LOVELL READE, THE GREAT ELEPHANT HUNTER
Further inputs at the end, from other sources
In 1995 when I was a post graduate student in the Department of General Surgery of Gauhati Medical College in Guwahati, Assam, pursuing the M.S ( General Surgery) course, many post graduate students came from Regional Medical College, Imphal in Manipur for a two months posting in our institution in batches. They represented almost all the states of the north-eastern part of India. Amongst them came a Khasi doctor doing M.D in General Medicine in Imphal. His name is Dr Audie Michael Reade Diengdoh. I was surprised to know that inspite of his long name being laced with all the elements of Christian nomenclature, he is not a Christian but follower a of the traditional Khasi religion. Going to the depth of his family history, it came as a further surprise when he told that the surname Reade came from his paternal side from a European forefather and his paternal great-grandfather was a very well known hunter.
That information remained in my mind and once when I read a book written by one well known Anglo-Indian writer on the Anglo-Indian community of India I came across a list of Anglo-Indians who excelled in various fields in India. In that list a name is there, Lovell Reade, a famous hunter. But no mention is made there of his Khasi ancestry. I was thinking whether this was the grandpa that Dr Diengdoh told me about. Then I read an excellent book named ” Elephant Gold “ written by famous and perhaps one of the greatest of the forest officers to serve in Assam, Mr P.D. Stracey. There he mentioned about Lovell Reade as a great elephant hunter. From that book itself I came to know that Mr Stracey had written a book on Lovell Reade titled “Reade, Elephant Hunter”. I sought out and read the book in no time. The book is a publication of Robert Hale publishing house of London, United Kingdom, year of publication 1967.
Mr Patrick Donald Stracey the biographer of Lovell Reade was an officer of the Forest Department of the Government of Assam beginning his career in the British time and retiring in independent India. He was of Anglo-Indian extraction and was a very dedicated and sincere forest officer. He was also a great sports lover and he has important contribution in the making of several sports pavilions and playgrounds in the plains of Assam. He took charge as Conservator of Forests, Government of Assam on the 15th of August 1947, the day India got independence and left office on 9th of February 1955. He was also for sometime the Director Forest Education, Indian Forest Research Institute and College, Dehra Dun. The “Elephant Gold” and “Reade, Elephant Hunter” are two of his great books. ( Many of the information on P D Stracey, courtesy Mr Niranjan Goswami I.F.S, retired Chief Conservator of Forest)
Lovell Reade was born in 1890. His grandfather was an European who married a Khasi lady. His maternal ancestry is entirely Khasi. Mr Stracey mentions about his ancestry as ” three parts Khasi and one part European“. He further mentions that although in his early years that he was happy to be classed as an Eurasian or Anglo-Indian and be included in the privileged class under the British Raj, later on he realised his actual position. Nonetheless he was accepted without reservation by the Khasi folk as a Khasi and he enjoyed the dual status. But he to all intent and purposes was a Khasi.
Reade shot his first elephant in 1928 and the last in 1967 at the age of 76 years. He killed in all 220 elephants in a span of 40 years, most of them while on foot in the hilly terrain of the Khasi-Jaintia hills. Reade mostly worked against solitary male elephants only and all of them dangerous and many of them rogues and killers. He never hunted any animals for fun or hobby. During the end part of his career he hunted few elephants from the back of tamed elephants in the plains areas of undivided Assam. Apart from this he also killed 7 tigers and about a dozen leopards all on foot. The tigers he killed single handedly but the leopards he killed in beats arranged by the villagers.
Reade as a student was intelligent and studious and after passing Matriculation examination started working as a clerk in a government department. Seeking a more active life than that of a sedentary clerk, he arranged transfer as an assistant at the Government Agricultural Farm in Upper Shillong. From his ability and interest he was selected for training in Bihar Agricultural Institute where he stayed for 4 years as a trainee. After completion of the training course he started life as an Agricultural Inspector.
The new job got him touring all over the hilly terrain of the Khasi-Jaintia hills. His elephant hunting career started from an experience with a rogue elephant while visiting Nonglyngdoh area, when he was held up somewhere near Nongpoh due to the presence and depredation of that rogue elephant. The house-owner of the house where he was holed up narrated in details all the stories of the elephant menace that the villagers had to face in that area. Reade was moved by that episode and decided to become an elephant hunter. Till then only firearms he had was a shotgun and a .22 rifle, so he sought permission from the Deputy Commissioner to have a heavy rifle. He took leave to buy the rifle from Calcutta and bought a .404 Jeffery single barrelled rifle from Lyons & Lyons an arms dealing firm.
After a month after he obtained the .404 rifle an elephant was proclaimed rogue in Nongkrem Syiemship. The elephant’s activity was so vicious that he killed a man and then came back again to the same spot of killing and desecrated the ashes of the man who was cremated in the same site of his killing. It was a custom of the Khasi people at that time when majority of them were followers of the traditional animistic faith not to bring the body of a person to the village, if the person happens to die in any mishap. Rather the person was cremated at the spot of his dying. He killed this harmful animal and this was his first hunt of an elephant. Reade took to shooting down “proclaimed” elephants when The Elephant Control Scheme was introduced in 1936 and he got a license from the Deputy Commissioner for this purpose. Without existence of this scheme his elephant hunting tally would have been much less.
Starting from this beginning in 1928 he continued in his career of elephant hunting for 40 more years. He was himself in perilous situation several times when he was attacked and bodily injured by elephants. One such incident took place near Jowai in Jaintia hills and one another near a village named Nongsyngiaw inhabited by Lyngngam subtribe of the Khasi living near the Garo hills, luckily he survived all of them.
