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Original Issue

A Way with Tigers

Uniquely skilled in a hazardous profession, Willie Caesar is the man behind the man with the gun

William Caesar is a solidly built Eurasian 6-footer, with a head like a bust of a Roman senator. Known as Willie to all his friends in India, he is a veteran professional hunter in the employ of the Nawab Zaheer Yar Jung, an eminent Moslem prince. As head shikari, he arranges tiger shoots for the nawab and his guests.

"How many tigers have you shot?" I asked him when we first met, one morning in the city of Hyderabad. With the nawab's son and heir apparent, the Nawabzada Fazluddin Khan, I was going out to the Singaram forest block. A very large and famous tiger had ranged there for some time.

"Oh, very few, sir," Willie told me in his precise English. "Less than a score, I should say. Most of those were maneaters or declared cattle-lifters. But I've finished off many wounded tigers."

It was a revealing answer. A wounded tiger takes refuge in the thickest kind of jungle. Following him on foot into the cover that he chooses is a dangerous task, and in India the reigning princes pass this up for the same reason that generals do not lead bayonet charges. Under the code of sportsmen, the game belongs to the hunter who draws first blood. It was Willie's job, as the professional specialist, to go after the wounded tigers, but since these had been hit first by someone else, as Willie saw it they didn't count.

We moved into the camp that the young prince's staff had made ready and were fortunate enough to locate the big tiger on the very first day. With the help of a small army of native beaters he was driven from the cover. He came out fast, on a line that I didn't anticipate. As I squeezed the trigger on a shot that was hurried but not difficult, my swinging forearm bumped the rail of the machan, or shooting platform. I thought I had missed completely. The tiger raced past, a dozen feet to our right, and vanished into extremely dense jungle across a dry and narrow stream bed just behind us.

A few minutes later the prince and I found some drops of blood where the tiger had been when I fired. Willie soon joined us. "I'll not attempt to recover your tiger this evening, sir," he said. "In the morning I shall have a herd of buffaloes driven into the cover beyond the nullah [a dry watercourse]. They will let me know where the tiger is lying up. It will not be necessary for you to be there, sir."

"I want to be there," I told him.

"If you insist, sir," he said. "But I hope you understand the risk. There is something very noble about a tiger. I have never known a wounded one to charge without giving fair warning. At first he makes a purring sound, something like a distant airplane motor. After that he begins to growl. Then he roars and comes very fast. So when I hear the purring I hasten to the center of the most open space near by, and there I stand my ground. I wait until the tiger is within 10 yards, and then I shoot him down. If you are charged in the morning, sir, I'd suggest that you do the same."

We were back for the follow-up at sunrise. Some natives had already brought the herd of domestic water buffaloes. Willie said: "When the buffaloes first scent the tiger they grow excited. They mill about, but they must be driven in until the tiger lets us know just where he is. Then the buffaloes often stampede quite wildly. If that happens, sir, you must climb a tree, or get behind one where they cannot see you. The buffaloes can be even more dangerous than the tiger."

Keeping abreast, two or three paces apart, we followed the buffaloes into the heavy jungle. The tiger had never paused to lie down. In less than an hour we trailed him completely through the jungle strip and out into open grassland. He had been barely scratched, the bleeding had soon stopped, and he had left for parts unknown. But that bit of futile tracking had given me a closeup of Willie's superb jungle craft and the dangerous way he makes his living.

In the next couple of weeks I learned more about Willie. He had lost his European mother when he was very young. His father, a doctor connected with a research project, had been assigned to a remote village in a region swarming with game and Willie practically grew up in the surrounding jungle. He had shot his first tiger, with his father beside him, when he was 11 years old. He came to know the jungle so well that he turned to it as a refuge when his father died in Willie's early manhood.

For weeks at a time he roamed, living off the country. He hunted crocodiles and sometimes sambar deer for their hides. The sale of these, after about four months of hunting each year, brought him enough money to meet all his needs.

"It was a good life," Willie said. "I was my own man. But I saw no security for the future in it. When His Highness learned about me and offered a steady position, I decided to settle down." It seemed a quaint phrase to use about a career of chasing tigers.

Shot while eating

Throughout India as a whole, visiting sportsmen get the great majority of their tigers over baits, usually after dark. In carefully chosen places, a number of buffalo calves or small bullocks are tethered with ropes or chains that will not break. When a tiger kills one, he often returns for another meal from it on the following night, and then the hunter is watching from a machan in the branches of a nearby tree. The machan, by the way, is commonly a small native bed hung upside down. At the right instant, a flashlight is switched on and the tiger is shot while he is busily feeding.

Another widely used method is "beating," in which as many as 200 natives may be employed to drive the tiger from the jungle in front of the guns. In some places the potentate and his distinguished guests shoot through the ports of concrete shelters; the tiger couldn't get at them without using dynamite. In other areas the shooting parties are almost equally safe in huge special machans rigged at towering heights. In Hyderabad, however, the princes don't worry about safety. Their machans are placed just high enough to let the hunter see into the cover, and avoid shooting into the beaters. Any tiger could spring into one as easily as a tomcat jumps on a table, so this makes it sporting enough.

