Alois: The last tiger hunt
Sitting watch over a dead tiger he developed an almost personal relationship. It was like holding a wake over the body of a friend.
In the previous chapters Alois describes life in the prisoner-of-war camp, and his encounters with poisonous snakes. After release and deportation to Germany, he returned to India, married a local beauty and ended his hunting career.
When this surprising news of the end of the genocidal war reached us, we all assumed that it could now only be a matter of days before we were released and could resume our lives, return to where we had been at the outbreak of the war.
But that was unfortunately a false conclusion. Once the machinery of bureaucracy had been created, we were trapped in it. It took until 1919 before we finally became free people again. But in the meantime, visas had become compulsory for India, and since none of us had a visa, we were expelled and sent back to Germany.
As much as I was happy to see my homeland again, after a short time I suffered from wanderlust, the longing for the country that had become my second home: India. I was only happy when I had a new contract with the Westend Watch Company in my pocket and landed on Indian soil again.
This time, however, entry was not as easy as in 1912. This time I had to have a visa, and on landing my passport and luggage were checked as thoroughly as has become fashionable since then. But still: I was back in India.
But even then it was not so easy to pick up where I had left off, at the outbreak of the war. The Bombay branch of my company had been completely reorganised, new faces had appeared with whom one first had to get acquainted. And then, as I began to feel safe and at home again, a saleswoman joined our company whom providence had destined to be my wife.
She was a Christian and her name was Ursula Gonsalves. She came from a small town south of Bombay. I had often seen young girls who came from a rural background and had no relatives or friends in the city fall into bad company, through naïvety and a sense of loneliness. They usually end up on the wrong side of the tracks. Ursula was a trusting and lonely person.
I took it upon myself to pay a little attention to her. It began with us going for long walks or spending the evenings in quiet conversation in one of the cafés on the seashore. Over time, interest turned into friendship, later into affection, and finally into love. And then one day we stood at the altar and vowed to live our lives together as husband and wife.
Fortunately, Ursula shared my love of nature and my passion for hunting and was a wonderful counterbalance to my often rash bravado, putting the brakes on many a foolish venture and steering it in a more sensible direction. We went on many hunts together and spent many wonderful years in marriage. On the walls of our flat in Bombay hang many hunting trophies as silent witnesses of our shared adventures.
There is the panther skin from the Ghats, which evokes a ‘Do-you-remember’, the python skin, which reminds one of a rather dangerous situation, and above all there is the mighty tiger head which only recently came into my possession, after the death of its rightful owner, as his inheritance. “Friedel should have the head, because it belongs to him at least as much as to me,” my friend Paul told me before he left this world. And actually he is right. We both shot this animal more than 15 years ago.
It was in the period just after the monsoon when we started our holiday. Paul and I went on a long, almost three-week safari through the jungles in the southwest of the country, not far from the Portuguese colony of Goa. And, of course, as always, my wife Ursula came along for the ride, as a tireless helper with cooking, camping, and all the thousand big and small problems that life outside civilisation presents.
The three weeks of the holiday were almost over. We had set up our last camp on the bank of a small river, not far from a dense mangrove thicket. Paul and I had arranged a last drive, and the familiar ‘hau-hau-hau’ of the beaters sounded again from the bush.
The bush erupted in turmoil, a herd of screeching black monkeys raced across the clearing. An old male led them, and some of the females carried cubs under their bellies. Birds swooped over the tops of the dense grove like colourful clouds. A spotted chital cow with a fawn stepped cautiously into the clearing before galloping across the gap and diving into the thicket close to me. We seemed to be unlucky. No huntable animal had showed up where I stood, and Paul hadn’t taken a shot yet either.
Then suddenly there was a bang from the side where my friend was standing. And then again.
I nodded my head in satisfaction, without taking my eyes off the other side of the clearing. Paul had only managed to get some mediocre trophies during our holiday together, and I silently hoped that this time he had brought down a capital animal. But then three shots popped from his position, at regular intervals. That was our agreed alarm signal.
I immediately secured my rifle and ran towards Paul. The beaters had also heard the signal and their ‘hau-hau-hau’ had fallen silent. The sudden silence had something ghostly and unreal about it.
“What happened?” I shouted, out of breath, from a distance. I saw my friend leaning on his rifle near a banyan tree. I felt immense relief when I saw him so safe and sound in front of me.
