Roger Underwood has kindly shared with us some research he’s recently done on the history of colonial forestry. It comes from his recent book Foresters of the Raj–Stories from Indian and Australian Forests, an anthology of stories dealing with the evolution of forestry in India during the latter half of the 19th century, and the development of models and systems that were ultimately exported all over the English-speaking world, including Australia and the United States (Yorkgum Publishing, 2013).
As part of a project looking at the history of “colonial forestry”(1) I have been studying forest and land management in India during the period from about 1860 to 1920. The subject is of interest because the forest conservation policies and management practices developed in India at that time later became a template for early forest policies and practices in Australia (where I have worked nearly all of my life as a forester), New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States of America.
An unexpected outcome of this research was to find that 19th- and early 20th-century Indian foresters were also deeply concerned about Indian wildlife, and that in their published writings on this issue can be discerned some of the earliest concepts of professional wildlife management.
The outcome was unexpected because a notable aspect of forestry in India in the 19th century was the widespread love of hunting wild animals, or shikar, amongst officers of the Indian Forest Service. Sometimes this was done in the line of duty, a forester being called out to dispatch a rogue elephant or a man-eating tiger. But hunting was also regarded by many forest officers (especially those who had transferred from the Army into the Forest Service) as a sport, a contest between man and beast.
Furthermore, hunting was part of the culture of the rich and powerful who dominated India during the time of the British Raj, including the Indian aristocracy and the British gentlemen who sat at the top of the Indian Civil Service (James, 1997).
Indeed, shikar was officially encouraged. In his obituary for Harry Hill, the recently departed but much admired Inspector-General of the Indian Forest Department, former Inspector-General Dietrich Brandis described Hill as not just a fine forester, but a “great sportsman,” by which he meant a great hunter. Brandis then went on to say:
A forester, more than anyone else, must use his eyes and must be able, on the spot, to draw conclusions from what he has observed. The training of a sportsman is an excellent help in his work. It makes life in the forest delightful to him, it induces him not only to visit forests but to live in them. He becomes much [more] familiar with the development of [the forest] than a man who is not a sportsman (Brandis, 1903).
The notion of hunting as a sport goes back centuries, possibly as far back as to times when people no longer had to hunt solely for food. And while the “sport” is based partly on a hereditary (perhaps genetic) competitive urge to kill or be killed, there is another element, as Brandis observed: the hunt takes the hunter into the forest and the countryside, where the beauty and challenges of nature can also be enjoyed, and where there is time and opportunity to reflect on wider problems and issues.