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20 May, 2016

Tigers in Bangalore in the Colonial era

A version of this story 'The last of Bengaluru’s tigers' was published in 'India Today' in December 2014

A sketch of a British hunter on a tiger shikar (hunt).
SourceArthur J. O. Pollock, 'Sporting days in Southern India', 1894. 
In the 19th century the tiger was no stranger to undivided Bengaluru district which included today’s Ramanagar district. There are many accounts in the British literature on the presence of this magnificent cat here. Bengaluru figures prominently in the shikar literature as it was an important cantonment during the entire stretch of the British rule here which started with the annihilation of the Mysore army in 1799. The city was surrounded by open areas that had grasslands and the wildlife depending on it like blackbuck, lesser florican and great Indian bustard. Nevertheless, big cats like tigers and leopards thrived in pockets of woods in and around the city.

Tiger killing, a public amusement in early 1800s
Among the earliest narratives of the tiger around Bengaluru can be found in Francis Buchanan‘s book ‘A journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar’ published in 1801 in 3 volumes. He mentions of tigers in Ramagiri hill near Ramanagar town and also near Chennapatna town both of which are about an hour’s drive today from the city. It may surprise many, but according to shikar literature, hunting of captured tigers was a popular sport right inside the city in early 19th century. The Maharaja of Mysore, who overlooked the affairs of the city along with the rest of Mysore kingdom from 1799 to 1831, used captured tigers for the amusement of state guests. Such guests, many of whom were serving British officers, were given a chance to indulge in spearing of big cats including tigers, leopards and cheetahs, the later known as the ‘hunting leopard’ in early shikar literature. Numerous men on horsebacks, elephants and even foot would take the captured animals in cages and release them in the open where hunters would spear them repeatedly till they met their gory end. One popular place where this ‘amusement’ took place was the old race course of Bengaluru. Gillespie.R.R ('A memoir of Major-General Sir R. R. Gillespie', 1816) mentions an instance of this happening in 1809. Col. James Welsh records his spearing of a tiger here that was captured near Closepet (former name of Ramanagar town) and brought here for this specific purpose. He also narrates another event of spearing a tiger in October 1811 in the same book ‘Military Reminiscenes Extracted from a journal of nearly forty years’ active service in East Indies’, 1830.
In his book ‘Thirty Years in India’, 1839, Major Hery Bevan of the Madras Native Infantry has documented his experiences between 1808 to 1838 as a soldier and shikari in India and recollects Maharaja of Mysore promoting the spearing of cheetahs as a ‘public amusement’. This sport seems to have stopped after the British imposed their direct administration of Mysore province in 1831 when they removed the Maharaja from power. In ‘My Indian Journal’, 1864, Col. Walter Campbell refers to Captain Welsh’s narration of tiger and leopard spearing as an event in the past but does not mention if the same was practised as he wrote it.

Sketch of a tiger attacking a shikar elephant
SourceMoray Brown.,J, 'Shikar sketches, with notes on Indian field-sports', 1887
Government reward for killing tigers 
There are British records of rewarding the killing of tigers and other big game like leopards and elephants ever since their capture of Mysore Kingdom and partition of its territories amongst the war allies in 1799. In December that year, Arthur Wellesley, then Governor of Seringapatam and Mysore, recommended the Government 'for an allowance for the destruction of tigers' in the neighbourhood of Chitradurga (‘Dispatches of Field Marshall Duke of Wellington, during his various campaigns in India, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, the Low countries and France from 1799 – 1818’, 1834). From 1831 to 1881, when Mysore province was administered directly by the British, the tiger was continued to be seen as a threat to humans even when it had not turned to killing humans or cattle. In July 1834 the British under Mark Cubbon, Commissioner of Mysore, brought about reforms of police in the province. A Hukumnama or code was issued that mandated the duties of the Armed Kandachar Peon or the police constable of today. Among the duties was the killing of tigers for which they were rewarded Rs. 10 for an adult and Rs. 5 for a cub! The Asiatic Journal & Monthly Register for British and Foreign ..., (Volume 19, No: 73, May 1834) mentions of tiger skins being brought into Bengaluru in ‘abundance’ from the ‘adjoining country’ to claim money from the Government which rewarded their ‘extirpation’. And that reward seems to have been increased later on. In ‘Thirteen Years Among The Wild Beasts Of India’, 1879, Sanderson.G.P. writes that the Government reward in Mysore province for killing a panther (leopard) was Rs. 25. For a tiger the reward was Rs. 30 which later was increased to Rs. 50. The price on the tiger’s head was surprising given this statement by Sanderson in the same book, ‘Man-eaters are exceedingly rare in Mysore and the surrounding territories. In the past fifteen years there has only been one of great note—the Benkipoor tiger.’ Year wise details of the number of wild animals killed, including tigers, can be found in some shikar literature as well as the Government documents of those days.

Wild animals hunted in British India in 1878
Source: '2 years in the jungle - the experiences of a hunter and naturalist in India, Ceylon, the Malay Peninsula & Borneo', 1904. 
Well-known illustrator Douglas Hamilton in September 1853 is credited with a hunting trip to Bidadi, today a densely populated suburb of Bengaluru, in ‘Records of sport in southern India...from journals written between 1844 and 1870’, 1892.

Today’s National Highway, then an abode for tigers
The observations on the tiger around Bengaluru by Major General R.S.Dobbs in ‘Reminiscences of Life in Mysore, South Africa, and Burmah’, 1882, are equally fascinating. Dobbs first visited Bengaluru in 1828. In 1835 he moved to Tumakuru, head quarters of Chitradurga Division, where he served as the division’s Superintendent for over two decades. Officers and their dependants intending to travel to Tumakuru from Bengaluru had to do so on palanquins, over a narrow track that crossed through thick jungle at some places. During nights the palanquin bearers would miss their way many times. He adds there was hardly any cart traffic during those days and travellers used carts to move light luggage only occasionally. It seems the condition of this track was so bad that a cart travelling on it would overturn many times. And he quotes one instance where a young missionary was told about a wild tiger that had crossed the track half an hour earlier with a cub in its mouth.  Dobbs is credited with developing the many roads of the Division later on including this cart track which today is a part of the busy National Highway no: 4 (NH4) that connects Mumbai with Chennai via Bengaluru.


Apart from shikar literature there are numerous references to wildlife by the missionaries of those days. Rec. William Arthur in his 'A mission to the Mysore with scenes and facts illustrative of India, its people, and its religion', 1850, has an interesting description of his journey to Tumakuru from Bengaluru where he mentions ’blaze of fires, lighted to keep tigers away‘ near the hillock of Shivagana not far from the stretch of road mentioned above. In ‘Sporting days in Southern India’, 1894, Captain Arthur.J.O.Pollock narrates about a tiger, in October 1881, whose beat extended from Devarayanadurga near Tumakuru to Magadi west of Bengaluru, which also covered the above stretch of NH4.

Records of tiger hunts and shooting begin to fade in the British literature of early 20th century. According to news report in the Nottingham Evening Post dated 9 March 1907, two village shikaris shot and killed a tigress within eleven miles of Bengaluru. That tiger was reported to have taken to cattle lifting. Kenneth Anderson in his books has written about hunting tigers in the areas Old Mysore state in 1950s and 60s, but not many of them are from Bengaluru district. Like any town and city across India, even Bengaluru has a rich natural history. But thanks to the writers of those days we are able to understand today how the wilderness around the city looked then.

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