We seem to have a fascination with serial killers. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jack the Ripper — many of us have at least some knowledge of their names and deeds.
Now, author Dane Huckelbridge has chronicled the life of possibly the most prolific serial killer in known history, a predator that took a life every week for almost a decade — nearly 440 people in all.
“No Beast So Fierce” tells the tale of the Champawat Tiger, a killing machine that terrorized northern India and western Nepal at the turn of the last century.
Man-eating tigers are much less common than legend and lore would have it. In fact, Huckelbridge writes, tigers usually avoid human contact except in defense of themselves or their cubs.
But geography, physiology and politics in this remote part of the world, more than 100 years ago, gathered into a perfect storm that set the scene for the rise of a frightening apex predator.
Relying on period writings and on-the-ground interviews, Huckelbridge paints a vivid portrait of the forces that coalesced in British colonial India at the dawn of the 20th century.
Great Britain, viewing India as a resource to be exploited, had mined and logged rural areas, destroying much of the forest that had provided a subsistence living for natives — and habitat for tigers.
Fearing rebellion from its increasingly restive colonial subjects, the crown had banned weapons and forced rural Indians into more modern, production-oriented forms of agriculture. In doing so, they destroyed the cultural, ecological and spiritual relationships that had allowed forest, man and beast to coexist.
Tigers were deprived of their normal prey — forest-dwelling pigs, goats and deer — and were forced to roam farther for food. When a rogue tiger discovered that these strange, bipedal creatures were soft and defenseless, a hunger grew.
Huckelbridge writes with authority and clarity, deftly weaving strands of economics, sociology and history, explaining how changes to a land and its people upset natural systems that had held for millennia.
The pursuit of the Champawat Tiger also heralded the legend of Jim Corbett, an India-born Irishman who possessed the native cultural wisdom, modern weaponry and foolhardy courage needed to single-handedly take down the fearsome beast.
In the years to come, Corbett became India’s pre-eminent assassin of man-eating beasts, killing a litany of legendary predators including the Panar Leopard, the Thak Man-eater and the Leopard of Rudraprayag. Later in life, Corbett became perhaps the world’s leading advocate of tiger conservation; a major national park and wildlife refuge in India is named after him.
“No Beast So Fierce” excels as an intelligent social history and a gripping tale of life and death in the Himalayan foothills.
No Beast So Fierce
By: Dane Huckelbridge.
Publisher: William Morrow, 280 pages, $26.99.