Conservation and Society

: 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 314--315

Shooting a Tiger: Big-game Hunting and Conservation in Colonial India

Tresa Abraham 
 IIT Bombay, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Correspondence Address:
Tresa Abraham
IIT Bombay, Mumbai, Maharashtra

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Abraham T. Shooting a Tiger: Big-game Hunting and Conservation in Colonial India.Conservat Soc 2019;17:314-315

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Abraham T. Shooting a Tiger: Big-game Hunting and Conservation in Colonial India. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2019 [cited 2019 Aug 19 ];17:314-315
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Vijaya Ramdas Mandala's Shooting a Tiger has grown from the author's doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Manchester. The limited scholarship available on colonial big-game hunting in India and Africa focuses on its symbolic value as a sport—a metaphor for governance (A.S. Pandian 2001) and a spectacle of power and masculinity (Storey 1991; M.S.S. Pandian 1995; Sramek 2006). Moving forward from seeing it as a metaphor, Mandala views hunting as governance. In this lies the uniqueness of his work. He persuades us to delve deeply into the connections between hunting and colonial governance by bringing to the fore the everyday significance of hunting to colonial officers, its bearings on routine administrative and legislative functions, and as a pleasurable activity. Weaving together a rich archive on hunting in colonial India, using published and unpublished material, covering different ecological and political contexts, Mandala demonstrates how colonial hunting and conservation ethos were framed to further political, military, economic, and cultural imperial agendas, which enabled and reinforced hierarchies not only within human animals but also among non-human animals.

Apart from the introduction, in which he familiarises us with the symbolic and practical importance of hunting in ancient and colonial India and its association with spectacles of power and masculinity, the book contains six chapters. The first two chapters examine the role of hunting in extending and consolidating the power and authority of the British to the frontier regions and the emergence of a distinct Anglo-Indian identity. Through an examination of the lives of various colonial officers such as John Malcolm, Mountstuart Elphinstone, and James Outram, the first chapter argues that the British, following the Mughals, employed hunting to befriend, protect, surveil, and subjugate rebel populations and extend their territorial control to fringe areas. In the chapter that follows, Mandala attributes the colonial officers' discovery and the consequent transformation of mountainous regions, such as the Nilgiris and the Himalayas, into 'Hill Stations' to this pastime activity. Mandala argues that hunting in the hills, especially in the Nilgiris and in the Doon valley, played an important role in shaping the Anglo-Indian as a unique cultural identity and in the evolution of hunting into a colonial sport.

The third and fourth chapters examine the tradition of hunting as a sport in colonial India. Mandala unravels the invented tradition of hunting in India to argue that the evolution of hunting as a British colonial sport with gendered and racialised codes was contingent not only on the British limiting access to forests and gaining control over native practices but also on their mastery and control over the use of firearms. His astute observation of the importance of firearms in framing codes of sportsmanship that lead to the conversion of hunting into a sport is yet another feature that sets this book apart from existing scholarship. The chapter also explores the role of Indian princes in colonial state-making. Examining the hunts arranged by princely states for important dignitaries, Mandala argues that royal shikars arranged by Indian princes for visiting colonial dignitaries were beneficial to both sides and enabled the formation of a mutual politico-ritual philosophy of shikar. Signalling to the beginning of preservation movements, the chapter discusses the increasing exclusivity of hunting and the making of large reserves for providing entertainment to the British.

The next two chapters argue that wildlife conservation was essential for the continuation of the British Raj by the late nineteenth century. However, the Raj's approach to conservation was modified according to the location, availability of resources, and usefulness or danger posed by the species to the purpose of empire building. Mandala, examining the protection afforded to elephants and its lack, if not the vilification of tigers, contends that wildlife conservation in colonial India was selective and aimed at protecting the commercial and sporting interests of the British. He highlights that constant struggle and negotiation between cultivators, sportsmen, and local communities that depended on forest resources for their livelihood characterised the colonial conservation movement. In the final chapter, he examines the individual efforts taken by two hunter-turned conservationists—Jim Corbett and Richard Burton, to better illustrate the paradox of hunting and conservation in colonial India.

The chapters work well by themselves and provide a historical overview of the various ways in which hunting and later conservation were employed to further the imperial agenda. Although the focus is on tracing the links between hunting and governance through the colonial period, Mandala acknowledges its importance as a powerful and well-worked symbol of the colonial regime. He constantly reminds us that due to its popularity in the metropole and within India, hunting was a perfect site for the construction of the public face of the Raj. The book, in its examination of colonial big-game hunting—from the Company period, through the high days of imperialism, to the end of colonial rule—also examines the different genres that emerged from differences in topography and use of weapons, which in turn led to the formation of exclusive social clubs.

