A tiger hunt! In No Beast so Fierce, Dane Huckelbridge tells the exciting true story of the extirpation of a man-eating tiger in colonial India in 1907. This was no safari with a fleet of elephants and an army of bearers. It was one Irishman with a rifle and three cartridges on foot against a tiger that had killed and eaten about 440 persons over a span of about a decade. The numbers are inexact because deaths of rural women collecting firewood weren’t carefully recorded in those years.
Huckelbridge suggests that this tiger was history’s deadliest single animal. It hunted entirely alone, while even Jim Jones had help in mixing his Kool-Aid. Huckelbridge visited the site of the hunt, and No Beast So Fierce is illustrated with photographs of the tiger’s hunting ground and last dining nook.
In fact, only about a third of the text is devoted to the hunt itself. As background, there is a great deal of information about the intrepid hunter and about the culture of the Pahari people who constituted most of the tiger’s diet. There is also a review of life in rural India in colonial times and some information about colonial government and about the history and politics of northwest India and Nepal. You’ll also, of course, learn a lot about tigers and their habits and about some of the myths surrounding them.
A mature tiger needs to kill at least one 60kg animal a week to survive. Usually that’s a boar or a deer, but obviously a woman collecting firewood would do nicely. A hungry tiger, though, will eat almost anything. Tigers worldwide are estimated to have consumed about a million humans over the past 400 years.
[Despite] its tremendous human tally [this tiger] did not kill faster or more effectively than other tigers, nor wantonly, for that matter. Its weekly hunts were more or less on par with what any wild tiger would accomplish. But this tiger was almost impossible to find, let alone stop…The remoteness of the region, coupled with the fact that most locals were prevented from owning firearms certainly didn’t help… By the time [an experienced hunter] arrived, the tiger would have already finished feeding and moved on.
Huckelbridge asserts that man-eating tigers are becoming more common in India and Nepal today because of a loss of habitat. Tigers are territorial, and each needs an enormous range of about 75 square kilometres. As forests are converted to farmland, stronger tigers drive the weaker ones out of the dwindling forested area into settled areas where there are few wild animals for prey, but lots of tasty and relatively defenseless humans. But extermination is not the answer. Huckelbridge emphasises the importance of maintaining a population of apex predators in the ecosystem, and advocates creating more forested sanctuaries in order to do so.
Huckelbridge allows himself some philosophical musing and imagined episodes which detract a bit from the veracity of his account, but overall No Beast So Fierce is an exciting read well worth your attention.
Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.