Many Hyderabad tiger jungles are comparatively small patches of woodland, entirely surrounded by cultivated fields. The bullocks that are tied out for baits when a beat is in prospect are not tethered with heavy ropes. Unlike the kind used when a kill is to be watched at night, the rope is just strong enough to hold the bullock while it is alive and is easily broken by the tiger after he kills it.

"We want him to drag the bait off," Willie said. "When we have clear marks to show which way he has taken it, there is seldom much risk of disturbing him before we are ready. We know the kind of cover he will pick out, and the farmers and herdsmen can tell us where he will be lying up."

The baits are inspected early in the morning. After a kill has been reported and the tiger's position determined—he can be counted on to stay there until nightfall if he is not alarmed—the planning of the beat begins. The tree selected for the machan is usually at the edge of one of the narrow roads used by the bullock carts that travel through the jungle. It must also be where the tiger would be tempted into crossing the road to reach some dense cover, and this tree should offer a good view of him before he comes out that far.

It is a basic principle that the tiger must always think he can slip away into an unguarded area. Unless he sees an easy way out, he may decide that the beaters have encircled him, and then he may kill some of them in trying to escape. So the beats are organized in a sort of horseshoe pattern, with the machan in the middle of the open end.

The sides of the horseshoe are manned by lines of men known as stops, who are stationed in the tree branches. These lines diverge as they stretch back from the road to the actual beating line. This, the closed part of the horseshoe, is, of course, well beyond where the tiger is taking his nap, though the best results can be expected when the beaters take their starting positions not much more than 200 yards from the machan.

Every effort is made to keep from arousing the tiger until the stops and beaters have moved into their places. After the starting signal is given the beating line advances very slowly at first. The shouting and tom-tom thumping is restrained. The tiger, with no thought that he is being attacked, is given plenty of time to size things up. Since he customarily travels along game trails, footpaths or nullahs, when he is awakened he picks out one that leads away from all of the commotion. He finds the way blocked.

All nullahs have been spanned by buntings—made by tying colored turbans together in long strings—and these are constantly waved by men who hold the ends. Seeing the bunting, the tiger turns back to look for an unguarded exit. Since the tiger's whole idea is to get away without being noticed, a good beat is really a slow process of elimination in which one natural exit after another is closed until the tiger walks out along the route that brings him to the desired spot in front of the machan.

Willie described one other method. The stalking of a tiger on foot is in a class by itself, from every sporting standpoint. In the heavy cover where they lie up for most of the day, tigers are hard to see. The hunter must be moving when the tiger is not. So this supreme challenge is only for an expert. Willie discouraged me about our chances for a stalk, but he told me of an adventure a few months earlier.

A big tigress had become so bold and threatening that some back-country natives feared for their lives. Willie and the young prince had gone to look things over. They found her fresh kill—a sambar doe—near the edge of an open nullah. It was soon after the rainy season ended; although the jungle was quiet underfoot, the foliage was very dense. The place was unsuitable for a beat and it offered no promising location for a blind or a machan.

"I knew the tigress was lying up close by, sir," Willie said. 'The prince had never stalked a tiger and he was very keen to try."

They went into the jungle and circled out again to the nullah. They found tracks showing that she had heard them and gone into cover farther up the stream bed. Willie wanted to make sure that she had not moved back downstream while they were at the upper end. To check on this, they started down the nullah in the soft sand. This brought them in sight of where the kill had been. It was gone. A moment later they followed the drag marks to where the tigress had just left it. Her tracks led into the thickets on the bank.

It wasn't an airplane

"We moved quite slowly when we began another circle," Willie told me, "and we hadn't gone more than 40 paces when I heard the sort of purring I've mentioned to you. His young Highness paid it little heed; he didn't connect it with the tigress. I said, 'That isn't an airplane, sir. You are about to be charged. Hurry out into the open.' The loud growling started before we reached the nullah. As soon as we were in the clear I saw some tall grass move about 25 yards away. The tigress roared and burst out.

"She came like a flash, sir, straight for the prince. I had planned, if she did that, to throw my hat in front of her—they will sometimes stop to worry the hat, you know. But there wasn't time, and no time for me to shoot, either. It was all over in a second. Just the same it seemed an age, for I knew that I was responsible. The young nawab didn't shoot until she was 8 feet away. The bullet from his .450-400 double rifle hit her brain. It stopped her as if she'd crashed into a wall."

Willie shook his head abruptly before he finished. "I'll tell you, sir. I don't mind a bit of excitement, but that was too much. I seldom take a drink, but that day I needed two stiff pegs before I began to feel like Willie again. Medicinal, you might say."