A tusker in the Western Ghats - Malligarjunan G
A tusker in the Western Ghats (Photo: Malligarjunan G/Shutterstock)

When the Rajah of Pudukkotai Stopped Hunting Elephants and other Stories from Kodai’s Wild Past

‘“If you make any mischief, he will come to life and bite you,” my grandmother would threaten me, pointing to a tiger skin with head displayed on the wall of her house. I must have been in class 4 then,’ recollects Beulah Williams, of her childhood memories from visits to her maternal grandmother in Ramnad. She was fascinated by the tiger’s eyes. Today, Williams is 64 years old and works as a teacher at Zion Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Kodaikanal.

In self-defence

Her grandfather, Dr Ebenezer, had shot the tiger on his way to work at Van Allen Hospital in what was probably the 1940s, she told The Kodai Chronicle. The doctor and his family lived in the staff-quarters at what is now Central House, near the Forest Guest House.

‘To attend night shifts, my grandfather had to walk down to the hospital in the dark, armed with a rifle. He had a license. In those days, the area was deserted and blanketed by trees. One particular night, it was raining heavily. On his way to the hospital, he saw a tiger which he had to shoot in self-defence. After dawn, word spread about the tiger and a crowd gathered before the dead animal,’ says Mrs Williams, who has only seen an old black-and-white photograph of her grandfather. That moment of courage remains alive across generations through the tigerskin.

Before the town of Kodaikanal began to take shape, the verdant Palani hills were home primarily to abundant flora and fauna, aside from scattered tribal settlements. When the British came up the hills in 1821, they came across animals such as tigers, jackals, panthers and Indian gaurs. ’If they didn’t kill the animals, they would have killed the people,’ says Father R Stanislaus SJ, Museum Curator, Sacred Heart College Museum, Shenbaganur. ’And instead of burying them, we have preserved them,’ he adds. 

The museum, featured in Issue 2, is a popular site. ‘We apply xylene acid to the more than 150 animal trophies every three months. For the skeletons we apply rectified spirit and on the feathers, after cleaning with xylene acid, we apply olive oil to give them a shine. For the bones, we apply varnish,’ says Stanislaus. A carbon-dating test can verify the age of the trophy to ensure that it is not recently created, he says; this makes old wildlife trophies truly valuable.

Today, wildlife trophies can be seen at heritage buildings such as the Kodai Club, Sacred Heart College Museum, and a few private houses, displayed with the permission of the Forest Department. The oldest wildlife trophy at the museum (dating back to the 1930s) is of a tiger head shot by a French missionary, Father Azarola. He has also shot wild buffaloes, deer, tiger, and panther, according to Stanislaus.

The hunting of animals, including birds and reptiles, has been banned in India; it is a punishable offence under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. In fact it was the hunters and naturalists who petitioned the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to ban tiger hunting for three years, in order to allow populations to recover. However, Gandhi enforced a complete ban on hunting, except for specified purposes such as self-defence, to prevent crop damage, to counter vermin species, and for scientific or educational reasons.

An old tradition

For centuries, hunting has been a traditional royal sport in India. Wildlife trophies have been in the family for generations for both 32-year old Kodai resident Radha Niranjani Tondaiman who is incidentally a trap shooter, and 24-year old Hrishikesh Vikrant Ghorpade, who lives and runs a home-stay in Kookal. They hail from the royal families of the erstwhile princely states of Pudukkotai and Sandur in Karnataka, respectively. While hunting has been a royal sport in the country for thousands of years, they belong to the first generation born after hunting wild animals has been banned in India. They grew up listening to stories about hunting during their grandfather’s and great grandfather’s times, and inherited the trophies they left behind.

‘Back then, hunting was legal and there were not many poachers. They would not go in and kill just any animal. They would identify a particular animal to hunt. Sometimes, HH [His Highness] was called by the Government to kill a rogue elephant or a man-eating tiger or leopard,’ says Tondaiman, referring to her grandfather Rajagopala Tondaiman, who ascended the throne in 1928 at the age of 6. There are six trophies still displayed at Tondaiman’s house, including a bear skin and the head of a huge Indian gaur.

HH was once asked by the Government of Tamil Nadu to kill a rogue elephant somewhere in the Western Ghats, she recounts. The hunting party tracked down the elephant and shot at it. Before the injured elephant died, another elephant came running and tried to apply mud over the bullet-holes in a desperate attempt to heal them. ’That is when my grandfather thought, they are intelligent and not very different from human beings. Watching another elephant trying to save a dying elephant was when he gave up hunting elephants. Even though he was asked many times after that, he refused to do it,’ says Tondaiman.

‘Both my father and mother’s side of families have a hunting history,’ says Ghorpade, whose father told him about the rules of hunting. He said that in those days, those who hunted for sport did not just kill any animal that came into their sight. `That would be poaching.’ He said they hunted to gather trophies. 

`A few years ago, when rules were not that strict, I used to go for treks through the forests. During one of those treks, I saw a huge pugmark near a stream. I remember my father telling me to be careful, as there could be tigers and leopards, nearby. Incidents of domestic animals being taken away by wild animals do occur now and then. Our neighbour lost a dog from his farm and called us to warn us. He asked us to keep our dogs in cages,’ says Ghorpade.

In Kookal, where he lives, Ghorpade has inherited seven trophies and three skins, of which three are sambar deer heads. These heads are larger than those of the animals that one can see now, due to factors such as environmental change, forest depletion, over population and illegal poaching since poaching will never give a chance for the animal to be at its complete glory. An expert comes from Kolhapur to maintain them as there are rules about transporting them across states.

Of conservation and hunting

For Tondaiman, it was the reaction of surprise and shock from her friends that made her realise about how unusual the trophies were.  ‘I had not really thought much about them. They have been on the walls, just like paintings,’ says Tondaiman. ‘People usually want to touch the trophies. But you are not supposed to touch them as it might damage them.’

When his visitors and friends see the wildlife trophies displayed, Ghorpade receives mixed reactions. While some admire them, some question the ethics of hunting the animals and hanging it inside the house. ‘I don’t mind telling them or to listen to criticism and opinion from others. But people need to understand that it was legal back then,’ says Ghorpade.

It remains to be seen how the future generation will view these relics from the past. ‘Many trophies from the hunting era are effective education tools and their place is in museums, science classrooms, and interpretation centres. As “decorations” in homes and clubs, they are simply stomach-turners, and strengthen a market which only poaching can now supply. The days of elephant-foot tables and stools, leopard rugs adorned with snarling mouths, and sambar heads on walls, are over,’ argues writer, naturalist and Madras Croc Bank managing trustee Zai Whitaker.

‘Trophy hunting remains legal in many parts of the world with just a restriction on which species can and cannot be hunted. We need to understand that this so called ”sport” is unethical and cruel,’ agrees Aashika Joseph, an animal lover who grew up in Kodai and now lives in Jaipur.

For now, only these trophies stand testament to the times when tigers, bears, jackals and deers roamed freely across the Palani Hills, before human encroachment. Even if the dead cannot be brought to life, at least the living animals must be protected in the years to come; and the future generation must be aware of what these hills sheltered in the past.

Reena Raghavamoorthy

Reena Raghavamoorthy completed her post-graduate degree in media and communication. She has worked for B2B publications in Dubai, and currently works for The Potter's Shed in Kodaikanal. She lives in Attuvampatti.

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