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The last hunter

Sibi Arasu | Updated on May 18, 2018

Man versus wild: Posing with a giant Mahseer.

The Last White Hunter: Reminiscences of a Colonial Shikari Joshua Mathew Indus Source Books, Non-fiction, ₹580

At a time when the idea of wildlife conservation sparks conflicting policy visions, a new book reveals what it was like to be the last white hunter, with a licence to kill

In the colonial days, and the first few decades of Independent India, hunting or shikar was not the cruel, heinous crime it is today (think Salman Khan and the infamous blackbuck killing case). It was, instead, a masculine sport seen even as necessary to rid villages of ‘vermin’, as some wildlife were referred to then. It is no coincidence that the Bengal tiger, whose population exceeded one lakh at the turn of the 20th century, is today a grand total of 2,226.

But before the coming of wildlife census, it was the shikar adventures of hunter-writers such as Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson that gave us some of our earliest understanding of the Indian forest and wildlife. Kenneth’s son, Donald was among the last of this vanishing breed of hunters. He had a treasure trove of experiences in many forests, including the present-day 5,500 sq km Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.

The Last White Hunter: Reminiscences of a Colonial Shikari Joshua Mathew Indus Source Books, Non-fiction, ₹580

 

In The Last White Hunter: Reminiscences of a Colonial Shikari, Joshua Mathew, Donald’s friend in his later years, documents his recollections. The book is not a celebration of the shikar culture, rather, remembrances of what it was like to be one of the last hunters in Donald’s lifetime (1934-2017).

Mathew describes to BLink the effort that went into compiling Donald’s memories, and the importance of documenting life in Indian forests, even if through the crosshairs of a hunter’s gun.

You’re not a writer by profession, so what made you take up this book project?

When I met Don, it was not to write a book about him. The objective was to see what was left of Kenneth Anderson’s life, because I grew up reading him. It was during this time that I realised Donald was extremely interesting in his own right, not just as Kenneth’s son but also someone who’s lived a highly adventurous life, which, I felt, deserved to be recorded.

How do you think Don’s family shaped his life and his hunting career?

Both father and son, despite being hardcore hunters, were extremely fond of animals. It’s hard to think that he had no qualms shooting down a leopard, but also had no problem in feeding a stray cat down the road.

 

I think he had a lot of compassion for all kinds of animals. He grew up with animals all around him — they pretty much had a zoo in their house. It’s hard to understand, though, how one can have a pet in their lap one day and shoot a leopard in Ramnagar the next day.

What was Don’s idea of the forests, how did he react to the changing times and more stringent environmental laws?

What Don talks about is the sheer number of animals that used to be there. He told me that in his time, places like BR Hills, about 200 km from Bangaluru, was not the tourist spot it is today. The people who went there either worked there or were on shikar. He used to tell me that he’s seen bison herds numbering in the hundreds, which is impossible to find today. I think, as the rules changed, he was disappointed that he was not allowed to move around. When you were a licensed shikari in those days no one said ‘no’ to you. You could do what you want. Even with his hunting, he could stay in a colonial bungalow, spend a few nights there, but that was not possible later. That restriction of movement hurt him a lot.

What would you say was Don’s take on hunting vis-à-vis conservation?

During the early days he clearly didn’t believe in conservation. He was a hunter. In fact, not Don, but the esteemed wildlife photographer TNA Perumal once told me that there was no word such as ‘conservation’ back then. That happened much later. Nobody thought of conservation as a thing and there was no thought of preserving wildlife. Even towards his last days, he wasn’t a conservationist at heart, his remorse was about his own actions and usually came about when he was lonely, depressed or in the hospital. He was extremely proud of his hunting, but there were days when he was extremely depressed as well. As you grow older, I guess you look back at the life choices you made. To call him a conservationist even during his last days is an exaggeration, because he was not.

As a wildlife enthusiast, how were you able to deal with stories about the sheer number of kills that Don made?

In the first few years that I knew him, when I used to listen to his stories, there was an awe in the narration, in terms of the sheer bravery of what he did. But after sometime, I did begin to wonder why he killed so much? After a while, even to the most dedicated Anderson fan or shikar fan, to know that they shot this poor defenceless animal, is a little grating to the ears. When I got to know him in his 70s, I felt I was in no position to judge an old man for what he did 50 years ago.

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Mysuru. He tweets @sibi123.

Published on May 18, 2018

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