Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The hunter becomes the hunted

By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-04-30 07:29

As a child, I always used to think the tiger was a killer. It could kill any animal, even humans, with ease. Later, much later, I was to discover how wrong I was. By that time, three tiger sub-species had already been lost.

Blame my ignorance on grandma's (for me grandpa's) tales. But the tales never encouraged us to kill the tiger. Instead, they taught us to respect it for its power, alertness and ferocity. Tragically, these very qualities have spelt the tiger's doom. The Caspian, Javan and Bali tigers are no more because of human encroachments into their habitats and the high price their skin and body parts fetched. There was a time in India during British rule when dozens (or even more) tigers used to be killed on a single hunting (sic) expedition.

Of the five surviving sub-species (some experts consider the Sumatran tiger an altogether different species, though) the South China tiger is the most critically endangered. It is a pity because many an expert considers it to be the progenitor of all surviving tigers. It is a pity also because China is the only country where four of the sub-species (the South China, Amur, Indian or Bengal, and the Indo-Chinese tigers) can still be found in the wild.

In India, the tiger is the carrier of the mother goddess, Amba. (Another form of Amba, the goddess of power Durga, rides a lion.) People living in and around the world's largest delta, the Sunderbans, in India and Bangladesh, never call the tiger by its name. They refer to it by other names, bon bibi (goddess of forests), for instance. Such is the awe the king of the Asian jungles inspires that irrespective of their religion most of the people worship it.

China, like India, is deep into the evolution of tiger imagery. It has well recorded images of the big cat from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), when people believed it was a powerful ghostly messenger between the human and the spiritual worlds. People in the later dynasties, including the Zhou (1046-256 BC), began visualizing and depicting the tiger more realistically. Ancient sculptures project the tiger as having strong muscular shoulders and limbs with long paws, and a powerful head decorated with deadly fangs. Later-day artists must have been more fearful of the tiger because of the overpowering effect of the tales handed down from previous generations. That might have prompted them to place tiger figures on tombs to keep evil spirits away and protect the souls of the dead. Paintings of tigers asleep among Buddhist monks symbolized the religion's power to tame the mystical forces of nature. In modern times, by the 20th century, Chinese artists had begun using the tiger as a national symbol.

All this should have made China and India a safe haven for the tiger. To be fair, the two are among a few countries where the tiger still roams the wild. But then the tiger faces the greatest threat in these two very countries. Call it irony, if you will.

Of all the animals on the world's endangered list, perhaps the tiger is most threatened by humans, for every part of its body is highly prized in the black market. The Chinese government banned the sale of tiger parts and their use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) 15 years ago. But those in the trade say China has 5,000 captive tigers to meet the demand for TCM. Last year, there was even talk of legalizing the trade in captive tiger parts. "It will be a waste if the resources of dead tigers are not used for TCM," said a senior wildlife official.

Captive breeding is projected as tiger conservation too. But a captive tiger will never be part of nature. It will never occupy its place on the top of the food chain. And inbreeding will make the big cat vulnerable to a host of diseases. Ecology will be disturbed, creating even greater problems for our climate-change shattered world.

On the one hand, Save China's Tigers is working with the Wildlife Research Center of the State Forestry Administration and the Chinese Tigers South Africa Trust to reintroduce tigers into the wild. On the other, we are talking of saving the tiger through captive breeding. If that is not ironical, what is?


(China Daily 04/30/2008 page8)

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