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Madhya Pradesh: remembering a time when tiger were king, and bowhunting them was accepted adventure.

I crouched uncomfortably on the rough tree-branch machan, my soul quaking, but outwardly calm. Mosquitoes attacked under a warm sun, flies explored my nose and the edges of my lips. I waited in that machan, seven feet off the ground, knowing the tiger was coming, the villain of childhood horror stories. I dared not move. I harbored no illusions of a machan seven feet removed providing haven. Tigers had been known to pull hunters from those flimsy perches. The elevation was only created to gain vantage in head-high grass and jungle bush. The head shikari-professional hunter--outfitter you might call him--the Mohammedan Khan Sahib Jamshed Butt, sat beside me with his .375 magnum cocked.

The beaters advanced, a parade of lunatics, aboriginal black Gonds and Baigas carrying iron axes, cooing and hooting like doves on amphetamines. I had begun to discern the stopper's quiet clapping emanating from trees at each side of my perch. A running deer burst through a wall of reeds and temporarily frightened me witless. A peacock flushed to sail raucously over our heads. There were more small rustles and a bevy of monkeys arrived, leaping and chattering amongst themselves, followed by scampering cheetal and barking deer.

The beaters were nearly in my lap before I heard the terrible roars and the tiger arrived in 20-foot bounds, thundering, leaping above our level. There was no shot opportunity; neither with buck-shot-loaded scattergun, nor rifle, nor especially with the longbow and wooden arrows I wielded. That tiger, that Shere, that Bagh, was not following the script, flying past and out of our lives.

We had challenged this cat two days past. He had been beaten before I arrived, slightly wounded on past occasion by another's gun. I listened as he broke through the drunk and careless beaters, turning through the men, unaware of the established rules. Yet he lived amongst men, continued to kill their bullocks and tame buffalo with impunity. With injury or infirmity, so brazen in choosing his territory, he was a potential man-eater.

We would see no more of him. He had seen enough.

The Central Provinces of India, the Suphkar Range in particular--near Gondia, a few hours from Nagpur and equidistance from Bombay and Calcutta--was once a hunting paradise. It may be difficult to fathom in the times we live in, but tiger were then classified as vermin. Visiting hunters were welcomed to pursue them by any means, collect them in any numbers possible during a two-week expedition.

"Camp" was a dak-bungalow set on the summit of a hill overlooking rolling country of crisp greens, yellows and reds reminiscent of my home in Connecticut during fall. The Indians called it jungle, but there were evergreens, bright scarlet shrubs and tall green poplar-like trees. During those pleasant spring months nights were cool, days sparkling and warm. On arrival a servant brought Danish beer and English gin under light-breezy umbrella trees, the ear tuned to the jarring me-ow of peacocks, the incessant croak of ravens, a belling sambar stag spooked by tiger, sharp, biting yaps of barking deer. The bungalows were owned by the East Indian forest service, leased by the government to hunters, who rented shooting blocks of 10 square miles. It was a country club atmosphere, with kerosene-fueled refrigerators, two cooks, a dhobi to do laundry, personal servants to accommodate every whim, secretaries, clerks.

The Suphkar block had a history steeped in tiger hunting, 200 years of maharajas pursuing adventures with the striped feline. The area was still filthy with tiger in 1959.

To experience India as a hunter you booked through Allwyn Cooper Limited of Nagpur, India. The owner, Vidhya Shubla, guaranteed a tiger, or refunded the hunt price in full (so far unnecessary upon my arrival). Most nimrods returned home with multiple tiger pelts. There was other game available: guar, sambar stag, cheetal deer, several species of tiny deer, blackbuck antelope, wild boars, to name only a few. Tiger was the main event. Hunting was conducted on good English country roads, out of jeeps.

Hunters could count on killing tiger one of two ways: You beat, or you baited him.

The head shikari staked several oxen or tame buffalo purchased from local citizens upon your arrival, in areas where game scouts, stock herders or woodcutters had witnessed sign, or heard roars during the dark night. Pugmarks told your professional exactly how big your tiger was. After a bait was taken a crude machan or pit was quickly constructed, as terrain dictated. In times past hunters mounted elephant.

