Hunting panthers in India (1920s)

Found in an unpublished  typescript -a real life account of big game hunting in India- the author was almost certainly Lieutenant Colonel J. W. Wray. The climax is worthy of Henty or Buchan, otherwise it is a good hunter's tale, completely of its time...The manuscript was in an envelope with 3 other chapters addressed to him at 'The Croft, Guildford' and he is known to have writtenWith rifle and spear : reminiscences of Lt.-Col. J.W. Wray. COPAC gives his dates as 1851-1924 and record this book as being published by The General Press, Ltd.,. They estimate the date as 1925. Certainly these accounts mention rifles and spears, Wray was a dedicated game hunter. The manuscripts came from a couple of very old soldiers - Basil and Russell Steele.

No copies of the book are available and it has not been digitised, apart from an earlier chapter at Jot. Web archives reveal he was in the 108th Foot Regiment and he was a member of the Northumberland and Northern Counties Club. Punch mentions him and his wife in 1916 - the victim of a Pooter like misprint: 'Mrs. Wray entertained the recruiting staff, numbering £21, to tea at Brett's Hall, Guildford, on Thursday.' They add 'Sterling fellows obviously'.


     One day in October when everyone was feeling weary of life and grumbling at the steamy heat after the thunder showers that are so frequent in that month, I slipped away by myself with my horse and pony and spears and an 80 lb. tent, with a view to putting in 3 days in the jungles after pig or even jackals. My rifle at that time had gone to the Armourer Serjeant to be brown and I therefore borrowed a friend's muzzle loading rifle so as not to be entirely dependent on my shot gun for any big game I might happen to come across, for in those delightful jungles to which I look back with such intense happiness and affection one never knew exactly what surprises might be in store.

     I had at that time two shikarris (or trackers) in my pay - one for boar - the other for tiger - and as, of course, the country over which one "rides a Boar" is very different from the Forests where Tigers are to be found, the two trackers were some miles apart.

     The Village where my Boar Shikarri had his headquarters was about 20 miles away to the north while the Tiger man was the same distance to the east and they were 15 or 20 miles from each other.

     Not having heard from either of them for some time, I concluded that the Boar Shikarri was waiting to hear from me, while the other man was trying to locate a Tiger, for Boar are always pretty much in the same jungle, while tigers change their habitation and wander miles in search of an isolated herd of Cows - or failing that they stay some little time in a place where deer can be found without the annoying presence of wild dogs - the bane of a Tiger's life. Thinking it all over, I concluded that the short time I had at my disposal would be best utilized on the chance of a gallop after Pig as the rain had improved the going in that sandy country.

     I therefore sent out word to my Boar Shikarri that I would be with him next evening, and that night I despatched my little tent with 3 days' provisions and my grey Countrybred horse "Cheapjack" and 2 servants, and the following day at 2 I mounted my pony and rode off.

     At the same time I sent a mesage to the Tiger Shikarri telling him where I was to be found in case he had any news for me, and it was fortunate I did so for otherwise the adventure which is the subject of this Chapter would not have been numbered amongst my experiences.

     Not long after I left my bungalow the thunder clowds began to gather and it was evident that a storm was coming. Just as I reached my little Camp, about 5 o'clock p.m. there was a clap of thunder and then down came the rain with a terrific wind which nearly lifted my small tent and another for the servants and an extemporised Kitchen made of 4 poles and a piece of matting.

     Tent pegs are not much use in the sandy soil except in quite fine weather and the servants had had no time to "bush" them before I came so we set to work and managed to get some of them "bushed" before the storm was over. Bushing means cutting down small branches of trees and burrying them in the sand and then driving the pegs into the middle of them. In this way there is more resistance to the strains on the rope, as the sand working in between the branches gives the peg a more or less solid foundation.

     The rest of the afternoon we spent in digging small trenches round our three little structures and we were prepared for the night - for the storms there generally work round again within a few hours.

     Dinner was out of the question of course as everything was wet through, but the Natives managed in their marvellous way to produce some hot coffee and we made the best of it, and I consoled myself by looking at the hardening sand and anticipating a good gallop after pig next day.

     Just before dusk my Pig Shikarri arrived very wet and miserable, but with the news that there was one good boar a few miles away which he had hoped to have marked down for me. He had followed his tracks in the morning and marked him down, but he had been disturbed and had moved on, the rain had prevented his movements being ascertained, as all marks were obliterated, but if it did not rain again at night, the Shikarri hope to pick up fresh tracks again next morning and ascertain whether he had returned to the hills or had remained in the Sugar Cane - in which latter event I should be sure of a gallop.

     It is the habit of boar in hilly country to come down at night to the cultivated parts to feed on the sugar cane and other crops, and then in the very early morning, before daybreak, they return to the hills to lie up for the day. Occasionally however, a heavy boar will enjoy himself so much in the feeding grounds that if he is quite undisturbed, he will elect to remain where he is for the day instead of taking the trouble to go home, and woe betide the unfortunate Cultivator of that Crop if he happens not to notice that the boar has gone in and not gone out again. At about 10 happens not to notice that the boar has gone in and not gone out again. At about 10 o'clock that night the storm worked round the hills again and came back to us and we had a dreadful night of it - the tent was spilt and the other was down and everything was pulp, and I determined to give up the idea of sport and go back home as soon as the things were dry enough to pack up again.

     In the morning however, the sun appeared as usual and things looked more cheerful and I thought we would wait and see what happened.

