When the devil came to India
On a cool afternoon in 1907, a young girl along with two other women from a small Indian village, went to a ravine to gather leaves for their fires and homes. The afternoon was pleasant. The humidity of the jungle cooled by the clouded skies. They were looking forward to a bout of rain. With baskets and knives in hand, they scrambled up the trees and quickly got to work, all the while chattering gossip between the thick leaves.
After the young girl had gathered enough of the leaves, she slid off the branch feet first and immediately screamed in terror when a tiger slammed its paw into her foot. Yelling and thrashing she desperately tried to haul herself back up onto the branch.
With a hard pull, the tiger yanked her clear of the tree and pulled her into the ravine. She could hear the screams from the other two women; their shouts and desperate pleas echoing in her ears moments before the tiger's teeth tore into her throat and killed her.
So the Devil of Champawet claimed its 434th victim.
Of tigers and hunters
In the 1800s it was once said that the war between tiger and man was so fierce in India, that either man or beast could come out the victor. People would walk between villages in groups, holding torches high up to scare off any would-be maneaters. Tigers had become a living nightmare.
And the Champawat Devil was the fiercest of all.
The tiger had been terrorizing the small community between Champawat and Pali for well over four years. Having been chased away from the small town of Nepal, the tiger's reign of terror showed no signs of slowing down. Victim after victim fell under her paws until the people finally placed a bounty on her head.
The Bengal tiger. Beautiful, powerful, deadly and now on the brink of extinction.
Many hunters would answer the call, but each returned in shame. She was far more cunning than they'd given her credit for. She was careful, cautious, smart, and vicious. But a young man who had lived out his life in India, hunting many different animals, also heard the call. His name was Jim Corbett.
Jim Corbett would become one of the most prolific maneater hunters in history, but in 1907 he was young, inexperienced, and he was up against one of the most vicious maneaters in history - still boasting one of the highest kills counts to this day.
When they summoned him, Jim Corbett immediately asked for the price on the tiger's head to be removed. Unlike many of his fellow hunters, he did not see the tiger as a crazed monster, but rather as an animal, desperate to survive. She needed to be stopped, but he'd be damned if he did so for the sake of money.
For four days he travelled through the hot jungles until he came upon the village of Pali, where he found the small town in disarray. The square was filthy and there wasn't a soul in sight. Spotting movement in the huts, he settled in the town square, started a fire and waited. Soon enough, pale-faced, terrified villagers trickled out of their homes. They told him they'd been hiding in their homes for four days to escape the tiger, to escape the devil.
The tiger had stalked the road between Pali and Champawat for the whole week, roaring loudly in the night, waiting for new prey. But they refused to move an inch. Now they were running out of food.
Realising their dire straights, Corbett immediately got to work. He took a man with him and headed to the ravine where the poor girl had been killed.
The tigress carrying off her victim to be devoured.
He found the pugmarks (tracks) of the tiger and quickly ascertained they were dealing with an older female, well past her prime. All remains they found of the girl were a few scraps of bone which they took back to the village to be cremated.
A new death would lead him to the neighbouring village of Champawat, where horrified eyewitnesses told of how the shaitan (devil) had carried a woman by the small of her back into the trees. She'd still been alive, screaming and begging for help, but their own fears had prevented them from following the beast.
Corbett would also meet a poor woman on the far outskirts of town who'd been struck dumb when the tiger had attacked and killed her sister. The mute woman had chased after the tiger, begging the animal to take her instead, but the tiger had paid her no heed and had disappeared into the bushes. By the time she got back to the village, she could barely string two words together, and for these past twelve months, she did not speak a word.
Corbett gathered as much information as he could. But this information was helpful only so far. He needed a strong lead - he needed a fresh sighting. While speaking to the head of the village a young man came running up to him, breathless and scared witless. The Devil had struck again.
Grabbing his hunting rifle, Corbett set off into the jungle to find the tiger and hopefully end her reign of terror.
He tracked her through the thick bush to a rocky area nestled in a gorge. The sweltering heat made it difficult to breathe in the thick foliage, but Corbett couldn't afford to let his guard down for a moment. The tiger shifted and moved just beyond his vision, staying just out of sight, stalking him. He could feel the terror and excitement rising within him.
As the sun began to dip, Corbett knew that in the dark he stood no chance against her. So he started back to the village to start work on his new plan. If he pursued her into her own territory, he would be in danger. So, he would just have to force her into an area where he could get a clear shot.
Early the next day, he stationed the villagers on the crest of a hill opposite another. At the bottom of the hill was a wide ravine. On his signal, he told them to make as much noise as possible to flush her out and force her into the open. The plan was to set up a position on the neighbouring hill and shoot her once she came into view. But the villagers were perhaps a little too eager.
At a staggering 150 yards away from his hoped position, the villagers started making an indecent amount of noise. Corbett ran as hard as he could over the uneven terrain. Above him on the other side of the ravine, the cacophony of guns, pots, pans, and screams swelled over the hill. He hit the ground moments later, settling in the tall grass, praying he hadn't missed her.
Then she appeared.
The hunter of the Champawat Devil; Jim Corbett. British hunter, tracker, author, and naturlist.
Old yet majestic, she trotted through the underbrush, her eyes wide and ears pinned back at the ruckus. Corbett took aim and fired, but the bullet landed on her rump. Taking aim again he was unlucky to land his second shot just behind her as she slipped up a rock. Cursing as his bad luck, he set off after her into the foliage. Above him, the roar and cheers roared in the ravine, and he prayed the people would stay put for the time being.
He found the tigress standing on a rock, her body tired and eyes glazed, but upon seeing him she fell low to the ground, her teeth flashing as a quick warning before she snapped into a charge.
Corbett fired a third time, clipping her in an outstretched paw, ready to crush his skull. She collapsed and crawled up and away to collapse on a stone outcrop, and finally, died.
When he saw her up close, Corbett's heart broke.
Her jaw, shattered on top and below was a cry against humanity - a foolish hunter who had wounded her a long time ago and had not had the decency to finish the job.
The bullet had crippled her, and in her desperate need for food, she had attacked and killed the villagers.
'Shaiton!' the word carried up and over the ravine, and before he knew it, the villagers were upon him, demanding that she be handed over so that they could hack her to pieces. Each of these men had suffered from this tigress in one way or another. Corbett could not blame them for their anger, but he managed to stop them.
They calmed down after some time, and when he did finally hand her over, they carried her down the rock with reverence.
The reign of terror had come to an end. The tigress would be taken from village to village to prove to all the people that the Devil had been slain. Corbett would eventually skin her and take the pelt with him as a trophy. But not before making one more stop.
He took the pelt to the mute woman, and when she saw the skin of the dead tigress she ran through the village, calling all to come and see. He remembered the awestruck expressions from her children at that moment, as for twelve months before that point, their mother had not spoken a word.
The story of the Champawat devil remains a terrifying tale of darkness, tragedy, and a serious example of nature's fury. But dead centre at the heart is the rallying cry against the unfairness of it all. Of a tiger who had turned maneater due to the stupidity of a hunter who had wounded, but not killed. Perhaps in her, we can all remember that anger can sometimes be justified.
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