My Life Story (Ch 2)


Tiger hunting in India 1880's

Tiger hunting in India 1880’s

After the close of the Abyssinian campaign and a year at home whilst I worked on the Abyssinian maps at the India Office, there followed eight years of the usual Survey business in India, when I was either attached to, or commanded, a topographical party making maps in Central India. The cold weather was always passed in actual map-making in the field, and the hot weather in the Himalayas, at Mussoorie, in completing the computations and in making fair copies of the maps for reproduction at Calcutta. In those days there was not much railway travelling, and weeks were passed marching to and from the field with all the usual distractions of shooting and visiting such places of interest as might be sufficiently near the line of route. It was a delightful life.

These were the days when globe-trotting visitors were rarely seen; when the rulers of the Native States (all my work was in the native states, not in British India) were only too glad to welcome any Sahib who would pay them a visit, and not only placed all the big game shooting of their states at his disposal, but often sent out a very able-bodied guard of native cavalry to safe-guard the camp and incidentally to assist in the hunting. They would scatter wide and far over the country to be surveyed and would mark down the haunts of tigers, buffaloes, etc., until the Sahib was able to get round that way in the course of his work. It was astonishing how often the course of his work led to the haunts of big game.

The camp was most luxurious. Besides a huge Shamiana (or open-sided tent) for general purposes, every assistant had his own little camp, and when all were together they covered a large space, and must have cost the country much in foodstuffs. However, I did not, in those days, think much about that. I always had two elephants which were reserved for reconnoitering purposes, the carriage of the camp being left to the camels. In Central India the two elephants were both highly trained for shikar. One was called Roshanara and the other Imam Piari. Roshanara was absolutely steady in the face of a tiger — or any other game — and feared nothing; but she was apt to be cross. Imam Piari, on the other hand, was not so steady, but she was delightful to play with. I never had to make her sit down in order to mount her. I just took the tips of her two ears in my hands, standing in front of her, when she would offer the end of her trunk for me to step on and then heave me up over her head on to her back.

I had of course several horses, and worked them pretty hard, but my favourite was a grey Arab called Sultan, handsome as a picture, and afraid of nothing. The day’s work for me was the morning’s march — twenty miles or so — then a climb up some hill which had been selected as a good point of observation; about five or six hours work with the theodolite observing to all the other stations (some of them perhaps 30 miles off) from which signals were flashed with heliographs; then down to camp again for the night. Sometimes I stayed on the top of the hill all night to get the clearest view in the mornings. This was the process of triangulation, and from this all the points were fixed which guided the topographers (i.e. map makers) in their work. I did a good deal of topography too, for I found it most fascinating work.

It was not till the hot weather began to set in that “inspection” commenced, and it was the inspection generally which led one to places that were known to be good for shikar. Of course opportunities occurred now and then in the cold months. I am not going to tell tiger stories, because no one believes them, but I did get a few tigers (about 18) and lots of other smaller game besides.

One little story I will tell, because it is about a very gallant R.E. officer who is dead. He was Edward Leach (who afterwards greatly distinguished himself) and he joined me in Central India as assistant. One hot spring day our two camps amalgamated and we went for a morning’s shoot where we knew there were tigers in a long, deep, thickly wooded “Kho” or gully.

We beat it out in sections, taking it turn and turn about to take the elephants and guide the beaters, or sit at the end of the beat and wait till the tiger emerged. I took Roshanara when my turn came, and we beat steadily up the kho until I heard a shot at the end of it. This I knew was Leach. Then followed another shot. So I shoved along quickly till I came to Leach sitting in a most insecure place on a low branch of a tree, beaming with delight. He pointed out the place where he had shot at and wounded a big tiger that had turned and disappeared. Then it was my business to hunt for that tiger and finished him off — which I did. The tiger fell dead into the stream running through the gully, and that was that. But Leach wasn’t satisfied. He said, “All right so far, but there is another tiger to be beaten out. I hit two

Well, I hunted up and down with the sun on my back and Roshanara made no sign. She generally let me know when near a tiger. I was hot and tired, so I went back to Leach and said “You must have hit the same one twice, and he is dead”. But my friend got very angry, and bounced down out of his tree and said “If you can’t find him, I will try — this is the place where I last saw him” and he crawled flat along the ground underneath a thick prickly bush which Roshanara was actually picking leaves from, and into the depths of which I could not see. There came a voice from under the bush; “This is where I saw him last — and by — here he is still!! What shall I do now?”

