Born as a child of the Raj to Anglo-Irish stock of modest means, Jim Corbett had free reign over the forests of northern India during his youth, at home under the jungle canopy and intimately familiar with the ways of the beasts and birds it housed.

Initially a recreational hunter, Corbett later focused on hunting man-eating tigers and leopards, becoming renowned for his prowess in dispatching these deadly predators when others failed. He refused payment, only demanding all other hunters vacate the area until he succeeded. His journeys through challenging terrain were perilous, often with minimal gear and food.

He often carried a Rigby rifle that had been presented to him in 1907 following his first dispatch of the man-eating Champawat Tigress. It was a .275 (7×57) magazine rifle purchased from Manton & Co. in Calcutta on behalf of Sir J.P. Hewett. It’s engraved with: ‘Presented to Mr J.G. Corbett by Sir J.P. Hewett K.C.S.I Lieutenant Governor of the United Provinces in recognition of his having killed a man-eating tigress at Champawat in 1907.’ 

This Rigby features in many of Corbett’s stories, including that of the Talla Des man-eating tigress and her two unfortunate cubs. Like many man-eaters, the tigress carried an injury which hampered hunting of her usual prey. A deep wound in her leg meant she was likely in constant pain for the eight years she stalked humans, accounting for around 150 souls.

For decades, little was known about the Talla Des tigress, bar Corbett’s notes from the 1940s. Then, in May 2023, Rigby received a message from a gentleman in Surrey who had the skin of the tigress. Before heading there to learn more, I re-read Corbett’s story.

On April 4, 1929, Corbett set out for the Talla Des tigress. It took several days by train and on foot to reach the village of Talla Kote, from where he began his quest. He soon found two tigers in a clearing from his vantage point on a rock outcrop. He shot the first as they slept; being unable to distinguish the cub from its mother at 120 yards. The second cub ran up the hill, before falling to a second shot. He later wrote ‘the cubs had died for the sins of their mother’.

The tigress was 200 yards away and running when Corbett fired – ‘I have never seen an animal fall as convincingly dead as that tiger fell at my shot’. The ‘dead’ tigress slipped down a slope, coming to rest on a sapling. After a few minutes she fell and Corbett fired at her body again, leaving him short of ammunition he would later need.

Walking to retrieve the fallen beast, Corbett was alerted to a presence, slowly scaling a bank 400 yards distant, clearly hit, but still moving. His shot missed and his rifle was empty. With night falling and a blood trail for the next day, he returned to the village. 

Hunting on, the heat and altitude would exhaust a healthy man, but Corbett had a severe inner ear abscess. His left eye was swollen shut and he was dangerously lightheaded. Finally, overcome with vertigo, Corbett climbed into an oak tree to rest. His abscess ruptured and he was able to resume his hunt in better shape.

The next day he got another shot at the tigress when she presented broadside at 60 yards. The bullet passed through the animal, and she disappeared. Following a blood trail, he found the tigress hiding, poised to spring at him. Shooting before she launched her attack, ‘my first bullet raked her from end to end and the second bullet broke her neck’.

When I visited the owner in Surrey, I found the 80-year-old skin faded but in better condition than expected. The owner’s great grandfather was born in India in 1875. He had returned to England in 1921, remaining in touch with his childhood friend, Jim Corbett, who it’s thought gave the skin to him in the early 1940s.

The tigress is relatively small but well mounted, in fierce, snarling pose by Van Ingen, with four bullet holes. As Corbett recounts: the first shot on April 9 ‘bushed’ on the tiger’s shoulder, the second, fired as she fell over the cliff, missed, as did the third. On April 12, his fourth had ‘gone clean through’ and the fifth and sixth shots proved fatal.

In 2021, I uncovered lost letters from Jim Corbett to his friend Sir William Ibbotson. Among them were images of the Talla Des tigress and her cubs. Linking those old photographs, re-reading Corbett’s incredible story and now contemplating her faded skin on the floor of a surbiton bedroom somehow condensed the last century into places and objects. How our world has changed.

 


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