Reflections of a tiger, in the year of the tiger

18 August, 2010

Filed under: Tigers — Tags: — admin @ 6:10 am

Five years ago, I took part in a flea market campaign. What began as a contribution to raising money for sufferers of thalassemia, became a once-in-20-years spring clean. Amazingly enough, I found myself to be the owner of some 50 items which had a tiger on them, posters, jigsaws, paintings, tapestries and various other trinkets and t-shirts. A 30-something walked up to me at the flea market and asked me “You really like tigers a lot, don’t you?” “Guess I do” I replied, looking at the virtual gallery of tigers in front of us. He took them all! Yup, my entire collection went, in one go, from my house to his house. “I was born in the year of the tiger, you know” he commented, to which I replied “Me too”. We laughed, shook a firm handshake in silent comradeship, and parted ways.

This year, 2010, is my 4th cycle in the Chinese zodiac year of the tiger, which tells you my age. I often think back to that day at the flea market, and that other tiger I met briefly. I felt a connection with that man, and somehow understood why, at a whim, and an opportunity presenting itself, he bought those tiger images. I too have had a life-long fascination for this black-striped orange animal. I love its colour… so people like me are attracted to bright things. Let’s face it, how many orange-coloured large animals are there?

Being orange aside, it eats other animals. Sometimes people too. Now that puts the hairs on the back of your neck up, doesn’t it? And you know what? The more you learn about this animal, the more fascinating it becomes. It can jump 10-feet straight up into the air. Watch your home tabby, and you’ll see all cats can do that… stroll up to a table, look up, and phuff, its on top, some 3 times its own height… vertically! Well, imagine a tiger, at some 10 feet in length, doing that, and you just simply go “waaaaaH”.

Fading into oblivion…

As an ecologist, the decline of species fascinates me. Living in the times when an animal goes extinct is sad, but in some ways, poignant. I don’t have hangups about dying. Death is necessary for evolution to occur. In my lifetime, the Baiji (Chinese River Dolphin) has disappeared from the Yangtze, and I have seen a wild one.. one of the last. In the same area in Hunan province in 2001, I also saw a Chinese Paddlefish, a freshwater behemoth that is also gone… forever. I have walked amongst teeming hordes of white-rumped vultures on the Rajasthan desert plains, and now they are the most critically endangered vultures on the planet, all in the span of just 15 years. In my own country, I have counted 110 milky storks in the mangroves of Perak, and last year, there were just three left. In my life time, in 1984, the last Javan tiger was shot. Am I fortunate, or am I cursed?

Skin of the last Caspian Tiger in Iran, from the collection of Shah Pahlavi

Skin of the last Caspian Tiger in Iran, from the collection of Shah Pahlavi

Iran lost its last Caspian tiger in 1959, and a skin hangs, framed, in the museum of natural history at the department of environment’s Pardisan park in downtown Teheran. I stood before this skin, and reminisced the days when this magnificent orange predator prowled the forests of Daz Teh Naz, where I had just been. A beautiful forest, and all that is left of the Caspian lowland forests. I could just picture a tiger strolling through those oaks. In this instance, I consider myself fortunate… fortunate to have walk the same forests a magnificent animal of yesteryear called home. I left with an uplifted spirit.

Daz Teh Naz forest, Mazandaran Province, Iran

Daz Teh Naz forest, Mazandaran Province, Iran

China also had three sub-species of tigers, and very likely, have already lost all three. The Caspian tiger was last seen in 1923 in Xinjiang province, and is officially extinct. The Siberian tiger, on its eastern frontier, no longer lives in the wild in Heilongjiang province, but occasional visits from tigers wandering across the China-Russia border are recorded, as recently as 2009. The southern Chinese tiger P. tigris amoyensis is extinct in the wild, the last shot in 1994. There are only 59 animals left in zoos, all born from just 3 pairs, and are all genetically unviable. These 59 southern Chinese tigers are the last.

In 2001, I stood before an emancipated Southern Chinese Tiger in a cage, somewhere in central China. I’m not telling you where, except that it wasn’t in a zoo, and not one of those 59. It was huge! it was the tallest tiger I had ever seen.  Fattened up, it would be larger than any Siberian tiger… i wonder about the siberian tiger being the largest of the sub-species now… by sheer shoulder-height, I think amoyensis is the largest!

