South Asia has been a major arena for conflicts between people and predators but, unlike the examples of England and North America, their history has hardly been told (Worster 1977; Thomas 1983). The focus has mainly been on the changing attitudes and practices of the imperial rulers (MacKenzie 1988; Rangarajan 1996:138-198). This is inevitable given the extent of literature available on shikar, or hunting. Useful as this may be in understanding the culture of empire, it refers to only a small part of the picture. But the issue of the decline of wildlife raises broader questions about the nature and impact of colonial rule.
Hunting for sport was integral not only to the lifestyle of officials but also to their self-image as men who believed in fair play. The Raj was seen as powerful enough to contain danger (MacKenzie 1988). Yet the self-regulatory character of colonial power is then used to blame the increase of population and the breakdown of norms after 1947 for general ecological decline (Gen. J. G. Elliot 1973:4; Vernede 1995:142-143). In a sense, this is a double blind, for British officials in the past often assumed that they alone were brave enough to face large and hostile beasts. Fair play meant that strength was tempered by mercy. Such attitudes are not confined to the past (Davidar 1986:67-71). This view of imperial stewardship needs to be tested against the evidence.
The question can be posed at another level. The disappearance of free-ranging wildlife could simply have been a by-product of the expansion of agriculture. Greater mobility and better weapons for the hunter may have been incidental to the decline of the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). In that case, the fate of wildlife then becomes simply a part of a larger drama, and specific drives against particular species are incidental to the general impoverishment of a region’s ecology. The killing of tigers or leopards (Panthera pardus) for bounties depended