Your shikari then conferred with the nearest village mukia-dom, or headman, hiring a mob of beardless boys and wizened ancients who turned out like a small army. They were each given a rupee to steel their courage; or about 30 cents. Many turned out drunk in way of further girding their mettle.

The ideal tiger had not been beaten beforehand; the worst was a cat slightly wounded on past occasion, more likely to break the line of beaters and "stoppers." Vultures, carrion-kites and ravens in the air, slipping, swirling and cursing, indicated a tiger still feeding. By mid-morning the tiger could be counted on to retreat to a shady spot and lay low while digesting his repast, the birds sliding down greedily to take their share. Arrangements must be made before early afternoon, before the tiger recovered from his distended belly and slipped away.

The beating procession first created a horseshoe around the kill, beaters on the closed end, stoppers achieving trees along the long sides. The hunter waited at the open end. The beaters then moved in on the kill, banging drums, beating tree trunks with crude axes, setting up a cacophony of lunatic chanting. The stoppers were to remain silent; until the tiger attempted to break lines. At this point it was their job to clap, not loudly, but like a polite audience at the opera. The tiger stayed 200 yards ahead of the beaters, stepping cautiously, moving a few feet at a time, moving again when the beaters drew closer. The tiger was not frightened, merely disturbed. The tiger's nose was not an issue, but it was understood you were to be quiet and very still. This is the way it was supposed to come off.

Baiting involved a buffalo calf or hapless goat staked in the open, the hunter waiting nearby in the dark of night. Finding a natural kill was more profitable. Tigers were more apt to return to these kills a second time, especially if you could drive them away (heeding the presence of carrion birds) before their bellies filled. Tigers rarely returned to staked baits, even after taking only one serving.

Machans were constructed by roping small logs into the crotches of convenient trees, lashing them tight with leathery liana vines that dried like rawhide in the hot sun. These were hasty and uncomfortable perches.

It would be a natural kill that provided my long-anticipated moment.

A very large tiger, a reputed cattle-lifter, had knocked off one of the Gong villager's bullocks. This tiger, apparently, had been decimating the villager's herds. A woodcutter had happened onto the scene of the crime just at first light and accidentally driven the cat from his prize, dragged into tight brush for privacy. Khan Sahib traveled with this citizen at once to prepare for the night's watch. I was advised to invest in a nap against the long night ahead.

Wind stirred the sal trees, the sun heavy, as we toiled the mile through grabbing jungle. It occurred to me that the walk back, through dark jungle filled with cobras, promised higher adventure. A bloated buffalo lay in a clearing adjacent the tree holding the machan. Khan Sahib was confident the tiger would return to the kill, the feast he had been driven from. Assistants held the shaky ladder as we accessed the sketchy machan, derricking blankets, my bow and arrows, a powerful hand torch, after. Khan Sahib reminded me that should I wish to cough, sneeze, clear my throat, scratch or belch, I should do it then. Otherwise I was not to think too loudly.

Night arrived and with it new jungle calls both unfamiliar and spooky. My legs had gone to sleep but the biting ants and chewing mosquitoes had knocked off for the night. The crickets began, and a lot of never-seen night birds began to chime in. There were various pops and grunts and groans and crashes. A sambar stag belled, a cheetah barked, answered by barking deer. I jumped when a monkey screamed like a horrified child. Gonds, likely drunk, sung their ways home along the road a half mile distant. There were little pitters and patters and slithering in the bush all around, and I clung like a monkey, nerves wetted to a razor's edge.

And we waited.

I don't know how long I had dozed, but suddenly there was a punch in my ribs. It was as dark as the inside of a deep cave where the dead buffalo lay. I strained my eyes to the popping point, but saw only swimming shapes and colors. But I could hear him. I could hear ripping and crunching and tearing, growling and gurgling. It reminded me of a version of hell conjured from childhood Sunday-school preaching.

And we waited.

We let him become immersed in his ghoulish business. We allowed him to busily eat himself into the kill, to become so deeply interested in his dinner that he became impervious to all life around him. The waiting took 10 minutes. Perhaps. Ten hours in a lawyer's office would pass more swiftly.

