Around 1900 in India and Nepal, a Royal Bengal tiger had gone “cannibal”. That’s the term author John Vaillant attributes to Russians in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, used for describing when a tiger preys on humans as its primary food source. The Champawat tiger would take 436 lives in seven years, a mind-numbingly massive number, making that subtitle of “the deadliest animal in history” well, if queasily, earned.
This tiger ceased to behave like a tiger at all, in important respects, and transformed into a new kind of creature all but unknown in the hills of northern India’s Kumaon District, prowling around villages and stalking men and women in broad daylight.
As in the case Vaillant documented, the tiger’s turn to hunting humans was the result of a wound; here, in the tiger’s mouth, effectively crippling it from being able to catch its usual faster, more agile prey. Adapting out of necessity, it turned to the slower target of humans, a group made more convenient at that moment in history, as the tiger was being edged further out of its natural habitat thanks to deforestation, increased hunting, and land and agricultural development courtesy of the British Raj.
What becomes clear upon closer historical examination is that the Champawat was not an incident of nature gone awry – it was in fact a man-made disaster.
At the border of its territory were villages, where it mostly stalked those bent over working at the edges of fields or forest. It even crossed national borders when the angry, frightened villagers managed to chase it from Nepal to India.
“In the first decade of the twentieth century, the most prolific serial killer of human life the world has ever seen stalked the foothills of the Himalayas,” author and historian Dane Huckelbridge writes, establishing the idea of wild animal gone more wild as a serial killer, a repeated motif. The concept of “man-eaters” is undeniably, morbidly fascinating, but linking the Champawat and its reign of terror to a serial killer doesn’t quite fit. It’s characteristic of a tendency here to overemphasize for dramatic effect when the truth is thrilling enough.
The writing can be novelistic and descriptive with a near-epic, sweeping and evocative style. Until it crosses a delicate line and veers into purple prose, or melodramatic bits speculating about what the tiger may have been thinking. These extend to cover some of the unknown details of the story, like of the man who initially wounded the animal, setting this chain of events in motion. The author acknowledges a lack of documentary evidence in this history, and it did feel at times that there wasn’t enough concrete information to tell the story in a way that would be satisfying.
The details of its initial kills, before it arrived in India, are likely to stay murky. Jim Corbett, one of the few primary sources for the early exploits of the tiger, gives nothing in his account beyond the number of its Nepalese victims. And even in the present day, documenting tiger attacks in the remote frontier of western Nepal is difficult at best—many attacks go unreported, and problem tigers only gain recognition in the press when they’ve claimed unusually large numbers of victims. Not surprisingly, finding tangible evidence of specific tiger attacks more than a century old in the region is next to impossible.
Huckelbridge recognizes that the topic of colonialism is a dauntingly complex one, too vast and nuanced to be sufficiently covered in one book, let alone while dealing ostensibly with another story. But colonialism is the major force in the myriad changes that led to encroachment on the tiger’s territory, driving it into the villages, wounding it and limiting its natural food sources, eventually forcing it towards less preferable but easier prey and the ensuing horror this caused the region. So it does occupy significant page space, sometimes drily, but sometimes illuminatingly.
When it goes deeply into the region’s history, it gets dense. This is necessary background context but not easy reading. Much of the book deals with the environmental and sociopolitical changes that altered the Indian-Nepalese areas of the Bengal’s natural habitat, making the very existence of this man-eating anomaly possible. So it’s important, but can be hard to engage with and murky in parts.
At one point when a chapter opens with “But what about the tiger?”, it asked the question I had found myself wondering throughout. Despite demurring from tackling the complex and thorny topic of colonialism, the author had to, and alongside some biology, ecology, and terrifying details about tiger attacks, this history at least feels like it comprises more of the book than the story of the tiger itself. It’s unfair to compare too strongly to The Tiger, but since if not for that book I wouldn’t have read this one, I can’t completely avoid it. There, the historical background for a not-unsimilar scenario was less densely structured, which I think is what made it more readable.
But sections detailing the extent of hunting for sport and its ecological ripple effects were enlightening, all the more devastating to the ecosystem as tigers were considered “vermin” by colonial elites. A particular highlight of this contextual information was the culture around tigers and attacks in Southeast Asia. He explains the shunning of widows of men killed by tigers due to the strong, superstitious cultural stigma attached to it. These chapters were riveting.
The tiger was ultimately killed by a hunter named Jim Corbett, who would in a twist of irony later become an avid tiger conservationist. His book is primary source material for much of the narrative, but this problem of additional information, corroboration, and solid details arises. The author does manage to piece together a strange and thrilling story with what exists, but the gaps are where speculative flourishes creep in.
“It will probably always be an alleged number,” the author writes. I’m not sure this was such a researchable case in the first place – I think that’s why the structure took the course it did. There might have only been so much that was verifiable about the tiger and incidents themselves. It feels disappointing (which might be on me since another book on similar topics is an all-time favorite), but has some excellent moments and a deeply compelling story at its core. almost 3/5
With the profound changes taking place in Kumaon’s agriculture and forestry … the emergence of a tiger like the Champawat was not merely possible, it was, perhaps, inevitable. The grasslands where chital deer thrived were being put to the plow; the forests where sambar and gaur made their home were being logged at an unprecedented rate and drained of their biodiversity; the local people, who had lived sustainably alongside these places for millennia, were suddenly deprived of much of their livelihood and forced to sneak into the forest at night like bandits, stealing animal fodder and poaching game. Of course something was bound to give.
No Beast So Fierce:
The Terrifying True Story of the Champawat Tiger, the Deadliest Animal in History
by Dane Huckelbridge
published February 5, 2019 by William Morrow
Amazon / Book Depository
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.