The Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is the most common subspecies of tiger, constituting approximately 80% of the entire tiger population, and is found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, and India and has been hunted in those countries for centuries.
The tiger hunting had been considered a manly and courageous feat with game trophies being collected as symbols of valor and prestige.
While the tiger was widely extant and not threatened up to the first decades of the twentieth century, hunting and habitat loss reduced its population in India from 40,000 to less than 1,800 in a mere hundred years.
Despite the prevalence of tiger hunting as a royal sport for centuries, the consequences were larger during the British Raj (rāj, meaning “rule” in Hindi – was British rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947) due to the use of far superior firepower and an interest to hunt shared by a much larger number of colonial aristocrats.
“Never attack a tiger on foot—if you can help it. There are cases in which you must do so. Then face him like a Briton, and kill him if you can; for if you fail to kill him, he will certainly kill you.” —Walter Campbell, My Indian Journal
Tiger hunting was an important symbol in the construction of British imperial and masculine identities during the nineteenth century. Precisely because tigers were dangerous and powerful beasts, tiger hunting represented a struggle with fearsome nature that needed to be resolutely faced “like a Briton,” as Campbell put it. Only by successfully vanquishing tigers would Britons prove their manliness and their fitness to rule over Indians.
Kings and lords, generals, and Maharajas went out in large parties, carried by 10, 20, 30 or even 40 elephants; their servants often drugged and baited tigers before they arrived so the hunters were in little danger. They legitimized the slaughter by vilifying the cats, casting them as terrible, bloodthirsty beasts with an unquenchable desire for human flesh.
After ascending the throne in 1911, King George V and his retinue traveled north to Nepal, slaying 39 tigers in 10 days. Colonel Geoffrey Nightingale shot more than 300 tigers in India. In the 1920s, Umed Singh II, the Maharaja of Kotah, modified a flaming red Rolls Royce Phantom for tiger safaris in the Rajastani hills, outfitting it with spotlights for night hunting, a mounted machine gun and a Lantaka cannon.
The killing escalated after 1947. Independence ushered in a hunting free-for-all. Soon after, hunters streamed in from around the world, seduced by the guaranteed premiere trophies advertised by travel agencies – tiger, elephant, rhino, lion, and other iconic species. And then, as models and Hollywood starlets draped themselves in cat skin coats, a fashion craze for fur took hold in the U.S. and Europe. A tiger pelt fetched €47 in India during the 1950s; 10 years later, rugs and coats sold for €9.425. Things changed, however, when Indira Gandhi took the reins as prime minister in 1966, outlawing the export of skins and appointing a Tiger Task Force. In 1971, the Delhi High Court banned tiger killing, despite opposition from the trophy hunting industry that was raking in €4 million a year.
Today there are 45 tiger reserves, comprising about one percent of India’s land, but still the wild tiger is one of the most threatened species on the planet. By 2011, the total population was estimated at fewer than 2,500 individuals with a decreasing trend. None of the Tiger Conservation Landscapes within the Bengal tiger’s range is considered large enough to support an effective population size of 250 adult individuals. Since 2010, it has been classified as Endangered by the IUCN.
In November 1924, Brigadier General William Mitchell, published this account of a three-day tiger hunt in eastern India with the maharaja of Surguja. (Excerpts from National Geographic, see links)
“…Used to hunting all my life, I had never dreamed of a spectacle and a moment like this… To the top of a rocky outcropping the tiger jumped, not more than 50 yards away, and at that instant I let go the bullet from the Springfield. The beast was knocked down flat in its stride; but, without losing speed, it was up with a terrific roar and on again… I could see its face plainly, depicting rage, fearlessness, and pain…
We examined the position of the tiger when I first fired and found pieces of cut hair where the bullet had struck; also deep claw-marks in the hard rock. We found where my second bullet had hit the rock and not the tiger, just as it fell for the second time, and were tracing it up the cut bank when the native who was posted in the tree behind my machan called that the tiger was lying in the water of the nala and had not moved for a long time… Soon we saw the tiger, stretched at full length in the water of the stream, with its teeth clutching the roots of a tree in a death grip and its legs drawn back as in the act of springing.
“These animals are game as long as a breath remains in their bodies…“
We had killed so many animals during our last three days that their pelts were not sufficiently dry to pack, so we had to spread them on top of the automobile truck that was to carry our baggage south, allowing them to dry en route.
The Maharaja saw us off, the band played the Star-Spangled Banner, the guard of honor presented arms, and our wonderful sojourn at Surguja was over.”
Wikipedia: Bengal Tiger
Wikipedia: Tiger Hunting
National Geographic: Tiger Hunting in India 1924
National Geographic: A Concise History of Tiger Hunting in India
“Face Him Like a Briton”: Tiger Hunting, Imperialism, and British Masculinity in Colonial India, 1800-1875
Slate: Hunting the Hunters