd’s hut, however, they knew something was wrong. The goat pen, made of thorn bushes, was empty. In the yard the man’s big sheep dog was chained to an iron stake driven into the ground—a sensible enough way to keep a dog from running off when it’s not working. But the dog was dead. It had apparently starved because there was no one to feed it. The hut itself, nestled under a rocky outcrop, was vacant. They called for the goatherd, but got no answer. The whole situation made the farmers uncomfortable. Had the goatherd been robbed and murdered?

The next day, the farmers gathered up more of their neighbors and formed a search party. They found their answers about 400 yards from the hut, beneath an oak tree damaged long ago by a lightning bolt. That’s where they found the goatherd’s clothes, some scattered fragments of bone, and a human skull.

This was the first known victim of the Chowgarh man-eating tiger. Dozens more would follow.

*

The man of the hills was huge and powerful and agile. Since he’d grown up in the rough terrain of Chowgarh, he could climb like a goat. His agility was on display one day as he cut grass for his cattle from the face of a steep slope, keeping his balance as he worked with his knife. He and his eight-year-old son, who was equally agile, carried their armloads of cut grass up to a level band of ground to tie it in bundles. They had no hint that they were being watched. While the man bent over to tie another bundle, the man-eater of Chowgarh sprang on him. Possibly he turned his head at the last instant, because the tiger’s jaws failed to close on his throat. Instead, the upper and lower fang on one side of its jaws met in the back of his neck. On the other side, the lower fang stabbed into his chin, while the upper one crunched into the cheekbone just below his right eye.

The man fell precisely on the edge of the steep slope. With one hand he grasped a sturdy sapling; it prevented him from falling down the hill. The tiger kept still, standing over him with its fangs buried in his head and neck, its front feet straddling him, its hind feet between his legs. Maybe it thought it had succeeded in pinching his throat shut and was waiting for him to suffocate—a tiger’s usual method of killing. The man felt all the bones in the right side of his face collapse into a sort of pudding. He contemplated his next move.

His only advantage was the slope. He drew up his feet and positioned them against the cat’s belly—carefully, so as not to enrage it into taking some sort of action. Suddenly, he kicked hard and monkey-flipped the tiger over his head. It went tumbling down the slope. It seemed to have no idea how this had happened; when it hit the bottom of the hill, it ran away as if in danger.

Unfortunately for the man, the tiger had never released its grip. When it fell down the hill, it took half his face with it. The man watched to make sure his attacker was gone. His son was standing nearby, paralyzed with shock. “Give me your loin cloth,” the man said, and the boy did. The man used it to bandage his ruined face. Then he took the boy by the hand and they walked back to the village.

At home, he asked his wife to summon all his friends so he could tell them goodbye before he died. They offered to carry him to the nearest hospital 50 miles away. He declined, because he preferred to die in his own home rather than in a hospital, and because his head was in such fiery pain he couldn’t bear the thought of being moved and jostled. Someone gave him water to cool the pain, but when he drank, the water trickled out through the holes in his neck.

He fell into delirium. It seemed to him that his suffering went on eternally. He prayed for death. And finally he woke from his long delirium and found his wounds healed. He’d been a strong man, and he still was, but now he was thin as a leather strap. Soon his hair turned white. He was, of course, disfigured for life—with, as he put it, “a face that no man can look on without repulsion.”

*

Each tiger leaves a distinctive set of footprints. For this reason, experienced hunters and even some ordinary villagers could tell that the same tiger was responsible when other deaths occurred. After the man-eater had killed more than 40 people across an area of some 1500 square miles, however, the tracks doubled: she had been joined by a companion. This companion was her own cub, who had now grown large enough to join her in hunting food. Soon the cub, a female roughly as big as her mother, was discovered eating corpses by her side; and then one night a husband and wife died together, one killed by the mother tiger, the other by her daughter.