As the tiger joins the host of species that call time-out this century, and something deep inside me tells me the tiger will, I find myself contemplative… rather than jolted into action. Maybe its my good fortune to have lived in the same time as the tiger, and be one of those called witness to its extinction. I have never seen a tiger in the wild. Yet. But i have had numerous close-encounters with tigers, in the wild and elsewhere. Each and every of these encounters have left a deep impression upon me. I relate two here:

The Pulau Serapung Incident – I arrived at the timber camp jetty early in the morning to a large gathering of workers. Something bad happened last night, and no one wanted to go back into the forest. This is the story they told me. Labourers working to clear the peat swamp forest in Sumatra’s Riau province (for Acacia plantations) one morning came upon two tiger cubs in a ditch. One man, from Sambas, jumped into the ditch, and took the two cubs back to camp, where he crushed their skulls with his boot, and had them for breakfast. This greatly aggrieved his fellow workers, most of whom were from Riau itself. You see, Sambas is a province on Kalimantan, the island of Borneo, where there are no tigers, and where people eat anything they can get their hands on in the forest. Riau, on Sumatra, has tigers, and therefore there are “pantangs” or taboos… two lost cubs in a ditch only meant their mother was somewhere close by!

Anyways, although upset, they shrugged off the incident and went about their chores. That very night, a tiger entered their work-camp in the forest, attacked this individual on his bed and broke his neck with a single bite. His fellow workers were too shocked to do anything, stunned as their watched this tiger walk right past them dragging his body, through camp and off into the forest.

No one slept a wink the rest of that night. The next morning the man’s mangled body was found some 200m from camp, in a ditch. His bowels had been eaten. To all, this was his karma. He came to Sumatra and did not respect the tiger. The tiger retaliated.

The Fruit-stall Seller Incident – In my hometown of Kuching, Sarawak, we don’t have tigers. They died off on Borneo some 40,000 years ago. One morning, at a fruit stall in a local market in kenyalang, I was waiting to pay for my purchase, when this motorbike pulls up, this young man jumps off and hands over this metre-long bundle to the old man at the counter,. He then speeds off. I think to myself “wonder what fruit is that!” The old man un-wraps his parcel, and inside is the whole hind-leg of a tiger… minus its skin and flesh. The hip socket shines bright white in front of my wide-eyed face, the stout femur still with flecks of dried flesh on it, and the foot a reddish-brown straining array of bones, cartilage and tendon. There were no claws, just stumps where they were clipped off.

The old man looks at me, and realizes I am staring open-mouthed at his inspection, and quickly rewraps it, and puts it under his counter. I pay for my purchase, and head to my car.

I sat in my car for a while, reflecting on what just happened. Surely someone could not have got that past customs at the airport! And both airports! So where did it come from? My guess would be from across the very porous border we share with Indonesia, where I know wildlife is traded daily. It must have come by boat from Sumatra, probably to Pontianak, then by road to the border, then to this little fruit stall in Kuching.

I call the Sarawak Forestry Corporation hotline, which rings… and rings. I then call the head of the wildlife unit, whom I know, and don’t get a reply. I send text messages to several wildlife enforcement officers I know personally in SFC. None reply. Sitting there in my car, I also realize that even if they did reply, and were able to respond to this case instantly, arriving here and arresting that old man, what would have changed? I would have had a good feeling knowing I played a small part in apprehending one person in this global wildlife trade network.

But I also know that nothing really would have changed. That tiger remains dead, dismembered and its body distributed across several countries. The forest remains one tiger less to maintain its ecology, and yes, one Chinese medicine shop somewhere in Kuching ends up with less tiger bones for its demanding and discerning clientele. In fact, the result would likely been an anxious phone call, demanding another tiger shipment now!

Authorities really have no capacity to deal with hunting/poaching of tigers, and its trade. Kenya stopped the ivory trade within its country, but did not stop it outside. And, they used force against force.

Larger than Life

I stand beneath this metal tiger, the largest copper tiger in the world, soaring high above my head, and I gasp. Not in awe at this gigantic sculpture, but in fascination of the minds that created it. No small sums of cash have gone into building this. But the question is what, deep inside those minds, made them decide to honour this creature with this monument.