“I shot a tiger,” he called back. “He went back into the bush,” he added with a wave of his hand at the thicket. “I hope he didn’t attack any of the beaters.” This fear was unfounded, for a little later the seven dark-skinned men stepped into the clearing one by one.
“Where did you hit him?” asked Paul. “I aimed for the left shoulder,” he said. “It may be that in the excitement I came off a little too high. He was a hell of a guy, I tell you,” he added after a short pause.
We sat down on one of the gnarled roots of the banyan tree, and the porters squatted on the ground near us.
“We have to find him and bring him down,” I said after a while. Paul looked at me from the side. “Your wife will be very much against it, though.”
“We don’t need her permission,” I said and stood up. “Which of you will come with me to kill the tiger?” I turned to the seven beaters and promised a substantial bounty to volunteers. The reward offered was a lot of money for a driver; but at first no one seemed inclined to earn it. The only reaction was a lively whispering among themselves, probably weighing the danger against the expected gain. Eventually, however, two young men stood up, hesitantly. I sent the other five back to camp with the order to inform my wife of what had happened, and then the four of us set off.
We walked in a wide chain first towards the other end of the clearing, where Paul said the tiger had been when he was shot, in order to find his track.
“Sahib, sahib,” one of the two drivers called after a few minutes, pointing to the ground in front of him. Hastily, Paul and I strode through the waist-high spear grass towards him. His outstretched hand pointed to a round, trampled spot from which a narrow trail of trampled grass led away.
“This is where you caught him, isn’t it?” asked Paul. “This is where he turned and then ran back that way” — I pointed to the narrow track — “into the bush.” Paul nodded his head in agreement as we walked slowly along the track.
“There, he’s bleeding,” Paul called out after about twenty paces. To the right of the track a trickle of blood could be seen at irregular intervals on grass blades. It was dark blood and indicated that the animal had not been shot in its lungs.
We reached the other side of the clearing and entered the bush. Even though the vegetation in this area was not too dense, our progress was slow. The first months after the big rains are not favourable for the hunter. The abundant moisture has caused grass and herbs to shoot up into rampant growth, in which even larger animals can easily hide. Such lack of clarity, however, had to be particularly disturbing when pursuing a wounded predator. Only with the utmost caution, our weapons ready to fire under our arms, did we venture forward step by step, and from time to time a noise made us jump in fright and bring our rifles to bear. But it was not the tiger, whose sudden attack we expected at any second, but harmless hares, pheasants, reptiles and other small animals whose hiding places we had approached.
For almost half an hour we had little trouble keeping track of the tiger. Clearly and distinctly its path was marked by dark drops of blood. But then the red signposts became more and more sparse and finally stopped altogether.
“The bleeding has stopped,” I said to Paul. “If I knew you had only hit it in the shoulder or the rear, we could give up the search and go back to camp. Because then the wound would heal in a few days. But if it has an abdominal wound or a mutilating injury, it would be irresponsible to let it live. First of all, it would be disgraceful towards the animal that may have to suffer a lot until death releases it; but secondly, such an injured tiger can also become a terror for people. Unable to hunt and outwit the animals of the jungle, it would become a murderer of domestic animals, or in fact a man-eater. So we have to finish it off, no matter what.”
Paul just nodded mutely. He had a guilty conscience and was a little depressed.
From now on, our progress was slowed down even more. With the end of the blood trail, which was easy to follow, we now had to search laboriously for the tiger’s pugmarks, a bent blade of grass here, a faint dent in a soft patch of ground there, leaves that had fallen from branches now and then. Again and again we lost the trail and then had to return to the spot where we had last clearly recognised it in order to continue our search from there.
Around noon the landscape changed. The woods became lower and the ground stonier. And then a flat elevation rose in front of us, which we had to climb.
It took almost three hours to climb what would normally have taken about half an hour, because following the trail on the stony ground was even more difficult than before. And when we reached the highest point of the climb, we had to discover that it dropped steeply on the other side. It was an outcrop formed during the cooling of our earth’s crust.
“Now we can give up. We’ll never be able to find the trail in that rubble,” Paul said hopelessly, looking down the steep, stony slope, surrounded at the bottom on all sides by dense bush.
“We can’t give up,” I said emphatically. “Remember what I told you earlier.”
All four of us tried to find a continuation of the trail on the stones of the slope. But it was in vain. No clue, however slight, pointed to where the animal could have descended.
