Wherever humans and large predators come together there are often bound to be what are called man-eaters, those individuals that turn to eating humans for one reason or other. Normally this is just due to the animal not being able to hunt its normal prey anymore, either due to disease or injury, and they are usually hunted down and killed before they can do too much damage. However, every once in a while there is a case of a man-eater that goes above and beyond the norm. At the turn of the century one area of India was visited by just such a beast, which operated more like a serial killer than a mindless beast, carefully, thoughtfully, and methodically going about its grisly work, and considered to be so unstoppable that it gained a reputation for being a supernatural creature from our worst nightmares.
In 1903, a Rupal village in western Nepal, Himalayas, had their peaceful way of life shattered by the death of a villager who had been ruthlessly mauled and killed by a tiger. It was tragic and frightening for the locals, something that inspired great fear in them, but they nevertheless tried to get back to their normal life. This would prove to be easier said than done, as the tiger didn’t seem to be done yet, killing another villager, then another, always in broad daylight and with seemingly absolutely no fear of people. It was found to be a Bengal tigress, and through her campaign of increasingly bold attacks, her death toll entered the double digits. Hunters from around the region attempted to track the tigress down, yet for as bold as she was in her attacks, she seemed to vanish when hunters were on her tail, the elusive beast constantly evading all attempts to hunt her down with an almost supernatural ability to avoid them.
As these hunts were going on, she continued her killing spree, often not even eating her kills, as if she were doing it for fun and sport, and when the death toll reached 200 the village had no choice but to seek the help of the government. The Nepalese Army arrived in the region, and after they were unable to capture or kill the cat they resorted to a massive beat campaign, which entailed large numbers of people walking through the tigress’s territory banging on drums, firing rifles, and making as much noise as possible. The idea in these maneuvers is to frighten the predator away and make it move on, and in this case it seemed to work. The tiger’s attacks stopped and she moved out of her territory, yet she was not dead, and simply moved her bloodlust across the border into India.
The tigress moved into the Kumaon area of India and immediately began her ruthless killing spree again, killing indiscriminately but with a cruel cunning that was uncanny. The tigress was exceptionally good at avoiding hunters and traps, and would employ an array of tactics to cover her tracks. For instance, she would move around from place to place in order to stagger her attacks and remain unpredictable, never attacking in the same place twice and often travelling 20 miles in a single night in order to hit another village and move on. The attacks were so unpredictable and covered such a wide range of far-flung villages that no one ever knew when she would strike next, every shadow and stand of trees potentially holding death. The bloodthirsty beast, which would come to be known as the Champawat Tiger, named after the village Champawat that was at the center of her vast territory, became highly feared in the region, and many rumors began to circulate. There were some who said the tigress had the ability to vanish without a trace, others who claimed that she was bulletproof, and soon she was being whispered about as not a regular tiger, but rather a menacing supernatural creature. Author Dane Huckelbridge, author of No Beast So Fierce: The Terrifying True Story of the Champawat Tiger, the Deadliest Animal in History, has said of the psychological effect the tiger had on the region:
The tiger killed with almost supernatural efficacy and was the most prolific serial killer of human life the world had ever seen. They had become veritable refugees in their own homes, stalked by a specter that seemed able to kill them at will. The entire countryside was paralyzed, as no one knew where or when the tiger might strike.
At the time, tiger attacks were nothing new in India, in fact there were at least 1,000 such attacks a year in the early 20th century, but what made the Champawat Tiger different was her unusual habit of moving so far between villages, her uncanny and spooky ability to avoid hunters, her tendency to kill for no reason, and the sheer ruthless pace of her attacks, eventually responsible for an estimated 436 deaths including men, women, and children. Large bounties were offered for the death of the tiger, and some of the best big game hunters in the British Empire were sent to the region to come away empty-handed, the tiger continuing her trail of death right under their noses. This went on for years as the death toll mounted and the Champawat Tiger gained a reputation among superstitious locals as a supernatural demon unable to be vanquished, their only hope to cower and hide behind locked doors and hope it did not come for them.