Largest Copper tiger sculpture in the world, Hutou, China

Largest Copper tiger sculpture in the world, Hutou, China

I am in the town of Hutou, on the banks of the Ussuri river, China’s eastern border with Russia. The name Hutou means Tiger’s Head, and is the site of one of the last bastions of the 2nd world war between the occupying Japanese Imperial army and the Russian Red army.

The county here is named Hulin, or Tiger Forest. It seems tigers are everywhere here. In 2009, just 20km from this town, tracks of a tiger were seen in the snow. One Siberian tiger wandered across the frozen Ussuri river, into the forested hills of the Wanda mountain range, within Zhenbaodao National Nature Reserve. This was not the first time! In 2007, tracks of a single tiger were also seen in the same place. It would seem that there is at least one individual tiger that has this little corner of China within its range, and comes each winter for a bit of a walkabout to mark its territory, and roar its presence within China’s political boundary. Clearly, it lives in neighbouring Russia, where it has plenty of forested habitat. It is a visitor.

It is also the only Siberian tiger to set foot on Chinese soil in the past 20 years or so. As long as it lives, it will continue to set foot in China, but after this, that will be the end. Until this happens, the Siberian tiger is still, officially, not extinct in China.

Haunting eye-socket stare of a tiger in wine, on display at the Tiger Farm, Harbin, China

Haunting eye-socket stare of a tiger in wine, on display at the Tiger Farm, Harbin, China

That day, when it comes, will be a sad day for the Chinese people, the day when both of its two sub-species of tiger becomes extinct in the wild. The tiger is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, the Chinese psyche and its mythology. In fact, it is this deeply divided complexity that has caused, and continues to cause, the demise of tigers all over the world. The tiger embodies majesty, power, pride, strength of character and longevity. It is believed these attributes are infused in every sinew and hair of this magnificent animal. Therefore, consuming it brings about infusion of these strengths into our own bodies, making our weaknesses and illnesses go away.

You know what I think? It is all in our minds. Humans have been both blessed and cursed with the gift of imagination. Our imaginations have taken us to the moon, given us the tools by which I am able to write to you right this moment, and will serve us well along our evolutionary journey. It has alas, also shackled our bodies and souls. It has made us slaves to our beliefs. We kill in the name of creed, and we believe we are greater than all others. We believe the tiger can make us stronger by consuming it, like part-taking of the body and blood of Christ will save us from eternal damnation. A wise man told me once “What we know, is fact. What we don’t know, we believe”. And woe is the animal who has been made larger than life by man.

anything you want with a tiger on it

anything you want with a tiger on it

Dragons, unicorns and the phoenix

I grew up on a healthy prescription of dragons and the kraken… larger than life creatures of great strength, jaw-dropping awesomeness, and worthy of the worship of feeble helpless man. Large powerful animals excite me, and I wish dragons existed right now, in our world. Never mind that they ate some people here and there, but I don’t think they would.. they would just be another animal out there, and one I would go in search for.

Years ago I visited the British museum of natural history in London, and headed straight for the one exhibit I have always wanted to see since childhood. When I finally found it, and stood there in silence, gazing at this skeleton of a… sabre-toothed cat. It was small. It wasn’t the huge menacing cat of the past I had imagined. Its elongated canines weren’t even that long! I thought it resembled a tiger. But dead it was, and dead for a long, long time.

Today, I think back and wonder about the animals we give special places in our hearts… and find that most of them that capture our imagination are dead ones. The sabre-toothed cat was just another cat in another time, and while it lived, it made little impression on man, except for the occasional feast. But gone now, it has been elevated to a place of respect… it has become something that once preyed on lesser animals, something that had strength, speed, agility and a presence that would make one shit in his pants when faced alone, without a iron fence in-between.

I sometimes wonder where the tiger is heading… and if it will one day be an animal of folklore. A mighty beast that roamed the earth, inspired man to greater things, embodied strength and majesty, and adorned badges, logos, symbols across countries. Now gone, we tell stories of the mighty tiger, and our children’s children will sit around the fireplace in silence, enthralled by these tales of bygone creatures, and like me, will wish they could see one, and go off to bed to dream exciting dreams of encounters with wild tigers, riding a huge orange cat across the world with the wind in my hair.

Extinction – a passage into immortality?

