Joseph Grew sat on the small pile of straw that served as his bed in the corner of a dilapidated temple, listening intently to the savage tales of the ten hunters directly opposite him. From beneath a bluish-gray cloud of stagnant opium smoke and burning joss-sticks the Chinese hunters told of hunting tigers armed only with their hand-forged trident spears. Using pantomime and subtle hand gestures, Grew’s translator Lim Ek Hui continued parlaying the hunter’s tales by stating that the men got the courage to hunt the tigers from the idol they worshiped and by eating the flesh of the tigers they killed. Listening to the hunter’s exploits and of their sources of strength, Grew must have wondered if he would posses the bravery and fortitude for the next day’s hunt. For at daybreak the hunters would guide Grew after tiger by taking him deep underground, through a labyrinth of tunnels and into the tiger’s very lair.
Tiger hunting was not new to Grew. He had hunted these largest members of the cat family on numerous occasions, but never by tracking the tiger to within its cave. Up to this point Grew’s tiger hunting experiences had been limited to thick tropical jungles where the animal was driven by native beaters toward the hunter or by searching out the cat from the relative safety of mounted elephant. But having grown tired of the rain, insects, and fever so often associated with the tropics, Grew began searching for other and hopefully more exciting, tiger hunts. His search led him to the remote village of Chi Phaw.
Located on the coast of China almost midway between Shanghai and Hong Kong, the village of Chi Phaw is a study in geographic features. From the sea moving inland, the narrow beach gives way to steep cliffs atop which are barren hills littered with boulders and smaller rocks. Interlaced among the stones are countless cracks, crevices, and caves where area tigers retreat to rest after feeding. Just beyond this moonscaped no man’s land are the flooded paddy-fields that are the lifeblood of the village. It is here, under the steep shadow of a jungle covered mountain that the villagers toil for food, always under the constant threat of attack from a predator that considered them food.
Grew first learned of man-eaters while aboard a junk en route to Chi Phaw. At night, over coffee, the junk’s Scottish captain told Grew stories of villagers being dragged from the fields in broad daylight and of others being killed within shouting distance of their huts. Yet these same tigers were often seen playing together like kittens on the beach in the moonlight.
Upon his arrival Grew was housed in the village’s temple; a spider infested shed-like building full of filth and debris. Residing in the temple with him and his interpreter were ten of the village’s and the countryside’s tiger hunters. These men hunted tigers for profit. What tiger meat they didn’t eat to maintain their bravery was sold along with the animal’s bones and skin to persons wanting to gain the tiger’s powers without having to face a tiger themselves. The hunters were a hard looking group. Their skin was so weathered as to look like parchment and they adorned themselves with tiger claws and other ornaments from their kills. Despite their appearance and fierce reputation, Grew didn’t find them at all intimidating as they all stood at or below five feet tall. Likewise, was their habit of smoking their opium pipes to the point of “oblivion” when not hunting.
The morning of the hunt Grew found himself the center of the villager’s attention as many had never laid eyes on a white man before. They watched Grew with deep curiosity as he bathed, dressed, ate, and generally prepared for the day’s hunt. Shortly after his morning performance Grew was led by the hunters to the cliffs along the sea to start searching for tiger.
The hunters explained their planned course of action as a simple plan. To anyone else, including Grew, the plan bordered on insanity. Utilizing torches of bamboo and strips of cloth soaked in oil and their trident spears, the hunters would enter the maze work of tunnels and caves in attempt to drive any sleeping tigers toward a cave entrance guarded by Grew.
Once Grew was in position the hunters ignited their torches and lowered themselves into the earth, the glow of their fire slowly fading like a waning candle. Soon the earth above the tunnels was dotted with tiny wisps of oily smoke as the hunters moved through the labyrinth.
Grew’s body flooded with adrenaline. His mind raced back to the story he had heard about the last two white men to hunt the caves. A year earlier, H.P. Perry and A.H. Wheeler found themselves waiting outside a cave entrance just as Grew was now. Their hunt reached an explosive climax when four tigers sprang from the darkness of the caves almost simultaneously. Two days later Perry took yet another tiger flushed from the tunnels. Thinking of Perry’s and Wheeler’s enormous success, Grew couldn’t help but feel he would soon have a trophy of his own.
Thin plumes of smoke continued to spider web through the hairline cracks hidden among the jumbled boulders. These faint markers were soon echoed by the sound of metal scraping rock as the unseen hunters scraped the walls of the caves with their spears. Grew readied his double-barreled .450 cordite-powder express and instructed Lim to be ready to pass him the double-barreled 10-bore if need be.
A soft murmur of sound vented from the cave entrance, its source moving closer and closer. Grew shouldered his rifle only to watch the first of the hunters appear from the earthen gloom. The tunnels, at least this set, were empty. Grew and his men repeated this exercise through different catacombs again and again until nightfall to no avail.
The next day Grew decided to take a different approach. Feeling that the tunnels were now contaminated, at least temporarily, with the smell of man and oily torches and that no tigers would utilize them for some time he decided to set bait. He purchased six small goats and staked them sporadically within a mile’s radius of the village. Hopefully one of the goats would be hit by a tiger, leaving behind a trail that Grew and the hunters could track.