“It’s no use like this,” I said after a while. “We must try to find the trail again below. If we start from here” — I pointed to the last track at the edge of the descent — “and look for the easiest way down, we should arrive near the place tiger descended. Animals always look for the easiest way, especially, of course, when they are wounded.”
We started our descent, over loose, weathered scree and slippery rocks, using the sparse bushes and root gnarls between the rocks for support. We were still about ten or twelve metres above the surroundings when it happened. First I heard a low cry of terror above me, and then a human body flew past me. With hands and feet I clung to the rock, in fright, as a crash of stones came down around me.
Only when it quietened could I look down to make sure which of my three companions had fallen. It was Paul, lying motionless on the ground below.
Hastily I descended the last few metres and was soon kneeling beside my friend. I seriously feared that he was dead, or at least badly injured; but after I had roused him from his light unconsciousness, by shaking him vigorously, he straightened up with a groan and found that his bones were apparently still whole.
“You were lucky to fall into the bush here,” I said, pointing to the undergrowth that had broken his fall. “But next time please let us know beforehand if you’re in such a hurry.”
Paul, meanwhile, had finished examining his bones and his face twisted into a pained grin. “It’s that damn bush’s fault,” he said, pointing to a gnarled, half withered plant lying beside him. “I had been holding onto it and all of a sudden it snapped.”
I sat down on a stone beside him and lit a cigarette. “You can’t go any further now,” I said. “I think the best thing for you to do is to sit here and wait until we come back.”
Paul protested vehemently and jumped up to prove to me that he really was still fit to march; but with the hasty movement his face contorted painfully, and his hand reached for his bruised back.
“All right, I’ll stay here,” he then said abjectly. “It won’t take long,” I comforted him. “It’s five o’clock now. In two hours at the most I’ll have no more rifle light and I’ll have to turn back anyway, whether I get the tiger or not. I’ll leave you one of the two beaters so you won’t be helpless.”
First, however, this driver, together with his comrade and me, searched the immediate surroundings in order to find the tiger’s track again. My reasoning soon proved to be correct. The track was barely 30 paces away from our location. So the tiger must have chosen almost the same descent.
Two of us now set off on our march. Rawjee, the driver who came with me, should have gone ahead, because he was one of the best trackers I have ever met. But he obviously had too much respect for wounded tigers. In any case, he stubbornly refused to go ahead of me and politely let me go first. Even an increase in the promised fee could not change his mind.
At first I cursed his timidity, because my slower tracking was wasting a lot of the short hours left in the day. But after a little more than 30 minutes the trail became as clear as it had been at the beginning, when it was marked by drops of blood. We had come into a large area of spear grass, over a man’s height, and the path of the imjured animal was clearly marked by stalks that had been bent or snapped.
“Slow down, Sahib,” Rawjee said softly, tugging at my sleeve. “You can’t see far in this grass, and if the tiger sees you first, it will attack.”
The man was right. It was already starting to get dim, and I walked more slowly and carefully. Rawjee kept three paces behind me, respectfully. But his respect was for the tiger, not for me.
A bright-brown, white-headed Brahman buzzard was startled by us and flew off between the dense treetops with a shrill cry. “We will have to turn back soon,” I said quietly to Rawjee. “It will be dark in half an hour at the latest.”
“If it pleases the gods, you will slay the sharp-toothed one even if it is pitch dark. But if his hour has not yet come, then the gods will darken your senses, and you will not see him even if he were three paces ahead of you,” Rawjee answered philosophically. We fell silent again and walked slowly on, following the trail, through the tall grass.
And then suddenly the tiger was standing in front of me. Hidden in a bush, I saw its yellow-brown fur, with the broad, dark horizontal stripes. The bright eyes were fully focused on me. Instinctively, I jerked the rifle to my shoulder and pulled the trigger. With an angry roar, the animal leapt up and burst out of the bush. Rawjee let out a shrill cry of fear, and I threw myself to the ground to avoid the tiger’s attack. But the expected crash of the heavy body did not come. When I looked around again, after the first moment of fright, I was alone. The tiger was gone and there was no sign of Rawjee either.
Rawjee,” I called out. No answer. “Rawjee, where are you?” I shouted again.
“Here I am, sahib,” came the reply. Surprisingly, the voice did not come from behind me, but from above. I looked around searchingly and I saw my brave companion at least five metres above me, clinging to a branchless, almost completely smooth tree trunk, which he was clutching tightly with his arms and legs. Fear had given him the superhuman strength to perform this gymnastic feat.
