The day a tiger roamed the North Derbyshire countryside
PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 December 2017 | UPDATED: 15:19 29 December 2017
Wildlife photographer Paul Hobson reveals photos of his time in the forests of Bandhavgarh National Park in central India and uncovers the tale of the day a tiger in Derbyshire.
When William Blake penned the famous lines to ‘The Tyger’ in 1794, the tiger had attained an almost mythical status. Very few Europeans had ever seen one and much that was written about it portrayed it as a creature of deadly intent. Blake’s famous poem brings to life the twin contradictions of the tiger – its stunning beauty coupled with its deadly power. During the late 18th century a small number of travelling animal shows toured Britain. There were no public zoos at the time, though a few very wealthy landowners had private animal menageries. The opportunities for the general populace to view exotic wild animals were limited to these travelling animal shows so it’s not hard to imagine the excitement of the working people of Sheffield when such a show rolled into the town in 1798.
It is equally not difficult to think of the dread that spread through the town when the tiger escaped and lived up to its deadly reputation by killing a young child. The walk through the murky, smoke-filled air to work at the crucible steel works and knife grinders in the following days must have been a real knee-knocking experience. The natives of Sheffield had experienced, though probably without realising it, something of the daily routine of thousands of agricultural workers in the forests of India, then and still today.
The tiger (described at the time as a Royal Bengal tiger) torn from its native, secluded and tranquil Sal forest in Northern India must have been terrified as it roamed through the grimy streets of Sheffield and made its way south to Renishaw. The outcry to catch and kill the poor tiger – though I suspect the show owners would have dearly wanted it back alive – must have reached fever pitch.
Unfortunately for the tiger, it was now in the neighbourhood of Renishaw Hall, the home of Sir Francis Sitwell and his son Sitwell Sitwell. Sitwell (the son) took up the responsibility of hunting the tiger and, roping in a number of his domestic staff and his pack of hounds, rode forth to do battle with the child killer. Sitwell soon found the tiger and The Sporting Magazine in 1799 described the final bloody scene – ‘with much trouble, as well as exposing himself to imminent danger, (Sitwell) subdued and killed the animal, though not before it had dispatched several of his dogs.’
So a tiger did once roam through the fields of Derbyshire, albeit for a very short time and in tragic circumstances.
Today our understanding of and attitude towards tigers has changed dramatically. Arguably the most beautiful large cat on our planet, the tiger’s world has shrunk and changed to such an extent that it is now a seriously endangered animal through much of its extensive Asiatic range. Many tigers are still heavily associated with India and I have been three times now to this spectacular and colourful country to photograph them. Every time I visit I try to learn as much as I can, particularly from the local people about their experiences of living with tigers. I have read Jim Corbett’s Man Eaters of Kumaon and it must have shaped my views when I was young. However, there is nothing like first-hand experience of seeing a tiger and talking to the people who live cheek-by-jowl with them. Much of what I had read in Britain coloured my view of tigers yet much seemed inconsistent with what I learned when I was there.
Tigers still roam through the forests of Bandhavgarh National Park in central India and there can be few more beautiful places to have your first sighting of a tiger. The first time I saw one I was mesmerised. As my eyes drank in the beauty of the animal my mind raced through Blake’s poem – ‘burning bright’ and ‘did he smile to see thee’ seemed so apt. I loved the experience and vowed to return again.
Last year I spent a month at Bandhavgarh, staying with Kay and Satyendra, lodge owners and good friends as we daily explored the forests and watched tigers. I also learnt something of the duality of Blake’s poem – the beauty and deadly nature of this stunning animal. Tigers still kill people, in some cases quite a few. When we were there a tiger that had killed 11 locals had just been trapped. However, there was no major clamour to have it slaughtered and it was actually trapped alive and would end its days in a zoo in Europe – perhaps not the ending that everyone would want but better than death. Most human killings occur because the locals don’t always use common sense or follow the rules. Gathering bamboo and firewood is strictly prohibited in the National Parks, yet people, mainly women, will still risk sneaking in at twilight. Tigers love to snooze and rest up in bamboo to avoid the heat. It’s easy to see it from the tiger’s perspective. A quiet rest is disturbed by the swish of a machete cutting bamboo and suddenly a woman stumbles into the tiger’s lair. Startled and scared the tiger swipes out with its massive paw.
A few tigers develop a taste for humans and actually stalk them as prey but these killings are few and very far apart. They also kill many of the local farmers’ cattle and buffalo. Every animal killing is checked by the park rangers and the farmers are compensated for their loss. Poaching is still an issue. A dead tiger is worth a lot of money – its hide and skeleton can fetch big bucks yet most of the population at Bandhavgarh earns far more from the tiger’s tourist dollar. The lodges employ cooks and cleaners, shops provide food, and all the drivers and guides are locals. Tourism pays and protects.
The Royal Bengal tiger still shares our planet and hopefully it will do so for hundreds of years to come. It is a creature of power, majesty and beauty and in its natural habitat, crowded and under pressure, the global population as well as the local Indians are learning to live with it, and not against it. If a tiger ever roamed the fields and woods of Derbyshire again I hope it would meet with a kinder fate than in 1798.
The Tyger by William Blake
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?