That was the situation when Jim Corbett arrived. Though he was only an amateur hunter and conservationist, Corbett had succeeded in killing more than a dozen man-eaters where others had failed. He had stopped the worst man-eater on record, the Champawat tigress, which had killed at least 436 people. He also killed the Panar leopard, which had killed some 400 people. Corbett’s first glimpse of the Chowgarh tigers came when he followed the trail of a farmer’s missing white cow. As he crept cautiously through a ravine, looking for signs of the cow amid the waist-high ferns, Corbett suddenly saw its white leg sticking up. Oddly, it twirled in the air, as if the cow had taken up ballet. Then Corbett heard a tiger growl. He deduced that the two tigers were eating the cow, mostly hidden among the ferns. The leg moved as the tigers sheared meat from the carcass. The growl meant the tigers were having a minor disagreement over some morsel.

Corbett noticed an outcropping of rock nearby. He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled through the ferns toward the outcropping, shoving his rifle along the ground ahead of him. Once he’d reached the outcropping, he climbed it, staying behind it so the tigers wouldn’t see him, trying to stay quiet so they wouldn’t hear him. Finally he was able to peep over the top of it. He was ten or 15 feet above the ground, and he had a good view of the two tigers. One of them was still eating the cow. The other lay nearby, cleaning its immense paws with its tongue. Corbett wanted to kill the mother. She was the experienced man-eater. It was possible the daughter hadn’t fully learned how to hunt people and might stop doing so without her mother’s example to guide her. His rifle had two barrels, both loaded, but he knew he’d only have time to kill one tiger, at best. The other would flee at the sound of the first shot, and a tiger is far faster than a human; it can cover dozens of yards before a person can take aim. The problem was that the tigers were virtually the same size. Corbett couldn’t tell which was the mother.

He made his best guess, aimed, and fired. The tiger he’d hit reared up, then fell, seemingly dead. The other sped away down the ravine and, as Corbett had expected, was gone before he could draw a bead on it. He watched the fallen one to see whether it was really dead. He didn’t want to approach until he was sure; even if it was badly wounded, it could easily kill him before he could shoot it from a close range. He pelted it with a few rocks and got no reaction. Only then did he feel confident enough to draw near. Up close, he could see that the dead tiger was actually the daughter—she had a glossy coat and a full set of teeth with little wear. He used a pen knife to cut off her skin, head, and paws, all in one piece. He had learned from experience that people felt safer if they could see and even touch the physical evidence of a man-eater’s death.

In a nearby village, Corbett found that every single man he talked to had known someone eaten by one or both of the tigers. Some of them had had close calls themselves; they had the scars to prove it. Corbett was in the wilderness hunting ten days later when he heard someone screaming his name. A man had come to tell him a young woman had just been killed only half a mile from the village. He rushed back, only to find the woman sitting up on the stone-paved village courtyard. She was badly hurt, but alive.

She had been working in a field with others when the tiger sprang on her. The others screamed, and the startled tiger ran away. The others assumed she was dead. All of them, including her husband, ran back to the village. It was only when she came walking home that they realized their mistake. In its brief contact with her, the tiger had peeled her head like a banana. Her skin was split between her eyes. From there, the wound ran back along the top of her head, each half of the scalp flapping back to expose her skull. Other wounds reddened her head, neck, chest, shoulder, and hand. Her long black coils of hair were caked with blood.

Corbett carried a bottle of antiseptic for just such emergencies. He cleaned her wounds and bandaged them. Within ten days, they had healed, except for one deep puncture in the back of her neck.

Some days later, the tigress attacked again. The victim was a woman collecting firewood on a steep hillside. The woman saw the tiger an instant before it sprang. She flung herself down the hill to escape. The tiger’s reaction was incredibly fast: it caught her in midair. They tumbled down the hill together. Neighbors heard her scream and saw the tiger carrying her into thick brush. They ran for help. No one knows exactly what happened next. When she woke, the woman had no memory of anything past that instant when the tiger had caught her in the air. She found herself badly wounded in the face and elsewhere. An injury to her neck kept her from screaming for help. She knew where she was, however—a familiar stream ran nearby. She crawled home on hands and knees. There her father and friends put her to bed. They had to protect her from the bottle flies that smelled blood and came to feed on her wounds and lay eggs in them. Within hours, she was in a feverish delirium. Bits of meat often get trapped behind the teeth and claws of carnivores; bacteria breed in it. For that reason, people who survive a mauling often die of infection afterwards. That’s what happened in this case. The woman was already near death by the time Corbett arrived and washed out the wounds with antiseptic. She died that night. (Afterwards, at Corbett’s request, the government supplied the villages of the area with their own stocks of antiseptic medicine.)

