From the science of its ecology to the emotions it evokes, the tiger has captured the attention of most of us. On World Tiger Day, an ode to the national animal.
Pondering recently on the fate of our national animal, the tiger - beaten by mobs, shot down to avert human deaths and knocked down by vehicles - I revisited Ang Lee’s film of Life of Pi, as also a novel Tigers in Red Weather by Ruth Padel. What did they tell me on International Tiger Day?
Yann Martel’s Richard Parker is one of the most fascinating animal characters of recent times. Debates and quorums have dedicated reams and bytes to fixing who Parker really was, and what he stood for? Was this really a tiger, or a metaphor for some deeper meanings in life? Not only in the Life of Pi, but in all our lives.
In the story of a shipwreck where the boy Pi finds himself adrift in the seas with a tiger ‘RP’ for company, Martel leaves the reader with a puzzle of what really happened. Was it a real tiger on the boat, or the alter-ego of Pi? The symbolism behind the fierce character of Richard Parker who is subdued by the boy and trained to keep himself to a corner, have ranged in the reader’s mind from courage and bravery to survival and the primal self. Ultimately, the question left behind in my mind was, ‘who trained whom, who taught whom’. Was it Pi who subdued the tiger, or the tiger who took him to safety?
The news of mobs beating a tigress and breaking her bones; in another place a tractor run down intentionally on a tigress; it makes me wonder, are we subduing this magnificent animal, or sealing our own fate?
Is the tiger our last connect to nature, to the wild? A solitary animal that reminds us of our solitary state as we pass by on this planet?
I asked a few good friends and family what the tiger meant to them. The replies went from courage, strength, stealth, anger, beauty, power and grace to even ‘god’. From a sign of healthy forests (to the naturalist) to a spiritual oneness (to the philosopher) the tiger is feared, loved, revered and held in awe by most.
It is no exaggeration perhaps to say that no other animal has captured popular imagination like the tiger, from times immemorial. A look at mythology across its home range shows us how the tiger was feared and venerated in the past. That was when their numbers ranged in 100,000s. Today, down to a fraction of that, the tiger still is a much-sought animal, for its skin and claws and other parts, as also by every wildlife photographer who seeks to capture its beauty in that one perfect frame! The outcry following the shooting of Avni, the tigress of Tadoba, shows how the Panthera tigris has its fan following like no other animal has. A survey done globally a decade ago showed that the tiger was by far the most ‘favourite’ animal of over 70% of those surveyed.
In her book, Padel shows in few words the web of life held in place by all species living in interdependence – from a wild pig, frog, microbe, monkey, ant, lizard, wasp and an owl. Take one away and the ecosystem collapses, leading even to the extinction of some. Above all, a tiger needs everything to be in place and thus the presence of a tiger tells us the state of good health of the forest. However, for the tiger, being on top of the food chain also means “life is tough”. A quarter of the males die fighting each other, for mates and territory. While a tigress in an average lifespan of 15 years can give birth to 12 cubs, survival of these are uncertain.
And yet, we still have them around, thanks to some of the wonderful conservation efforts from the government, individuals and civil society.
But as tiger numbers increase, and dispersing tigers seek new territories, there will be more incidences of some of them being displaced outside protected areas. ‘Wildlife does not recognise man-made boundaries’ goes the refrain from conservation biologists in the field.
As revealed in a scientific survey recently, millions of people live in close proximity to protected areas in India, and as many as 4 million were living inside, a decade ago. Together with tourist enterprises, they place a biotic stress on the forests with extreme cases like 200,000 cattle grazing in or around Sariska Tiger Reserve. Habitat fragmentation which has been cited as being extensive in India has been proven to affect wildlife. A recent image of a tiger crossing a divider in the Pench forests and the road kill of a tigress in Bandipur are proof of clear and present danger to the national animal, an endangered species.
Studies on net present value of forests have shown us their worth in economic terms. In 2015, six of India’s tiger reserves were together pegged at 230 billion US dollars! Some of the terms of reference included value of forest goods like timber, fuelwood, fodder, carbon sequestration, water recharge, soil conservation, pollination and seed dispersal.
But, developmental priorities have resulted in over 20,000 hectares of forest area (potential or existing tiger habitat) in the country being diverted during 2015-2018 for activities like irrigation, mining, thermal plants, dams and road. The image this presents to me is of coming home to see that most of the rooms have been taken over by uninvited squatters! I like my solitude, and hence I decide to move out.
Despite a common fascination for the tiger, and a few visits to the jungles, I have not been very lucky to see the tiger, except on two occasions. One was at Kabini and the episode might as well be forgotten. The tigress was sighted and ‘cornered’ for some time behind a bush, by a bevy of tourist jeeps. I remember squirming in my seat at the plight of the magnificent animal. The next was more recent and at Wayanad, where a tiger crossed the road some 200 metres away. Taken by surprise, the three of us in the vehicle hardly had time to register the majestic presence, as it disappeared behind the bushes on one side.
Luckily, I have had the fortune to hear the tales of close sightings from friends in the field. Staring almost face to face with a tiger barely few metres away, or walking on a small bridge under which rested a tigress, the thrill and excitement of seeing a tiger when totally unarmed “but knowing that the danger was more in the mind” and so on. These have become my experiences too, as I lived them in my mind, much like Keats' unheard melodies. The closest to a real feel was the sighting of a pugmark and feeling rapturous at the thought of sharing space with the tiger that had walked by.
As I visualize the powerful stalk of the tiger, or the lazy amble of another, the bright golden merging, and yet standing out against the foliage, and hear the powerful roar ‘aum’ permeate the jungle, I wonder why I am so fascinated by the animal. What does it stand for? The answer popped out all of a sudden. The tiger, to me, represents freedom – the freedom to be. Remember the exit of Richard Parker, into the forest? Can we just let them be?
Written by Jayalakshmi K
(The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not reflect those of the organisation.)