In 1947, the Maharaja of Surguja gained the dubious honour of being the man to shoot the last three cheetahs in India. I read an account of the hunt, in western Madhya Pradesh, some years ago, written by one of the palace officials who took part in the hunt. He wrote of his sadness in hearing, some 20 years later, that those 3 animals were probably the last cheetahs, and the species was considered extinct in India now. He wrote saying perhaps they did not die in vain.. but have been elevated to glory by being the last, being the ones that died and became extinct, only to be resurrected as a animal that would forever remain in the memories of India.

In 1941, the last Sumatran rhino was shot in Sarawak, by the museum staff. I was once chatting with a former curator of the Sarawak museum, and asked him about this. He told me that being shot was a better fate for the last living rhino in Sarawak, making it famous, and contributing itself to the museum’s collection for the future. Imagine being the last of your kind, wandering alone in the forests until you die of old age or an accident. Hmmm… is there sense in what he said?

I don’t know, but sometimes I wonder which is better… to be a critically endangered species or to be an extinct species. The latter brings fame and immortality in some sense, and less suffering. It is indeed a sad truth that we humans place greater value on the things we have lost than those we still have.

Saving tigers – our acid test

Obviously we need to understand the nature of the beast to save it. We need to know how it behaves, where it lives, how it hunts, how it brings up its young, and a whole lot of other information on tigers. This is called research, and we have plenty of that going on. Every where tigers occur research is being done. Taking nothing away from these passionate and committed scientists, research on tigers almost always comes up with findings such as these: we don’t have enough time to study them in detail; they cover huge distances in the forest you know, its not easy to find them, let alone observe them!; we don’t have enough funding to do the studies we need to do… etc etc..

For years the world has been pouring money and ideas into efforts to conserve tigers. Websites cry the same cry the world over – tigers stand on the brink of extinction, and we must take action NOW! Well, India’s much celebrated tiger project over 15 years reported success after success, attracted millions of conservation dollars, set up numerous tiger reserves across the country, and reported to parliament in 2009 that India’s tiger population had crashed to just 1,411 animals. There were around 4,000 before project tiger began! Bottom line to me… big-funded projects have not brought returns to tigers.

We must stop the trade in tiger parts to remove the primary reason why wild tigers die each day across the world. This is another cry from the hallowed meeting rooms of CITES, TRAFFIC and the CMS.. and they have the statistics to prove it. These same statistics show between 1975 and 2009, 12.42 million tigers have been traded from one country to another in some form or other, i.e. alive, half-alive, dead, or dead in little pieces. Some part of a tiger is sold or bought 2.8 days somewhere in the world. Here in Malaysia, we lose maybe 2-3 tigers a month to poachers. This is 2-3 tigers more than we can afford to lose. Really! Bottom line to me… monitoring trade does nothing to stop trade.. it only tells us what we already know… tigers are dying out, and we know who is at fault.

The point I’m making is this: for a critically endangered species like the tiger, our efforts need to be directed where they obtain the most results – plain and simple common sense if you ask me! We know this: tigers live in forests, and need large prey animals to survive. We also know that the forests tigers need are being lost to oil palm estates, forest plantations and urban development. Additionally, tigers themselves are being caught for trade, to feed the demand for traditional medicines. This means poachers add to the problem.

The solution, simplistically put, is therefore to stop de-forestation and stop killing of tigers. Preserve a large landscape forested bloc with tigers in it, and prevent the killing. Large forest landscapes don’t require lots and lots of money to protect. All we need is sufficient money to patrol the boundaries regularly and efficiently, and be ruthless about it. Kenya’s elephants and rhinos were only saved when the government put its foot down, and took on the poachers head-on – shoot to kill! You can’t fight the fight without making the game your own. You can’t take a pretzel to a knife fight.. Poachers today know they do not risk their lives to catch tigers… if caught, it’s a cursory slap on the wrist, maybe even an inconvenient brief jail term, or a small fine. Well, we need to decide whether living wild and free tigers is worth the commitment to put a final end to poaching. This to me is not a conservation action. it is a political action. it is the will to do so.

