Counting the Dead

It is near impossible to give accurate figures for the numbers of wild animals killed by imperial hunters in colonial Burma. It is harder still to tell what effect that hunting might have had on the wildlife populations. It is, however, possible to get a sense of how many animals were killed by some individual hunters. Fitzwilliam Pollok and W. Thom’s hunting guide Wild Sports of Burma and Assam (1900) provides historians with their own personal death counts. The numbers killed by these two individuals can at least give us an indication of the scale of the killing in the late-nineteenth century.

Colonel Fitzwilliam Pollok

W. H. Thom

To try to keep my calculations precise, I have not included any vague figures for kills, such as ‘several’ or ‘numerous’. This has meant that getting any useful numbers on birds killed has not been possible. I have also not included times when they shot an animal but could not confirm that it had died. It should also be noted that I have only kept track of the numbers killed within colonial Burma, leaving out the section on Assam. These are the totals for the mammals that they shot and killed according to their book:

Buffalo: 240

Gaur (Indian bison): 130

Deer: 76

Rhinoceros: 51

Elephant: 50

Tiger: 10

Panther: 6

Bear: 5

Leopard: 4

Human: 1

To put these figures into some context, Pollok lived in Lower Burma for 13 years from the mid-1850s and Thom had been in the colony since the 1880s. They both had full time employment during their time in Burma; Pollok in the military and Thom in the police. Their shooting was thus restricted to their spells of leave. On one trip in May 1860, that lasted three weeks, Pollok killed 51 deer, 8 elephants, 7 gaur, 2 tigers and 1 leopard.

It is possible that these figures were inflated by bravado. But it should be remembered that they did not wish to portray themselves as indiscriminate killers. Thom stressed that, ‘It is not necessary to slaughter every animal that one comes across for simply the sake of shooting. I cannot repeat too often that the man who does so is no sportsman, but an itinerant butcher.’ In addition, these figures were mostly derived from their stories of more memorable kills. As a result, I think it is safe to assume that these are minimums and that the actual number of animals that they killed is likely to have been higher, particularly if we consider the creatures that they grievously wounded but whose bodies they did not recover.

You probably noticed the human on the list. Thom recounted the death of a Karen policeman who was part of his hunting party. Believing that there was a tiger attacking their camp, Thom fired one of his many weapons in attempt to scare off the predatory. The bullet struck the man’s head and he died immediately. A hasty inquiry conducted on the spot exonerated Thom from any blame. Local trackers and beaters employed on the hunts were particularly vulnerable to these types of ‘accident’.

One victim among many

Undoubtedly, Pollok and Thom were particularly keen hunters. After the book’s publication in 1900, Thom remained in Burma until the Japanese occupation. According to his unpublished memoirs written after the war, he was an unrepentant hunter until the end, killing hundreds more animals. However, they were just two among several hundred British employees in the colonial state, many of whom were also hunters. This is before the non-official British population living in the colony working for timber firms and other commercial outfits is taken into account. On top of this, shooting trips to the colony were regularly embarked upon by Britons traveling from India and as well as further afield. Pollok and Thom’s book gives us a clue to just how many creatures could be killed by an individual hunter, either on a single trip or over a number of years. Extrapolating wider figures on the basis of this book would result in a staggering estimated death toll.

By the 1920s the colonial government was concerned about the diminishing numbers of elephant, gaur, rhinoceros and various species of deer in Burma. Typically, the Burmese were blamed for their endangerment. The preamble to the game laws and wildlife conservation legislation that was introduced during the interwar years routinely bemoaned that the local wild fauna was not valued by the populous. These were self-serving accusations. Whilst there were other factors contributing to this decline–the destruction of habitat being an important one–Pollok and Thom’s book is an indicator of the scale of the impact that imperial hunting had.


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