“Come down, you scaredy-cat,” I shouted at him. But Rawjee just shook his head and stayed where he was. “The gods gave me the powers to save myself from the sharp-toothed one,” he said. “You are not supposed to test them again. When you have killed the beast I will come down again. But not before then.”
“The tiger is long gone, you coward,” I yelled at him. “We won’t see him again today. So come down now, so we can go home.” Rawjee looked at me reproachfully. “Why do you think the tiger has run over the hill. It’s sitting back there!” He pointed behind the bush with his hand.
I looked at him, stunned. “Why didn’t you tell me that straight away?” After getting a more detailed description of the place from him, I walked around the bushes towards the animal.
The tiger was sitting about 30 metres away in the spear grass. My hasty, untargeted shot had not killed it, but had wounded it so badly that it could not drag itself any further.
My hunting boots with the soft rope soles made my steps inaudible, and a favourable wind blew from the animal towards me. That allowed me to get within five metres of it without detection. As in the meantime the sun had set, and there were only a few minutes of dull daylight left, I now had to play it completely safe.
The animal lay motionless and apathetic on its side. On its flank was a large rusty brown spot, the crusted wound of the first shot it had received from Paul. Bright blood seeped from a second wound on its neck. That was where my hasty shot had hit it.
The animal still hadn’t seen me, and I slowly raised my rifle, aiming at the large, round head that lay still and passive in the grass. At that moment the tiger seemed to notice, or even to feel instinctively that something was afoot. Slowly it raised its head and looked at me. I looked down the sightings of my rifle into the yellow eyes for the last time. The animal made a tired movement, as if it wanted to get up. At that moment I pulled the trigger. A small, circular hole appeared between its eyes, as the shot boomed, and the tiger’s head fell back into the grass.
I stood in front of the dead animal for a long time and looked at its wonderful, muscular body. Something like sadness and regret welled up in me. For the first time in my life, I wondered if it was necessary to kill this animal. I felt a secret anger at my friend Paul, whose shot had made it necessary to pursue and shoot it.
“Bravo, Sahib, you got him,” a voice interrupted me from my thoughts. Rawjee had watched everything from his safe, if uncomfortable, vantage point and had descended again onto the now safe ground. “The gods were against you, you murderer of the herds, you son of ten thousand clawless fathers,” he declaimed in a loud voice, and pushed the dead animal hard in the flank with his bare foot. “May your soul swelter into the underworld and your belly be filled with refuse,” he continued, and spat red betel juice on the tiger’s head. “The gods are always on the side of the brave, and I am the son of ten thousand brave and exalted fathers, protector of women and children, the saviour…”
“Rawjee! If you spit again, you’re going to regret it,” I interrupted his self-adulation. “The tiger has had ten times more courage than you. Who climbed the tree in fear of whom?”
Rawjee looked at me, offended. “Sahib, if I had not been up the tree, you would not have killed the tiger,” he said reproachfully. “I only climbed up so that I could see where it was going,” he lied with the sudden impulse peculiar to many Orientals.
“The gods are always on the side of the brave, and I am the son of ten thousand brave and exalted fathers, protector of women and children, the savior …..”
“Rawjee! But if you spit again, you can experience something, ”I interrupted his self-adulation. “The tiger had ten times more courage than you. Who climbed the tree in front of whom? “
Rawjee looked at me offended. “Sahib, if I hadn’t been up on the tree, you wouldn’t have killed the tiger,” he said reproachfully. “I only climbed up so I could see where he was going,” he lied with the sudden impulse common to many Orientals.
Years of experience taught me that there is no point in arguing. So I let his claim rest.
In the meantime darkness had fallen after the brief twilight that prevails in these latitudes, and I had to think about how we should spend the night. It would have been too difficult to skin the animal in the dark and then head back. On the other hand, the animal couldn’t be left unguarded either. The jungle marauders would eat him.
“Listen, Rawjee,” I said after a moment’s thought. “You go back to the camp now and tell my wife that I will be spending the night here. On the way you look for the Sahib Paul, where we left him. If he can walk again, you take him back with you, otherwise you will send help from the camp. And tomorrow morning you come with two or three people to get the skin.”
I had to repeat the difficult instruction to him again until he understood everything correctly, and then he disappeared into the darkness, leaving me alone with the tiger.
