Today’s post comes with apologies to the 110,994 people who wrote to the BBC last week (a national record, apparently), complaining about the dawn to dusk coverage of Prince Philip across all their TV channels, after the Queen’s consort and Duke of Edinburgh passed away at the age of 99.
You may not have identified me as the sort of person who rushes to post a tribute when a prominent member of our royal family passes away, but I’m going to add another story to the mix that may not have made it into the BBC’s coverage (or perhaps it did – I didn’t watch). It’s a story from Nepal that is worth sharing.
I was reminded of it when the following tweet by a prominent Nepali journalist appeared in my Twitter feed.
Farewell, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, seen here at Hanuman Dhoka with Queen Elizabeth II during a royal visit 60 years ago.
(There is some story about the prince’s injured middle finger, will do some research and revert. On someone else can please enlighten.) pic.twitter.com/Lk3TywVqHr
— Kanak Mani Dixit (@KanakManiDixit) April 9, 2021
I knew the answer. Middle finger may have been appropriate in the light of what happened, but the injury was actually to the prince’s index, or trigger, finger.
In 1961 Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited Nepal, and King Mahendra took them on a lavish hunting expedition. The Prince had been expected to bag a tiger, but this little injury (feigned or otherwise) got him off the hook.
As you know, Nepal contains some of the most extreme geography on earth. Just 800km from west to east, and ranging from 160 to 240km from north to south, it rises to the 8,848m summit of Everest on its northern border, but drops to 100m in the Terai region down in the south. Here, dense jungles are broken by clearings of elephant grass. Tributaries of the River Ganges, including the Rapti and Karnali Rivers, pass through. The area is a haven for wildlife and home to tigers, leopards, rhinoceros, wild boar, crocodiles and several species of deer.
Once upon a time there was rather more wildlife, and the British monarchy played their part in helping to reduce it.
In 1876, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), joined a hunting expedition in the western Terai. Between 16 February and 5 March, the prince himself bagged 23 tigers, 1 leopard and several wild boar. Seven tigers were shot in a single day.
In 1911, King George V, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II, visited Chitwan, south of Kathmandu. Between 16 and 28 December, his party bagged 39 tigers, 18 rhinos and 4 sloth bears. The king himself personally shot 21 tigers, 8 rhinos and 1 bear. This time 10 tigers were shot in a single day.
In 1921, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII and uncle of Queen Elizabeth II), also visited Chitwan, where he personally shot 17 tigers, 10 rhinos, 2 leopards and 2 bears.
I don’t know whether the Queen and Prince Philip were aware of this history when they visited Nepal in 1961, but even before a shot was fired, their visit had a significant environmental impact.
A location was chosen on the banks of the Rapti River in Chitwan. A road was bulldozed through the jungle, and virgin forest was cleared to build an airstrip 1km long. A further 1.5km2 tract of land was cleared for their camp. 5cm of topsoil was removed, and porters were sent to clear the surface of scorpions, bugs and beetles, so that a substantial village of luxury tents could be pitched for the hunting party.
The hunt itself was carried out using a technique known as the Ring Method of hunting. A few days before the hunt, buffalo carcasses were staked out to attract tigers. Trackers were sent to identify locations where a tiger had dragged its kill and hidden it in bushes. The trackers then staked out a large circle up to half a kilometre in diameter around the tiger and its kill.
Next, elephants were sent to form a ring around circle, trapping the tiger within. From the perimeter, the elephants moved inwards, forming an ever smaller circle until the tiger was surrounded by a wall of elephants.
Within this circle, the trackers staked out a circle of white cloth. It may not sound like much, but tigers were terrified by the fluttering cloth and reluctant to leap over it. This enabled the elephants to move away while the tiger remained trapped.
Only at this point were the VIPs summoned from their tents to shoot the tiger. They arrived on elephant back. An opening was made in the circle of white cloth, and beater elephants were sent to herd the tiger towards it. As the tiger made its way out of the entrance, the marksman raised his gun and shot it.
You can draw your own conclusions about how sporting this activity was, but it seems that even the famously gaffe-prone Prince Philip decided it was a bit much. He had also been on the receiving end of a media outcry for shooting a tiger in India earlier in the trip.
In 1961, no fewer than 376 elephants were used to herd the tigers for Queen Elizabeth’s Nepali shooting party. Prince Philip was expected to have a go, but his hosts were disappointed when he arrived on the morning of the shoot wearing a bandage on his infected trigger finger.
Nevertheless, the shoot went ahead and Lord Home (also known as Alec Douglas-Home, who became British Prime Minister from 1963 to 1964) was given the honour of shooting the first tiger. The tiger made for the entrance of the circle, but Lord Home missed three times (perhaps also feigning incompetence). The kitty was eventually downed by Rear Admiral Bonham Carter and Sir Michael Adeane, two other members of the Queen’s party.
Happily, legalised tiger shooting is no longer a thing in Nepal. Tigers are protected and Chitwan is now a national park where tourists still ride elephants, but they shoot wildlife only with their cameras.
Nevertheless, wildlife numbers have been devastated. By 2001, as many as 35 species of mammal in Nepal were endangered, with 15 facing possible extinction. The pygmy hog and wild yak had already disappeared, and there were estimated to be fewer than 400 rhinos.
When I visited Chitwan for a couple of days myself in 2002 I was told there was virtually no chance of seeing a tiger (I didn’t). In 2007 I spent several days in Bardia National Park in the far west of Nepal on a crusade to find a tiger. But this was just after the Maoist insurgency had ended, and the ten years of civil war had also had a devastating effect on wildlife. The closest I got to a tiger was seeing its recent footprints and spending an hour up a tree in the hope it would come back.
A census of tiger numbers in 2009 calculated that there were only 121 left in Nepal. On a happier note, another census in 2018 found the numbers had nearly doubled again to 235. Even so, it’s not much, and puts the 21 tigers personally shot by the Queen’s grandfather in 1911 into context.
I don’t want to judge too harshly. We are all products of our time, and doubtless some of the things we do in 2021 will be considered beyond the pale some day. But raising a gun to shoot a magnificent regal animal not once, but 21 times? Even 100 years ago that must have seemed excessive.
It’s sad for the Queen and royal family, but 99 is a good age. I’d be happy to get that far. Prince Philip was a man of his time and it was a time that I hope we’ve gone beyond.
Peissel, Michel. Tiger for Breakfast. New Delhi: Time Books International, 1966.
Shaha, Rishikesh and Richard M. Mitchell. Wildlife in Nepal. New Delhi: Nirala Publications, 2001.