The following week was a study in tedium. Each morning Grew and his men would inspect the goats only to find each one unscathed. From there the only thing to do was to bring them back to the village to be fed before taking them out again at nightfall. During the long lull in-between, Grew spent his time reading, swimming, or observing the villagers and their daily work. At night the tables turned as the villagers gathered to watch Grew eat, read, and smoke his tobacco pipe. By week’s end this daily monotony would come to an end.
In the midst of a deep sleep, Grew was awakened at two in the morning by the incessant barking of a dog. Grew gave the disturbance little thought until the temple suddenly came alive with the bustle of the hunters grabbing their spears. One of the hunters thrust Grew’s rifle into his arms and franticly motioned for him to follow. Grew and the men emptied outside to find every dog in the village now barking furiously. Scanning the darkness Grew caught a fleeting glimpse of some animal sneaking across the nearest paddy-field. Despite all his efforts Grew couldn’t identify what the shadow was. Once the shadow was out of sight though, the dogs ceased their barking and returned to sleep.
The next morning Lim reported that a dog was missing, apparently carried away in the night. Furthermore, an inspection of the goats revealed that one was missing. The only evidence of its ever being there was the crudely severed rope that once held it in place. Certain that the two missing animals was the result of a tiger, Grew decided to sit over the loudest goat that evening with the hopes that the cat would strike again.
For most of the night, Grew sat in near total darkness waiting for the tiger he was certain would show. One never did. Convinced that sitting up over the bait goat was no longer viable Grew returned to the village to sleep. He awoke to find that two of the goats had been hit.
The first success was bittersweet as Grew learned that the goat he had sat over the night before had been hit after he had returned to the village. The animal had been dragged only ten feet from its stake before it was almost entirely consumed. Had Grew remained at the bait all night he might have had a shot at the tiger while it fed. The other bait goat had been killed but not eaten. Grew took this as a sign that the tiger had eaten its fill before most likely venturing to the nearby caves to rest. Rather than wait for the tiger to return to its kill, Grew summoned his men and began following the big cat’s trail. As he suspected, the trail led to the caves.
Despite everyone’s best efforts no one could agree which tunnel system the tiger had entered; the trail was just too sparse to follow over solid rock. In a move that Grew found “amusing” the hunters decided to consult a higher power. They placed an idol on a rock before them and began to pray. After more than a half hour of chanting and promises of offerings to the gods, one hunter stepped forward and threw two pieces of wood in the air. When the pieces landed the hunter saw the answer and quickly pointed to the cave he now knew for certain the tiger had entered.
The hunters ignited their torches and quickly climbed into the deep cave and out of sight. One of the hunters returned after only five minutes and motioned Grew to follow him. Grew looked to his translator Lim. “Get ready, master, tiger inside,” Lim whispered. “Very large tiger.” Lim continued that the tiger was in a deep recess and the chances of driving him out were slim. Grew would have to go in after him.
With a firm grip on his double rifle and Lim reluctantly behind him, Grew entered the deep crevice, following it deeper and deeper into the earth. The tunnel opened into a small chamber dimly lit by the hunter’s torches. Before Grew could fully adjust his eyes to the stark light several of the hunters motioned him toward a small hole in the wall. Through Lim the hunters explained that tiger was trapped in a larger chamber at the end of the tunnel. Grew looked at the narrow passage and then to the hunters. Lim confirmed what Grew already knew. The tunnel wasn’t large enough for more than one man. Grew would have to go after the tiger alone.
Grew climbed into the passage and began the slow arduous task of dragging himself forward. Inch by inch he snaked through the ink black darkness, pulling his rifle behind him. After ten feet he saw the faint glow of a torch the hunters had thrust into the tiger’s chamber through chinked rock on the opposite side. He had barely covered another foot when the tunnel reverberated with a booming growl. Another few feet and Grew could just make out a set of calloused green glowing eyes staring through him. Grew had reached the opening to the chamber. The tiger was less than four feet in front of him.
The tiger’s back arched against the shadows. Canine teeth parted in muted torch light releasing a deafening scream. Panic gripped Grew as he pulled his rifle forward and fired with blind luck. The rifle’s report snuffed the torch against the far wall, plunging the cavern into the kind of darkness known only in nightmares. The ringing in Grew’s ears subsided into the screams of the hunters behind him and the frothy growl of the cat before him. Grew fired again into the darkness. A shockwave of noise and percussion flooded the tunnel at the rifle’s blast. Grew strained to listen eventually training in on the sound of slow steady panting giving way to stillness as the tiger succumbed to its last fight. Taking his first breath in what seemed like an eternity Grew began backing his way out of the tunnel.
Several hours passed before the hunters got the tiger topside. Measuring 10 feet six inches from nose to tail the monstrous cat was declared to be the largest ever taken in the area. Later that night the tiger hunters replenished their bravery by consuming the tiger during a huge celebration. Grew apparently still had enough bravery left within him as he opted not to eat any of his kill. Instead he planned his next hunt.