Stracey writes. His position as an agricultural officer brought him into contact with the humble village folk of the Khasi-Jaintia hills. He spent long hours on march, in their fields and houses, living, eating and sleeping with them. A part of their personality got imbibed into his own. He was in the forefront of local political and social and movements. He was a practising Christian but very respectful towards the beliefs and faiths of the Khasi people who were mostly animistic at that time.
During the terminal part of his career he became the Deputy Director of Agriculture for the hill districts of Assam. He had to move about in the six hill districts of undivided Assam. Reade was very concerned about the problem of jhum farming in the hills and advocated permanent terrace cultivation, greater use of fertilizer, improved propagation of fruit trees among others. He was a great admirer of the highly developed farming techniques of the Angami Nagas. They have terraced rice fields irrigated by streams from top to bottom and they cleverly use dry terraces by planting Alder trees for pollarding in season to make dry ash manure.
He was a Wing Commander of the Khasi Porter Corps during the World War II and operated in Naga hills as far as the borders of Burma.
Stracey mentions about many other great elephant hunters of that era namely Girsham, Mackrell, Baldwin, Nichols, Needham, Archard all Britishers and also the Assamese hunter Tarun Ram Phukan more renowned as a nationalistic leader and freedom fighter. The name of the Maharaja of Mysore was also added to that list. But Stracey places Reade above all of them.
Stracey compares Reade to Jim Corbett and dubs him “Jim Corbett of the elephants“. No doubt as per Stracey’s description Reade share a lot in common with Corbett, a personality of the same mould, mild, unassuming and perfect gentleman. But it has to be said that Reade was great by his own standing not by comparison with others be it Corbett or any other. Reade was little known outside his native Khasi-Jaintia hills . Stracey writes that Reade did not attain the fame like Corbett because he did not had the patronage of person in high positions like Corbett. A few article in newspapers and magazines described his experiences at the end of his career. When a radio station came up in Shillong he gave a few talks.
Reade’s record of elephant hunting stands unequalled. He is ranked as one of the greatest of the hunters of the world’s biggest land animals. But he never hunted for sport or fun, he killed only when the animals had become a threat to human life. At heart he was always a conservationist.
By : Dr Satyakam Phukan
FURTHER INPUTS ON THE LIFE OF LOVELL READE
Input from Dr Sylvanus Lamare, selection grade Lecturer, Khasi Department, St. Edmunds College, Shillong and litterateur, who had sent information provided by Prof. Wandell Passah, Head, Electronics Department, St. Edmunds College, Shillong.
“I shared the facts on Lovell Reade with Prof. Wandell Passah and here is the reply from him.
Dear Dr. Phukan, about the incident at a place near Jowai in Jaintia Hills, I have some more information to share with you. The incident took place at Myntdiah in Mynso Elaka in the 1940’s. Myntdiah is 18 miles South East of Jowai. A rogue had just killed a farmer while on his way home. The S.D.O (Civil) Jowai Division declared the bull a rogue, the fact that brought Lovell Reade to Mynso. On the night of the day Reade arrived, a meeting was held in the hut of the headman to discuss the strategy for the hunt. Adult males yet to recover from the shock and grief assembled to hear something from Reade. In previous years Reade had been with them, but this time it was a different case in which the hunt was not to drive away the herd (always harmless) feeding on the paddy on their field, but to hunt and track down a rogue. As such, Reade pleaded and requested the men to limit or cut down the number of people who would be with Reade. But the love of these men for Reade and the confidence built among the villagers over the years were too great to shy these men from joining Reade. Reade would never hurt their sentiment and so had to be contented with a good number of men all bent to avenge the death of their friend.
The big giant trees led to a big clear opening and in a flash the rogue charged sending the crowd to utter confusion, running helter skelter. This was exactly what Reade had feared with a crowd hunting a rogue. Reade could never get a shot. One man thudded against a small boulder collapsed and his head crushed to pieces. Reade threw himself in between the two boughs of a giant tree but trapped inside there was no room to use his rifle. The elephant squeezed the two boughs with Reade sandwiched in between. After some seconds elephant pulled back and Reade collapsed. The elephant thinking that he got his man disappeared into the woods.
Reade was taken to a small mission hospital at Jowai and afterwards was shifted for better treatment to Robert Hospita,l Jaiaw, Shillong (now Khasi-Jaintia Presbyterian Synod) where he finally fully recovered. What a lesson to learn from? In the game of life and death advice of the wise and experienced should never be ignored. Everything would have gone well save for the loss of a soul.
It is sad to state that some amateur hunters, jealous of Reade popularity and love among the villagers went to the extent of dragging the incident to the court. It was here that my dad [(L) Rev. P. L. Wann, BD] who was then the pastor of Mynso pastorate had to intervene and with his testification the case simply got dismissed.
There is another incident involving this great kind hearted man. I shall try to print my writing tilted “My first hunting trip with dad” in which I had narrated how Reade at 78 years of age in 1968 was determined to go to Balat to avenge the death of his nephew another versatile elephant hunter George Fanwar who was killed by the rogue in the month of October 1968.
Reade prevented by his family to proceed had to stay at home. But Reade was delighted when he learned that the rogue was later killed by Father Albisuri who was incharge of Catholic mission in the Lyngnams of West Khasi Hills.
Father Albisuri was a Catholic priest, a man devoted wholeheartedly to the poor and downtrodden. He gained love and respect from all sections of people. Unfortunately father Albisuri died in a motor accident when his jeep and trailer full loaded with building materials for a school had a brake failure in the steepest part of Nongstoin Riangdo road, and crashed violently against the road wall. A monument in his memory still stands where he breathed his last, a monument for all of us to remember and pay tribute to a priest who had denounced the prosperity and luxury of Spain to come to our beloved hills to take care of the poor and downtrodden with a zeal, a zeal divine in style and filled with love.
Prof. Wandell Passah’s mobile no. is 9862090030 “