And then there was another punch in my ribs, a lighter one. The sweaty leather wraps of my longbow handle snugged into my palm as I tightened on the string, pointing at something I could not see but only hear. An arm slid past my back and of a sudden black turned white as the powerful lamp came alive across my shoulder.

The tiger looked balefully into the light, his great clear yellow eyes reflecting the tongue of light. His face was as wide as a barrel opening, his huge ruff, his wire whiskers, clotted with blood. He snarled and showed teeth like railroad spikes. He snarled at the light and the enemy who had come to steal his meat. He looked up into the tree and right to me.

Even after all these years I find that the really important shots are those remembered in least detail. I must have pulled the string to anchor, or some approximation of it, pulled the back edge of the Zwickey Eskimo to my knuckle. I must have picked a single stripe on that cat just 12 yards away. I must have released the string. I do not remember.

The white fletching was abruptly protruding from the great cat's side and he went mad. There was a series of roars to wake the world, the cat springing and going over his own head, biting at himself, snapping the wooden shaft off and attacking himself. The roars could be felt as much as heard. It was too much for the ears alone. Too much to comprehend. Khan Sahib's .375 snaked over my shoulder, trained on the spotlighted cat.

Then just as suddenly, just as incomprehensibly, the cat vanished. He was there, emitting those ghastly roars, rolling and fighting this thing inside him, then he was not. Poof. Gone.

And we waited.

We sat in silence, listening to the tacit night. No crickets chirped, no night birds called, no deer barked. We did not breathe. All life on earth had ceased. I began to breathe again and looked to Khan Sahib, holding the light and gun at once, staring into the blank jungle. He finally looked at me and shrugged. I fished into my jacket pocket and found cigarettes, lighting one with great difficulty and handing it to Khan. I lit another for myself.

Khan Sahib began hollering for the natives to come with the ladder and let us out of the tree. It would take them half an hour to make their ways through the black jungle. I gave Khan another cigarette. I lit another one myself and begin to unwind.

And we waited.

The Gonds and the game ranger arrived with the hand-hewn ladder and we crawled out of the tree hurriedly but silently, and began the walk through pitch-black jungle, which now contained, in addition to cobras, an arrow-shot tiger. I admit to being just a bit frightened. Just a bit.

At the bungalow Khan and I sat awake, gingerly sipping gin, smoking under the furry black sky filled with a billion diamonds. We awaited light and the others, and we started when it was just light enough to operate safely. We took the herd of buffalo to hunt the tiger. About 25 buffalos milled along in the wake of the tiger's blood. That's the way it was done. The basic premise was that when the buffalo found the tiger, smelled him, they went mad with fear and anger, snorting and stomping like fighting bulls in a Spanish ring. If the tiger was dead, the job was done and everyone sighed deeply; if not, the tiger charged the buffalo and was finished with the gun. The key was to not get trampled by the fear-crazed buffalos, each weighing just shy of a ton.

We did not get charged, and we did not get trampled. The tiger, the biggest and most gorgeous tiger I would ever see or hunt again in my lifetime, lay 100 yards into the overgrown vegetation flanking a cool creek, sprawled out and huge and very much dead. He measured 10 feet and a tad from nose to white tail tip. He was a heck of a cat. He was as big as an elk. Khan slapped my back and shook my hand in hard jerks. The Gonds cheered and danced around the great cat. I was a hero. I was a god.

I had been up all night but could not make myself seek a bed. Khan seemed to feel the same. We sat in the shade, listening to the crying peacocks, the yapping barking deer, drinking gin less gingerly than before, saying nothing. A sambar stag belled, spooked by a passing tiger. Khan lifted his eyebrows, pointing with a cigarette. I smiled. I'd had all the tiger I wanted in my lifetime. It was time to take a look at the other game surrounding the dak-bungalow, the less dangerous stuff. I was on vacation then. First I would sleep.

That was what it was like to bowhunt tiger in Madhya Pradesh, central India, in 1959.
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Author:Myrdal, Drummond
Publication:Petersen's Bowhunting
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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