Leach was lying flat with his head about a yard from the head of a wounded and very angry tiger. I could only see the ends of his legs sticking out. Had I fired in to the midst of that bush, I might just as likely hit Leach as the tiger. If he attempted to crawl back, the tiger would most certainly have jumped on him and smashed his skull. I could only say “Don’t move more than you can help, but pull your rifle alongside you and fire straight into the tiger’s face” He did it. Inch by inch he pulled up his rifle till the muzzle was about a foot from the tiger’s nose, and killed him dead! Then he crawled back the way he got in, jumped up and said, “There I told you there was another!” Leach afterwards won the V.C. in Afghanistan, commanded a battalion in Egypt and died suddenly from heart disease, as a K.C.B.


Four years in Central India were followed by four years in the Central Provinces — darkest India — the country of wild aboriginal peoples who had never seen a white man and who fled to the hills and jungles at the sight of a horse! This is the Godavari river country, full of prehistoric relics, which have never yet been properly explored, a country so deadly with its peculiar form of malaria that I lost all my native assistant surveyors and nine out of sixteen of the Europeans in the course of four years.

There was some compensation in the fact that I spent the hot weather months at Ootacamund, in the Nilgiri hills of Madras, which place is, to my thinking, quite the most delightful station in India. The profusion of flowers and ferns, the rolling grass hills (over which we had really first rate hunting,) the beauty of the scenery generally and the facilities for driving and riding about (which don’t exist in the Himalayas) made my life there a joy in spite of the beastly effects of Godavari fever — to say nothing of the fact that Harold and Yda were born there.

In spite of dear “Ooty”, however, I was sent home absolutely crippled with malarial rheumatism, and it was then that I made my first acquaintance with Harrogate and with Kitchener. There was a survey job to be done in Cyprus, and I wanted to go there — but Kitchener had been on the Palestine Survey, and the old Queen was very fond of Palestine and very good to all the R.E. officers who surveyed there. We both applied for the job — but Kitchener got it, and he came round to me dancing and exulting. He little knew what it would lead to.

Then came the Afghan War of ‘78,’79-’80. I was in it from start to finish.

Before leaving this part of my life in India, let me tell you that nothing that has happened before or since seems equal to that peaceful careless time when one could wander through those beautiful and historic plains of Central India or the wilder jungles of the Central Provinces and see India as she really was. I know those Central Indian States almost intimately — not the big towns, perhaps, but the hills and forests, the plains and lakes and rivers, as few Europeans will ever know them, and I love the memory of them.

Men and animals were almost equally interesting to me, especially as much that I saw was quite different to anything that I heard or learnt beforehand. Particularly the people.

I had no idea that any part of India was so absolutely unknown to white men as to be practically unexplored. But the upper reaches of the great rivers that flow into the Godavari (Wyngunga and the Indravati) water large tracts of jungle which are practically unknown even now. Here live the earliest Oravidian inhabitants — the Gonds — who were in India long before the races that everybody meets in the great cities and plains of the North.

Here they use stones instead of knives; wear hardly any clothing; don’t know what a horse is, and are very much afraid of one; set up rude stone monuments to the dead, or dress up wooden images of a peacock and set it on a post as a memorial; indulge in strange wild dances on the anniversary of deaths rather than births, and are as untutored and savage as any pygmies in Central Africa. But their country is deadly for the European, and that is why no one ever travels through those jungles except the occasional

Roman Catholic priest, or some adventurous Civil Officer who thinks it his duty to see every part of the district he governs.

The tiger has it all his own way in these jungles. He will kill in the open, in the middle of the day (which he never does in civilised parts) and villages have to be stockaded to keep him out. As a rule a tiger never advertises himself by roaring, like a lion but I have known exceptions.

I was once loafing quietly along a jungle path that led to a populous village, which I intended to visit. I was in the howdah on Roshanara so as to see over the top of the long waving spring grass, just at the close of the cold weather before the hot winds set in which generally indicate the season for tiger shooting. (This is because tigers lie up and sleep through the hottest hours of the day and it is easier then to get near them, particularly if they have had a good feed).

