The legend of Jim Corbett

jim corbett rifleSimon K. Barr tells of the unique series of events and challenges surrounding the return of Jim Corbett’s .275 Rigby rifle to the very site where he famously killed the man-eating tigress of Champawat that had accounted for the death of more than 400 people.

Heroes are ten-a-penny these days. Football players, singers and actors alike are idolised on the strength of seemingly very little. I even had the experience of being mobbed by an adoring crowd myself recently during my first visit to India. Fortunately – for the sake of my ego – it wasn’t my presence that sent them potty, but the rifle I was holding. 

Looking at it, it is nothing remarkable: a Mauser-actioned .275 Rigby with no engraving bar the proof marks, the blacking all but rubbed off, several dents in the stock and scratches on the barrel. Its one distinguishing feature is a silver plate, recording the fact that in 1907 it was presented to Jim Corbett in gratitude for him saving the local population from the dreaded man-eating tigress of Champawat. This 500lb killing machine accounted for the deaths of 436 people during the early 20th century. She still holds the Guinness world record for the highest number of fatalities from a tiger, proving once again the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Now, Corbett was a real hero. He never asked for thanks or reward. He saved the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people living in the villages of his native Kumaon province. He campaigned tirelessly (and successfully) for better protection of India’s wildlife and its habitat. He also inspired countless young would-be adventurers across the globe with his beautifully written, honest and humble accounts of his exploits, including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, HRH The Prince of Wales, and me. Colonel Corbett successfully hunted countless savage beasts in the depths of the Indian jungle wearing a pair of short trousers and equipped with little more than a packet of cigarettes, a reliable rifle and a stiff upper lip. 

rigby riflesThe bold decision to take Corbett’s now priceless rifle back to his home in India’s Uttarkhand province, was made by Marc Newton, managing director of the firm that originally manufactured the .275 more than a century ago: John Rigby & Co. . The rifle, which featured frequently in Corbett’s best-selling memoirs, left India when its owner moved to Kenya following Partition in 1947. When he retired from hunting (due to poor eyesight), Corbett gifted his trusty companion to his publishers, Oxford University Press, before it was reacquired by Marc for Rigby in 2015. Thought to have been lost until this point, the reacquisition sparked overwhelming interest around the world and started a chain of events that eventually led to an eye-opening tour of Corbett’s India for Marc Newton, myself, a group of high profile international figures and, of course, this modest looking yet precious Rigby rifle.

The rifle’s homecoming to its spiritual birthplace, the busy Rigby workshop in south London, inspired Marc to commission and build an exquisite London Best rifle to commemorate Corbett and all he stood for. The result was a work of art that the firm donated to the charity auction at the Safari Club International (SCI) convention in February 2016. It sold under the hammer for more than any bolt rifle before, setting a new record at US$250,000. This crystallised the legend of Corbett in the mind of the modern hunter and was a great win for the London guntrade. 

Marc, who himself comes from four generations of gamekeepers, was keen to give something back to the wildlife to which Corbett had dedicated so much of his life. He also commissioned a limited edition reprint of Corbett’s collected works with a view to donating the profits to tiger conservation in India’s Jim Corbett National Park, a tiger reserve that Corbett helped to establish in 1936 as the world’s first big game park. Rigby, the third oldest gunmaker in the world, has a long history of exporting rifles to India – receiving more Rigby firearms than Africa in the early 20th century – and Marc was equally keen to recognise this by visiting India to hand over the donation in person.