That made two victims in a row who had survived the tiger’s actual attack, even though one of them had died later. Corbett knew what this meant: the mother tiger was old and feeble. She must have depended on her grown cub to help with the killing, but Corbett had killed the cub. Though she remained far faster and stronger than any human, she had become a sloppy predator who often missed her mark. Corbett felt her feebleness was the reason she’d become a man-eater—though he himself had killed some healthy, robust man-eaters in his time.

Despite her declining abilities, the Chowgarh tiger continued to elude hunters and kill or injure people. Her man-eating career was now in its fifth year. The end came one day when Corbett and two helpers visited a certain clearing. They knew the tiger had killed a young man there some time before. Their plan was to tie up a buffalo in the clearing. The buffalo would serve as bait. Corbett could hide nearby and shoot the tiger if it attacked the buffalo. However, Corbett didn’t want to wait and merely hope the tiger would wander by discover the buffalo. He asked one of his helpers, Madho Singh, to lure the man-eater. Madho Singh climbed a tree and pretended he was cutting wood. He talked and sang and knocked his axe on the tree. These noises would let the man-eater know human prey was in the area. Meanwhile, the other helper cut grass for the buffalo to eat, and Corbett stood on a flat rock with his gun at the ready.

The strategy worked; Corbett soon sensed the tiger was nearby, watching the three men at their work. He turned to face the forest where she was lurking, but the tiger slipped away without attacking. That wasn’t unusual; a stalking predator often takes its time and watches for danger. Corbett suspected the tiger would return and take the buffalo later, so the three men withdrew. They would hide on a hillside from which they could see the tethered buffalo and shoot the tiger when it came back.

This plan led them to a ravine. As they made their way along it, Corbett found a bird’s nest. In it were two oddly-shaped eggs. Corbett decided to take them for his collection. He carried the eggs in one hand, his rifle in the other. The three men continued down the ravine. As Corbett slid himself over a steep twelve-foot cliff, taking care not to break the eggs, the tiger growled.

She hadn’t kept her eye on the buffalo. She had followed them instead. It wasn’t hard to guess why. But where exactly was she?

Corbett walked softly on the sandy bottom of the ravine. He expected the tiger to spring on him at any moment—from either bank of the ravine, from behind a fallen tree or a rock. He had no idea where to point his rifle. His helpers, who had no weapons of their own, walked some distance behind him. He looked around a rocky corner—and came face to face with the man-eater. She lay poised to spring. It seemed to him that she wore the expression of a dog happy to see its owner. She didn’t attack. She was waiting for him to move. Like a house cat who’s only interested in a ball when it rolls, she needed motion to assure her this was an animal worth taking. Slowly, Corbett swung his rifle into position. This seemed to take forever; he felt as if he were in one of those nightmares in which the dreamer finds himself paralyzed. Yet he knew moving any faster would bring an attack. Finally the rifle was pointed directly at the tiger. He couldn’t bring it to his eye for careful sighting, but he didn’t need to; she was only eight feet away. He pulled the trigger. The rifle knocked his hand back as it recoiled from the blast. For a long moment, nothing else seemed to happen. Then, slowly, the tiger lowered her head onto her paws. Her happy expression had not changed. Blood fountained from the hole in her fur.

The bullet had broken her spine and torn through her aorta.

Corbett looked down and realized he was still holding the eggs, unbroken, in his palm. They had saved his life; if he’d had both hands free, he would have had the rifle ready, would have spun quickly to shoot at the tiger—and found that she was far quicker. It was only this delicate burden that forced him to act slowly.

He put the eggs back in their nest.


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