     About 12 o'clock there was the welcome sight of a man running across the open towards my Camp and I knew that meant something to compensate for the miseries of the night - and it was so, for it was a message from my Tiger Shikarri to tell me that on the way to see me he had come across two large Panthers playing together in the river bed about 3 or 4 miles off and that he had placed Watchers round them and was there himself, and he asked me to come as quickly as possible.

     It was an extremely hot steamy morning after the rain and the Panthers were not likely to move so there was every chance of getting a shot.

     I gave the Messenger some water & some plantains and mounting the pony and tking the muzzle loading rifle myself and giving the shot gun to the man, I got away as soon as I could. In a short time we came to the river bed which in that part of the country consists of a broad sandy expanse covered with bushes (bastard cypress) varying from 3 to 6 feet high with occasional open spaces. There is no stream in the hot weather. The water is just below the surface of the sand in certain places, and both men and animals obtain it by scraping away the sand at the top and letting it well up into a tiny pool.

     A low whistle directed me to the extremity of a long knoll which ran parallel for some distance to the bed of the river and here we found my Shikarri - Wusta - in the best of humours with a look of pride and satisfaction on his face - which was most comforting. He pointed to a big rock about 5 feet high in the centre of the river bed and he whispered to me that the two Panthers were lying asleep behind it, and if I liked I could shoot them both almost from where we were standing. This, of course, was only a figure of speech for if it had been possible he was far too good a Sportsman to suggest such a thing in earnest. No one, Sportsman or otherwise would shoot even wild animals in their sleep, so the next thing was to determine on the plan of campaign. This was a simple enough and it was arranged that I should take up my position behind the rock with my back to it and that the beaters (who had been collected already) were to advance from the opposite side beyond the Panthers and thus drive them both past me and give me a right and left shot - Sending the beaters round to get into their position. I went very quietly down to mine and looking over the rock I saw the two large Panthers lying asleep close to each other. I must say I felt rather brutal in taking this advantage of them, but they had been hunting together and doing a lot of damage to goats. And cattle in the villages around I felt obliged to try for them, so I put my back against the stone and my rifle at full cock and gave the signal, with my handkerchief, to the beaters. There was one big shout and in a second there was a scramble behind the rock and both Panthers bounded past me - one on each side. I fired right and left barrels at them respectively and they each answered to the shot - which showed they were hit. The bushes were to thick for me to see where they had gone so I waited for a minute or two to listen for any sound, but there was none and I went back to the Knoll to make arrangements for following them up and to wait the prescribed time before doing so, for as I shall explain in another Chapter, it is a golden rule in all big game shooting never to follow a wounded animal for at least an hour after he has been hit.

     On reaching the bank where I had left scouts and where all the beaters had assembled, I tried to find out where the Panthers had gone but no one could tell me more than that they had not passed beyond a certain clearing in the river bed about 300 yards ahead, and I knew therefore that I should not be long in finding them.

     My plan was to go quietly through the bushes, first alone, and if I put neither of them up, I could assume they were both dead and I could take in the beaters to search for them without risking any of them. In the meantime my Shikarri was to keep level with me along the top of the bank with my second gun and come to my assistance if necessary and very clearly he fulfilled his trust as will presently be seen.

     When the hour was up, I descended into the river bed as far as the big stone, turned to the left and advanced cautiously in the direction that the Panthers had taken taking care to peer into every likely bit of cover before I passed it without going too near to it. After going about 100 yards, I came upon of one of the Panthers Head, but I went on without revealing it because I knew what a hubbub and rejoicing there would be even if one had been retrieved and the other might steel away.

     In another 50 yards or so, I caught sight of the other panther crossing slowly between two of the Cypress bushes and bearing to the left as if making for the bank. I was bound to stop him as he would very soon have been in among the beaters, so I fired a snap shot at him. He tumbled over but was up again in a moment, and I fired again (emptying my rifle) and he disappeared. Before I had time to re-load, I heard yells from the left and rushing through the bushes, I found the Panther hanging on to a powerful Bheel (one of the beaters) with his teeth in the man's shoulder and one paw on the man's head. Fortunately I had nothing to shoot with or perhaps I should have fired. All I could do was to bring my barrels down with all my force on the Panther's head and this knocked him off the man, who ran for his life. The Panther was up in a minute and at me, but I met with a tremendous blow on the top of the head again and he went down, but the blow had smashed the stock of the rifle, and it was wobbling in my hand, and the barrels alone were left to finish the fight with him.

     Before, however, I had time to reverse them and before the Panther was up again, I felt my second gun quietly placed in my hand, and though it had only quail shot cartridge in it, I was near enough for that to be as effective as a bullet and the Panther rolled over dead.

     One of the characteristics of my Shikarri, who was well known in those parts, was not only that he was courageous as any man who ever lived, but he had the most marvellous presence of mind and judgement, and though he showed those qualities on many occasions when with me, he never did so to more purpose than on this occasion.

     He must have watched the fight and longed to end it himself by firing my gun at the Panther, but he knew if he did so he might hit the man or me and he came in exactly at the right moment. I am afraid if my rifle had not been empty, I should have been tempted to shoot at the Panther while he was on the man, for it would have been still more dangerous to have struck with one of the barrels loaded and at full cock. So as it was it all happened most fortunately and the Shikarri saved the situation.

     The Bheel was not much hurt, for the Panther had been severely hit and had lost a great deal of his power. Fortunately for the man and for me, one of my shots had struck him in the hips, and consequently he was unable to spring, otherwise he would have knocked the man over and me too, and then it would have been a different matter altogether.

     He was a fine Panther and so was the other - evidently his brother for they seemed, from what I heard from the villagers, to have been together always and I was very glad that as they had to be destroyed, if happened to both of them at the same time.

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