Colonel Edward James ‘Jim’ Corbett, a British hunter, conservationist, naturalist and writer, was born on 25th July, 1875, in Nainital, India. He was the eighth child of William Christopher and Mary Jane Corbett. Jim studied at the Oak Openings School (now Philander Smith College) and at the Diocese Boys School (now Sherwood College) in Nainital. At the age of seventeen, even before completing high school, he joined the Bengal and North Western Railway, working first as a fuel inspector in Punjab and then as a contractor for the shipment of goods across the Ganges in Bengal. When World War I broke out in 1914, Corbett moved to France and trained Allied soldiers in jungle warfare. He held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Army. In 1920, he resigned from his job due to a breakdown in his health and returned to Nainital, where he served on the Nainital municipal board for over two decades. It is this period that he is most renowned for, during which he killed a number of man-eating tigers. Corbett wrote several books on the Kumaon region. Man-Eaters of Kumaon, Jungle Lore and Tree Tops are some of his most popular works and international bestsellers.After India gained independence in 1947, Corbett and his sister Maggie retired to Nyeri, Kenya and it is here that he died of a heart attack on 19th April 1955 and was buried at the St. Peter’s Anglician Church in Nyeri.
Jim’s fascination for forests and wildlife became evident early in his life. By the age of ten, Jim had shot his first leopard. His frequent excursions to the jungle in the years that followed made him an expert tracker and hunter. From 1907 to 1938, Corbett tracked and killed a documented 33 man-eating tigers and leopards. It was estimated that these had killed more than 1200 men and women. The first tiger he killed was the Champawat tiger which was responsible for 436 deaths in the Champawat district of present day Uttarakhand. He also shot the Panar Leopard which, allegedly, had killed over 400 people. Analyses of the carcasses of these man-hunters revealed that they had been forced to turn away from their normal prey due to having suffered deep wounds such as gun shots or porcupine quills. This realization turned Corbett into a conservationist. He was deeply concerned about the fate of tigers and their habitat and lectured groups of school children about natural heritage and the need to conserve forest and wildlife. He promoted the foundation of the Association for the Preservation of Game in the United Provinces and the All-India Conference for the Preservation of Wildlife and played a key role in establishing India’s first national park in the Kumaon Hills – the Hailey National Park. This was fittingly renamed ‘Corbett National Park’ in 1957 in his honour.
Corbett was the most modest and unassuming of men. He never sought limelight but was publicly honoured by the Government of India both before and after independence. Some of the accolades received by Corbett were – the Kaisar-i-Hing gold medal (1928), the Order of the British Empire (1942), and the Companion of the Indian Empire (1946). In 1968, one of the five remaining sub-species of the tiger was named ‘Panthera tigris corbetti’, also called ‘Corbett’s tiger’.
Corbett’s winter home in Kaladhungi has now been converted into a museum. His home in Nainital, Gurney House, presently owned by Nilanjana Dalmia, is a private residence but still contains Corbett’s possessions and welcomes Corbett lovers.