Marc and I were determined that our visit would be remembered and not lost in the white noise of blue chip corporate philanthropy. It was obvious – what better way to draw the crowds and raise awareness than by taking Corbett’s own .275 back to where it all began? The idea alone sent shivers down our spines as we sat up late one evening at the Rigby showroom. We could only imagine how it would be received on the subcontinent where Corbett is still revered as a demigod. It would be like taking the holy grail back to Jerusalem. But how to pull off this seemingly impossible caper was the next question?

jim corbettNothing would be fun or worth doing if it were easy, right? To deal with the man-eaters of Kumaon, Corbett had to conquer primeval jungle. To get his rifle back to his homeland, we had to overcome some of the most complicated firearms restrictions in the modern world. Hunting for sport was banned in India in 1970 and, under normal circumstances, it is forbidden to take firearms into the country. As I mentioned earlier, real heroes such as Corbett don’t come along every day, so we didn’t have much difficulty in demonstrating to the Indian authorities that ours were exceptional circumstances. 

The problem was that because our situation was so rare – probably unique – there was no precedent or standard form for the bureaucrats to follow, and, without precedents and standard forms, the wheels of bureaucracy tend to move even more slowly than usual – or completely come off. Eventually, after almost a year of negotiation on Rigby’s behalf by the indomitable Patricia Pugh and Raj Mohinder Singh, we were granted express permission at the 11th hour by some of the highest officials in both the British and Indian governments to take the rifle back to Corbett’s home. 

Retracing Corbett’s footsteps

tiger reserveOn arrival at New Delhi a few days later, we found ourselves in another type of jungle – the sprawling urban jungle. We rendezvoused with the rest of our tour party, all of whom had strong Corbett connections and were keen to accompany us on this landmark trip. Among them was American gun collector Bill Jones, whose collection of historic double rifles includes Corbett’s other old faithful – a boxlock .450/.400 Jeffrey – which he lent to Rigby to display with the .275 in the USA earlier in the year. Bill’s wife Liz was also one of the party, as was Australian sporting wildlife artist David Southgate. David had also made a contribution towards tiger conservation at Corbett National Park, giving the proceeds of the sale of one of his original oil paintings showing the demise of the Champawat man-eater at the hands of Corbett. Another Antipodean added to the numbers in the form of Davey Hughes, founder of Swazi Apparel, who flies the flag for Rigby in New Zealand. Raj Mohinder Singh, who had been instrumental in getting permission for the rifle to travel with us, was another welcome companion. Along with film crew and photographers, the party was completed by American journalist Andrew McKean, editor of Outdoor Life Magazine, which gave America its first sight of Corbett’s Jungle Lore in 1953.

From the moment we set foot on Indian soil, the crazy adventure began. The standard by which most Indian motorists drive is more suited to a stock car rally than a bustling three-lane main arterial trunk road. Somehow, God alone knows, it just about works. It was the best worst driving we had ever experienced and to that end, somewhat entertaining in a white knuckle kind of way. The eight-hour drive through the city’s bustling suburbs and on into the foothills of the Himalayas became less congested and more scenic. The countryside was so full of life and colour it was impossible not to fall under India’s spell. 

As we travelled deeper into the jungle wilderness that is the Kumaon region, this enchanting rural terrain worked its way deeper into our souls. Picking highlights from such a week was never going to be easy. There were nights under the stars listening to leopards calling in wooden machaans almost identical to those from which Corbett shot man-eaters. There was meeting direct descendants of the people whose lives Corbett transformed by saving them from man-eaters or by him building the village of Chhoti Haldwani, where he is still deeply loved. There was his summer house at Nainital and winter house at Kaladunghi, both of which still contain many emotive personal artefacts; and, of course, there was the wildlife – so much incredible wildlife.

tiger conservationThe very reason for the trip was for Rigby to make a donation to the Jim Corbett National Park. Rather than cash, we agreed something tangible would be more appropriate. After some deliberation, Rigby arranged for a $25,000 4x4 rapid response vehicle equipped for a vet to help the park’s rangers deal with human-tiger conflict. The official handover ceremony took place early in the week at the Civic Auditorium at Ramnagar. A capacity crowd of more than 300 local and national press as well as dignitaries listened to Marc’s speech about Corbett and what his rifle represents to the firm today. After a Justin Beiber-esque media frenzy over the rifle (yes a rifle), Marc presented the keys of the brand new, Rigby-branded, Tata Xenon pick-up to Samir Sinha, Chief Conservator and Director of Forests for the Corbett Tiger Reserve. 