Preserving a large landscape bloc of forest is, in my opinion, less simple. As Malaysia struggles to put crutches under a crumbling timber industry, common sense and political astuteness is glaringly absent. Malaysia is no longer the timber-rich country we were decades ago. Gone are our vast forests, and consequently, gone is our timber industry that served us so well over the past 50 years. We need to accept this, and come to terms with what this means. Industrialization and chip-based industries is our future. Even primary producing industries like palm oil are good, and a viable economic base to move to. Diversification is talked about widely, and mentioned in every development plan we have produced to date. But our timber industry cannot sustain itself on old-growth forest any longer. And so, we shouldn’t try and extend it. Let it go. What forests we have left need to be kept locked up. There are so many other uses for these forests, so many critical functions they play, and will continue to play, as we progress on. We cannot compromise Malaysia’s life-support systems any more, especially not now with changing climates, dying species and political re-discovery.

As someone important once said “don pray pray I teaw you!” Yes, this is where we are at in 2010. We need to focus our country’s development, and future functionality, clearly. We need an objective to be set, one that would deliver all, or most if not all, of what this country needs. I say tigers! If we did what we needed to do to once and for all, and save our tigers forever, we would have achieved the following along the way:

One – Malaysia would have large landscape forested area, where tigers, rhinos, elephants, gaur, tapirs and every other species of wildlife live… as our generous unselfish contribution to our own people, and to every human being on this planet. This thriving and truly amazing environment of ours will be our pride, and our asset, which people from all over the world will come to visit, to experience and to spend their money, and it will never be lost, die or be taken away from us.

Two – we would be preserving, for posterity, a treasure-house of organisms and plants which one day will provide us with cures for diseases, crops to feed us, materials to build things, and places to seek (and find) inspiration and tranquility.

And Three – we will be ensuring water to drink, plant crops and provide for our industries will never have to be purchased from others, or fought over.

A National Treasure and Treason

I have a solution for poaching of tigers in Malaysia. Death! We put people to death for trafficking in narcotics. Without exception, the law is clear. Death to traffickers. We are now seriously considering the death penalty for child rapists. I agree. The crime is heinous in our culture, molesting a helpless child, and so should the punishment fit the crime. First degree, premeditated murder is also a crime deserving the death penalty. Well, planning a trip into our forests, with clear intent to capture and murder a tiger, is premeditated murder in the first degree… in my opinion. how about you? The tiger is on our National Emblem. Close your eyes and recall for a minute… how many emblems, logos, brands in Malaysia have the tiger in it, or are formed around the tiger? Is the tiger not a National Monument for Malaysia? Is that reason enough for the King of Malaysia to declare it a national treasure?

Any act of aggression towards a National treasure would be treason. years ago, I recall the widespread discussions and arguments over the execution of two Australians convicted of trafficking in narcotics. Everyone in Malaysia had an opinion, but the one that prevailed was that drugs erode our society, destroy our values, and attack us from within. This is treason. Conscious actions that affect the very core our Malaysian society, and therefore deserving of the highest penalty.  I consider the tiger as much a core value of our society as integrity, pride and identity. This tiger of ours is truly ours, its called the Malayan Tiger, and it is a sub-species all of its own, found only on the Malay Peninsula… no where else in the world. It is ours in every sense. Walking free without restraint, confinement and harassment is as much its right as it is the right of every Malaysian to want the Malayan tiger alive and well in our land.

Malaysia likes firsts… the world’s first twin-towers, the first proton dropped on the south pole (yes, we paid the fine for littering) and the world’s first smart tunnel. let’s really lead the way and declare the tiger our national treasure, and apply the death penalty for killing a tiger. I say to you politicians out there.. put this on your manifesto, and I’ll vote for you. I know some others who would too. This is one Malaysian who wants tigers alive and well in my country. Do you?

Farming Tigers in China

1 December, 2009

Filed under: Tigers — Tags: — admin @ 1:52 am

China has two sub-species of tiger: the Southern Chinese Tiger Panthera tigris amoyensis and the Siberian Tiger P. t. altaica. The Indochinese tiger Panthera tigris corbetti, may have occurred in parts of what is geographically China today, but is almost definitely extinct within China proper now. China’s tigers are in desperate shape, with the southern sub-species listed as one of the top ten most critically endangered animals in the world today, and may no longer exist in the wild. The northern tiger is not in danger of imminent extinction as a species, but within China, it is on the verge of disappearing completely. There is only one site where tigers are occasionally seen, when they cross the frozen Ussuri river from Russia.

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