In 1907, out of desperation in the face of mounting deaths, Charles Henry Berthoud, the deputy commissioner of Nainital, approached an Irish colonist by the name of Jim Corbett, who had lived in the hills of Kumaon his whole life and was well known as an expert on the jungle and master hunter of big cats, having killed his first leopard at the tender age of 10. Corbett agreed to take up the challenge under some conditions. First, he wanted the bounties stopped, and second, he insisted that all other hunts for the tiger be called off while he worked, due to the fact that he felt that being classed as a hunter for bounties was below him, and furthermore did not want other hunters interfering in his hunt. The government agreed to these conditions and Corbett went about preparations to venture out into the wilderness to slay the demon tiger.
It did not take long for Corbett to come across signs of the tiger’s wrath, coming across a village he at first took to be abandoned, but which would prove to be empty because everyone was cowering indoors due to a recent attack. At this point, Corbett would have no luck, finding only the half eaten leg of a woman in the brush but no other signs of the tiger. He decided to stay in the vicinity and stake the place out in the hopes that the tiger would return, but it was living up to its evasive reputation, refusing to make an appearance over the next several days. He decided to head for the nearby village of Champawat, which seemed to be the epicenter of the tiger’s territory and had received the most persistent attacks, and upon arrival he was lucky in that it would turn out a 16-year-old girl would be dragged into the forest shortly before after he arrived, leaving a trail of blood into the trees that was still fresh. With gun in hand and several locals as hunting companions, he stalked off into the wilderness following that trail of blood into the gloom, the hunter now being hunted.
The trail of blood got more gruesome as it meandered through the dim forest, turning up splinters of bones, pieces of torn clothing and flesh, but they could not locate the beast. Frustrated, Corbett decided to try a different tactic, gathering together a group of around 300 villagers, who formed a line and began working their way through the area beating on drums, pots and pans, shouting and screaming as loud as they could, headed for a gorge ahead. At the mouth of this gorge, Corbett had set up a blind, where he lay in wait with his rifle trained at the tree line ready to fire at whatever came through. He did not have long to wait, as soon he saw “a striped apparition, too fleet to be real, erupting from the shadows.” The big cat glared at him and came running, with Corbett missing on the first shot, but hitting the tiger on the second and third. These shots seemed to do little to stop the furious tiger’s advance towards him, almost confirming that it was indeed bulletproof, and when the fourth shot clicked on an empty cartridge, Corbett found himself in quite the predicament. With the snarling tiger careening towards him, Corbett managed to run to a companion nearby, grab his shotgun, and whirl about to blast the beast from around 20 feet away. This shot caused it to crash and crumple to the ground to lie still, the unstoppable demon tiger finally vanquished. An examination of the carcass would show that the tiger had a damaged jaw and shattered teeth, likely from a shot from a hunter in the past and definitely the reason she had become a man-eater.
When word got out that the tiger had finally been killed there was cause for celebration all throughout the region, and Corbett was hailed as a savior. He would become known as a hunter of man-eaters in the following years, eventually hunting down more than 30 other dangerous leopards and tigers including the infamous leopard known as the Thak Man-Eater. After a while he soured to the idea of killing these magnificent cats, in later years becoming heavily involved in tiger conservation, spending the last two decades of his life lobbying for their protection, their biggest enemy becoming one of their strongest supporters. He would die in 1955 at the age of 79 and have a tiger refuge named after him. Yet although he worked hard at tiger conservation and was a best-selling writer in his last years, Corbett is still mostly known as the one who brought down the Champawat Tiger, which still has a place in in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest number of confirmed human kills for her species. It is all a rather chilling story of the clashes that can happen between man and nature, a harrowing tale of what can happen when a lethal predator goes rogue, and a curious historical oddity of one of the deadliest animals that has ever lived.