I watched with a great sense of relief – the hard work of Marc, myself and others at Rigby had paid off. At one stage, the donation had been put in jeopardy when WWF India, whom we had originally asked to assist at a local level, refused to take part on the grounds that Rigby was an ‘arms manufacturer’ which we thought was scandalous. Fortunately for the wildlife, we found a way and the vehicle was donated directly, but not without significant unnecessary hassle. 

After the circus of the ceremony and donation, the tour party had the chance to follow in the footsteps of Carpet Sahib – the local name for Corbett. On our first evening in the park, which covers 52,000 hectares, has no fences and is totally wild, we had our first encounter with a wild tiger. In fact, we were lucky enough to see two: one from a jeep and the other one from the comfort of a howdah atop an elephant in true Corbett style. Both were incredible, but the latter just had the edge. The tiger behaved more naturally when faced with another jungle grandee rather than a diesel-engined vehicle. We saw him in his full, regal, languid glory just 30 yards away: stretching, shrugging, then sauntering off into a dense patch of flowering briar. King of the jungle. It was a sobering thought to know that the week before we arrived, a ranger out on patrol was killed and eaten by a tiger. It could have been either of the tigers we saw.

special riflesThe event that marked the end of the tour was no less spectacular. This took place at the other end of Corbett’s home province high up in the foothills of the Himalayas at the headwaters of the Ganges close to the Chinese border. Rudraprayag was the location Corbett used his Rigby to deliver the local population from a dreaded leopard that had killed a recorded 126 people. This cat was a master man-eater. It would reputedly come through the roof at night and pull people from their beds. Such was the fear of this feline, the entire valley was in a state of curfew for eight years until, after many other failed attempts, Corbett was able to bring the leopard to book and put an end to the people’s misery. Corbett is revered by the modern day inhabitants who celebrate a public holiday each year on his birthday and have his books on their school curriculum for all children to read. 

A crowd of 400 people packed the Corbett memorial site for a chance to see his fabled Rigby that had saved their forebears 90 years previously: it was not an instrument of death, but of deliverance. The site lies on the exact spot he took the leopard with the rifle. The very tree in which he built a machaan and lay in wait still looms over the gate into the cobbled area where a rather simple statue of Corbett looks back towards the tree. Guests included high ranking dignitaries, government officials, children from the local school and soldiers of the Kumaon regiment, Corbett’s old regiment fortuitously stationed at the local barracks when we were there. 

People had turned out in droves to pay their respects to the rifle. As at Ramnagar, this event was marked by more emotion and ceremony than you’d see at equivalent occasions in Europe or even the USA. The flowers, brightly coloured awnings and sheer passion made our typical large-cheque-and-handshake-for-the-camera affairs seem dry and empty. 

I for one came away feeling both humbled and enormously privileged to have been able to experience the people, places and wildlife of Kumaon. To visit and spend time at several of the actual sites Corbett dispatched man-eaters that he writes about in his books was humbling, and to see two wild tigers in all of their majesty is the best wildlife experience of my life. 

The day following the ceremony in Ramnagar, we made front-page news on over 70 newspapers including The Times of India, the nation’s largest national daily (7.6 million readers) as well as the Hindustan Times (3.8 million readers). It appeared that our primary objective of raising awareness about conservation had been achieved. Through Corbett’s rifle, together with the donation, we were able to shine a spotlight on wildlife and conservation topics for a short period to a great many people. 

We only hope it did some good. 

I’ve always admired Corbett, but I don’t think I really appreciated just quite how much of a hero he actually was until we visited this remarkable part of the world. It’s an honour to have been able to help Rigby contribute, even a little, to the continuation of his conservation legacy and legend.

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