About fifteen paces away was a low, broad-crowned tree. I sat down with my back leaning against its trunk and laid the rifle beside me. Tired from the exertion of the hunt, I closed my eyes.
A soft sound woke me. The moon was high in the sky, bathing the landscape in a ghostly, silvery light. I must have slept for several hours.
Two dark shadows cautiously pushed their way through the grass. I slowly reached for my rifle. A third shadow appeared from the side, and then a shrill, almost human-sounding laughter broke the night silence. The three visitors had identified themselves. They were hyenas that had been attracted to the tiger’s body.
Slowly they came closer. Now I could now see them clearly. They were slightly larger than sheepdogs, yellowish-gray in color, with black horizontal stripes, similar to those of the tiger. An erect mane that started between the small ears and ran down the entire back to the tail gave them an eerie appearance.
They were now 10, 15 paces from the tiger. With greedy eyes they stared at the carcass; but they still did not dare to approach closer. It wasn’t the fear that the animal might still be alive; the smell told them it was dead and safe. But the hyena, despite its powerful build, despite its strong jaws that can crack a thick bone with ease, is one of the most cowardly animals there is.
They stood together in a safe position and drew in their breath, sniffing the air. One of the animals stood sideways to me, and I could clearly see how the body, which was powerful and muscular in the front, became considerably weaker towards the back. The hindquarters and hind legs looked atrophied and powerless, as if they had shrunk. The natives say that the gods actually wanted to make the hyena a strong and dangerous predator. So they made it a strong set of teeth and a powerful front body. But when these were finished, they suddenly lost interest in their work and hastily finished the rest of the body. That’s why the hyena’s hindquarters are so weak, and that’s why it’s such a coward. It must always be thinking of its “rear” weakness.
The animals now moved forward again, and had almost reached the dead tiger. Despite the poor light, I could have safely shot them down at the short distance. But you don’t need a bullet to scare off hyenas. I clapped my hands once, and a second later they were all gone, with startled grunts.
My tiredness, however, was dissipated by their appearance. Just to be sure that I would not be surprised again by nocturnal scavengers, I walked over to the dead tiger and sat down next to him, leaning my back against his body. My fingers slowly ran over its thick, smooth fur. And again the feeling of remorse overcame me. I had developed an almost personal relationship with the tiger and felt as if I were holding a nightly wake over the body of a friend.
A flying fox bat passed overhead with slow, clapping wing beats, and all around us you could hear the noises of night life, with hundreds of animals fighting for their existence: eating and being eaten. And the two of us sat together in silence, waiting for the morning, a human and a dead tiger.
I will not shoot any more tigers, I resolved. This was to remain my only tiger. Actually, it wasn’t mine at all, but Paul’s. Even though in the end I had brought him down, according to the old hunting custom an animal always belongs to the hunter who takes the first shot. But I resisted the thought that the fur could one day lie in Paul’s room as a carpet.
No, you shall not become a carpet, I said half aloud to the dead tiger. That is the only condition I will set Paul. He may stuff your head and hang it on the wall; but I don’t want people trampling on your fur. You are too rare and too noble for that.
Alois Friedl biographical stories
- 1. Alois: the beginning — The adventurous life of a young boy started with his fleeing from his native village in Bavaria, Germany.
- 2. Alois: Gateway to India — How this adventurous young German technician (my father) made his way to India, 110 years ago
- 3. Alois: Death in the jungle — An adventurous young German (my father) described his first hunt in the jungles of India, over 100 years ago.
- 4. Alois: Prisoner of war — What was internship like during the first world war. Not like you might think, in British ruled India, a century ago.
- 5. Alois: Deadly poisonous snakes
How a German technician in a British prisoner-of-war camp, in 1914–18, dealt with the reptiles that abounded in India
- 6. Alois: Purdah — A description of how, in 1914, Indian traditions and mores made even a minor dental treatment of women a challenge.
- 7. Alois: The last tiger hunt
Sitting watch over a dead tiger he developed an almost personal relationship. It was like holding a wake over the body of a friend.
Alois Friedl died in 1964 at the age of 75, and the autobiography he had undertaken was never finished.
Alois lived 27,632 days, which is exactly what I myself today, on March 28, 2021, have completed. An auspicious day, for me.
I will endeavour to fill out the Friedl biography with the stories he told me on our numerous treks through the jungles. And believe me, there are lots of those.