Although the book presents a strong case, it has its own set of limitations. The scholarship focuses only on the role played by colonial officers in framing codes of sportsmanship and ignores the large number of settlers such as planters and other sportsmen. While deliberating on the paradoxes of wildlife conservation, he discusses the role of the Nilgiris Game Association and the Nilgiris Game and Fish Preservation Act of 1879. However, he does not acknowledge its role in framing codes of sportsmanship, which was brilliantly demonstrated by M.S.S. Pandian (1995) in his exploration during the making of the Act.

The author could have engaged more critically with the existing scholarship in his discussion of hunting in princely India. Mandala (on page 221) begins his examination of the role of Indian princes in upholding the political edifice of the British Raj by citing Nicholas Dirks (1987) who argues that princely India “presented a powerful elite fully committed to the British rule rather than nationalist politics”. Moving forward, Mandala leans on to the work of Manu Bhagavan (2003) to point to the use of Mughal traditions by the British to validate their authority. However, he overlooks Bhagavan's central thesis on the resistance mounted by the princely states of Mysore and Baroda in their movement towards the establishment of universities. According to Bhagavan, the princely resistance lay in the discursive deployment of the university as modern, non-colonial, and nationalist. Dirks and Bhagavan clearly differ in their assessments of the role and position of Indian princes. This theoretical vacillation over the role of princes gets starker as the discussion proceeds to hunting. Mandala acknowledges the excellent work of Julie E. Hughes (2012) who argues that “Indian rulers used hunting, wild animals, and shikargahs to improve their positions and define themselves variously as defiant kings, loyal peers, modern administrators, and traditional Indian rulers” (10). Mandala proceeds to argue that mutual alliances made in the hunting field helped the British to legitimise their rule over India and also enabled Indian princes to “retain certain political privileges in the making of the British Indian Empire” (223). However, without accounting his differences with Hughes, he concludes that Indian princes were “critical collaborators and able negotiators in the political, military, and cultural affairs of the Raj, helping the British Empire to stay afloat” (261). Critical attention to 'princely resistance' as elaborated by Bhagavan (2003) and Hughes (2012) would have enabled the author to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the position of Indian princes under the British. Also, it would have been interesting if he had explored how Indian princes interacted with each other in the highly publicised hunts of dignitaries, such as the ones arranged for the Prince of Wales.

Perhaps in a rush to provide a historical overview of hunting in the colonial period, the work exhibits a few inconsistencies. For instance, although Mandala is critical of the comparison of Bhils to animals by colonial officers, in his work, he describes them as “wild and untamed race of Bhils who frequently raided British occupied territories” (74). At many points, the reader is lost between the author's own voice and the voices of the primary sources employed to substantiate an argument. Terms such as 'sportsman', 'hunter', 'shikari', and 'native shikari; 'British India' and 'colonial India'; 'hunting' and 'shooting' seem to have be employed interchangeably without the necessary annotation. Despite these limitations, the book is highly recommended for its in-depth exploration of hunting in colonial India. In addition to conservationists, the book would appeal to scholars working on the role of non-human animals in human histories and on postcolonial studies.[8]


1Bhagavan, M. 2003. Sovereign spheres: princes, education and empire in colonial India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
2Dirks, N.B. 1987. The hollow crown: ethno history of an Indian kingdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3Hughes, J.E. 2012. Animal kingdoms: hunting, the environment, and power in the Indian princely states. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
4MacKenzie, J.M. 1988. The empire of nature: hunting, conservation and British imperialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
5Sramek, J. 2006. Face him like a Briton: tiger hunting, imperialism and British masculinity in colonial India 1800–1875. Victorian Studies 48(4): 659–680.
6Storey, W.K. 1991. Big cats and imperialism: lion and tiger hunting in Kenya and northern India, 1898–1930. Journal of World History 2(2): 135–173.
7Pandian, A.S. 2001. Predatory care: the Imperial hunt in Mughal and British India. Journal of Historical Sociology 14(1): 79–107.
8Pandian, M.S.S. 1995. Gendered negotiations: hunting and colonialism in the late 19th century Nilgiris. Contributions to Indian Sociology 29(1–2): 239–263.