On the way I had had a curious experience. I met a loafing alligator right in the middle of the dry road, far from any water. That is the only time I ever saw an alligator migrating, and making his way from some tank or swamp, which was getting too dry, to some other which he knew would keep him properly moist during the hot months. He objected to the elephant passing, and whirled himself about with his mouth open in a ridiculous way, till one of my active Khalassis knocked him on the head with a pole, which settled him for a time. I didn’t want to kill him; he was no good to me. And as curious experiences often occur together, it wasn’t far from that alligator, and almost close to the village, that I suddenly heard a tiger roar.

This was most unusual. My mahout, who was a very old hand at tiger hunting, insisted that we could find him in the long grass, and that it meant fighting. So off we plodded, into the thick grass and over some rocky ground. We should never have had a chance of seeing that tiger or getting near him but that he made the mistake of roaring at intervals, and giving us his line. At last we climbed (Roshanara was quite good at climbing) up some rather loose, flat-topped rocks, and got on to a small rocky platform, which was not too secure under the elephant’s weight, and looked around. It was then that for once my usually good sight failed me.

All of a sudden, Kabir Khan (the mahout) pointed down into a dark depression amongst the rocks and shouted, “There he is, Sahib, shoot and shoot quickly, for he is preparing to jump, and what may happen if we fight it out in such a position as this, God only knows”. In fact, if Roshanara had backed even a yard, we should have gone rolling head over heels down amongst the ragged rock edges. And I couldn’t see him! I looked and looked, and in the dark cavity of that jungle-filled hole I couldn’t see a stripe. The position was too risky for conventionalities (it isn’t conventional to allow the mahout to shoot), and I was obliged at last to hand my rifle over to Kabir Khan and tell him to stop the beast from jumping at Roshanara’s head.

Kabir Khan was a most excellent shot, but he couldn’t see much either. The result of his shot was a wild buck up into the air (just like a jack-in-the-box) and a tail whirling around like a corkscrew. Mercifully the tiger bucked on to the far side of the hole, and as he bounded round to face us, I finished him off with the other rifle.

It was a very tight fit. But the tiger was dead alright, and with difficulty we got him within reach of the elephant, and with infinite labour (Kabir Khan hauling at the top and I shoving the carcass up behind) we tried to tie it up behind the howdah, whilst old Roshanara knelt. But the weight was too much for me. I crumpled up beneath it, and the wretched tiger slithered down between Roshanara’s hind legs. The dear old thing would certainly stand a good deal, but she wouldn’t stand this. For all she knew, that tiger might have been alive! Anyhow, she took her own method of settling it. Slowly rising up (whilst I fled in a hurry), she kicked the dead body under her and then played a weird sort of game with it between her fore and hind legs, dancing around and shrieking her rage. Meanwhile Kabir Khan was dancing on her head (much the safer place!), and so the game went on till Roshanara was perfectly satisfied that the beast was dead. She gave it one final kick aside, and then resumed her normal phlegmatic attitude. It was a quaint performance.

We had to send out from the village for the tiger, which was brought in with great jubilation. He was a man-eater and had been living on the village for some time. That, no doubt, was the reason of his roaring at us, and it was that impertinence that led to his death. But I must record that technically it wasn’t my tiger. The skin always belongs to the man who gets in the first shot. It was Kabir Khan’s tiger. There was, however, something that was unusual, even about the skin. The skin was thick and full of fur, beautifully striped and absolutely free from blemish. This upset the theory that man-eaters are always old and mangy, and it was a remarkable example of the toughness of a cold-weather skin, for I thought that Roshanara would have left her mark and many of them on it! In the hot weather that skin wouldn’t have been worth picking up.

The period of my service in Central India was coincidental with a natural history event of some significance. It was when I was there that the last lion disappeared from Central Indian jungles. In fact, I hastened his disappearance.

For many years previously, lions had been found within a certain limited area south of Gwalior and centered on Goona. That very sporting regiment, the Central Indian Horse, was stationed at Goona and needless to say, it was the earnest desire of every sporting subaltern in India to join that regiment and shoot lions. Thus it was that lions were so far cleared out of the jungle when I began my work in that district, that two inferior specimens kept in captivity in the compound of the C.I.H. Mess were all that remained of that particular yellow-maned variety, which shared with tigers the chief interest of the regiment.

I had no idea that there were any survivors in the jungle — indeed, the C.I.H. sportsmen were very sure that there were not. But it happened one hot spring that I was inspecting in a remote part of the State where I was told that tigers were to be found, when I got news of a “kill”, and at once made my arrangements for a beat on the following day at the hottest time of day, when we might expect to find the big tiger, sleeping the sleep of the just, after gorging himself.

That night something happened. Some hungry beast ranged round my camp roaring and making so much noise that the horses were terrified, and the syces (grooms) had to be up all night with them. I might have remembered Abyssinia and tales of Africa. Tigers don’t wander about camps roaring. If they want to pick anything up, they do it like leopards — suddenly and noiselessly. Lions often roar all night at a camp. In the morning a wise and skinny old shikari pointed out to me the “pugs” or footprints of the animal, and said, “That is not a tiger, sahib; it ought to be a lion if there is one left”. However, I knew no better than to beat for it as I would for a tiger.

Now, a lion will kill in the middle of the day, which is unusual indeed for a tiger; and he is probably wide-awake at that time. This one was, anyhow; and I had hardly crept up to where the “kill” was to be recognised by the smell of it, when out sprang a great yellow beast, with a terrific roar, and off into the grass with a rush. I had one flying shot at him, but nothing eventuated. There was no blood spoor. I went back to camp a wiser man.

My old humbug of a shikari, who knew perfectly well that it was a lion all the time, was good enough to tell me exactly where it had gone to. But it was too far out of my way. I wasn’t out for shooting big game only. I wrote to my friends at Goona and told them all about it. They derided my idea that it was a lion. All the same, they went where I told them, and they got it. It was a very old male. Years afterwards, the question was raised in the papers as to when the last lion was seen, and I was much interested when a distinguished C.I.H. officer wrote in reply that none had been seen or heard of since that particular event. The officer (Montagu Gerard) could claim more than 100 tigers to his own rifle, so he had plenty of experience. There are still a few lions left in Gujrat (Western India), but they are jealously preserved by the Raja.

On the whole, the alligators gave me as much trouble as any of the beasts of the field, excepting, perhaps, leopards. They were always taking the dogs, and their perception of the existence of puppies was marvellous. I have known an alligator hoist his slimy body out of a big sheet of water (it was the well-known Rata Devi lake) and make straight for my tent, where the dogs lay under the extended flap of it, in spite of all obstacles.

He was found out by the watchmen on guard, and severely beaten on the head, but he still came on like a steam engine. At last they woke me and said that nothing but a bullet would stop him. So I went out into the dark and couldn’t see him — nearly trod on him within a few yards of the tent — and finally had actually to set a light on to a wisp of straw and throw it on to his head to see to shoot. A bullet at 2 yards distance effectually stopped him, but nothing else would.

On a rainy day I once lost a valuable retriever in quite a small tank near where I was in camp; so I set to work to circumvent the alligator that took him. After careful watching I saw at last a great slimy thing looking like a wet log lying on the bank, close to the water. A bullet plumped into him seemed to have no effect. He was into the water like a flash. Once again he appeared, basking on the edge, and again the same thing happened. It happened several times. At last I thought of baiting an enormous iron hook with a dead dog and coiling the rope attached to that hook round a tree stump. This was effectual. Dog and hook were swallowed in one piece, and then ensued the process of getting the alligator out.

We hauled on that rope with two or three men, but totally failed to move him. Then a happy thought struck me (Charles Strahan had joined me in camp as the persistent rain prevented any work being done), and we fastened up the rope to the gear of one of the elephants, and set her to drag the alligator from its lair. It was a case of “Pull devil, pull baker!” Slowly, slowly, the great ugly beast was hauled to the surface, and then to the bank — and then indeed the fun began.

The alligator on dry land gave up the tug of war as a bad business, and went for the elephant’s hind legs!

This was dangerous, as a frightened elephant in camp is no joke. We had to shoot that alligator and stop the ramp, or the elephant might have danced into our tents. Then a curious thing happened. We had to stay on in that camp for another day or two, and meanwhile the alligators we had shot at, and which jumped off the bank into the water with such rapidity, began to come to the surface dead. They had been hit all right, but were not stone dead; they had died subsequently under water. There must have been five or six of them. The tank was apparently full of them. We were glad when the rain ceased and we could get away.

Written by Col Sit TH Holdich and first published in the HFHS Journal Issue 2 May 1992

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