I know Why the Caged Beast Roars
Some handpicked sordid tales of our collective atrocities on tigers and the consequences that await us.
Even if the spiritual high pedestal belongs to both women and big cats - they face brutal repercussions for being untameable
I am sure you would have heard a lot of stories about man vs. beast. The thrilling tales about a virtuous man who defeated a beast with his bare hands. Then the man took its carcass back home - a prize of his valiance. Well, I am here to tell you a variation of the same story. This is not a tale of courage or valor, but that of man’s abomination, abuse, and villainy. This is a tale of man’s abandonment of virtues, to trade humanity for monstrosity, tolerance for greed, and integrity for profits.
My earliest memory of tigers is through the motifs of Hinduism. On a particularly festive day in the city of Kolkata, I remember being pushed inside a crowd that had come together to worship and invoke the primordial Goddess (Durga). I saw the Goddess, standing on an elevated platform, indifferent to her devotees. The sculpture ardently captured her wild, assertive form in clay and bamboo. In her shadow, I saw a ferocious beast with golden eyes and unique stripes, ready to pounce. The sculpture carefully hid the tiger, to remind the spectator about nature’s hidden audacity. The Goddess Shakti represents flow and creativity while the beast represents sovereignty. Both the divine feminine and her wild companion, in their venerated glory, are integral to Indian mysticism. However, India is also known to be the gold standard in hypocrisy. Even if the spiritual high pedestal belongs to both women and big cats - they face brutal repercussions for being untameable and free.
In just 150 years 95% of the tiger population vanished.
Although India recently reported an increase in the number of tigers, our history is inglorious. It reminds us to look deep inside ourselves to find a sense of righteousness. This painful history also reminds us that our actions compound over time and bear consequences. A long time ago man and nature coexisted peacefully. However, the man assumed it to be his birthright to encroach and exploit the wild territory of nature. In his head, he is the ruler, and the animal whose habitat he has destroyed is the perpetrator. However, he forgot that these territories belong to a fearless and majestic king - the tiger. Unsurprisingly, this perpetual intrusion of habitat by man led to frequent tiger attacks. Animosity grew between the man and the beast, which quickly turned insidious. The Mughal emperor Akbar introduced trophy hunting as a royal sport, the mass extermination of tigers began. The British colonialists only accelerated the rate of hunting as it was their favorite recreation sport. This is contrary to the image of tigers that Rudyard Kipling painted in our impressionable minds. Now we know that in the real world, Mowgli is not the victim, Sher khan is not the perpetrator. No matter how much the story was twisted to make us believe otherwise.
Soon enough, tigers were declared to be pests and bounty killing was incentivized. For a nominal price of 25 paise per bounty, hunters were ready to eliminate tigers from India’s biodiversity pool. Between 1875 and 1925, more than 80,000 tigers were hunted down for trophies and pelts. Later, the Maharajas of different Indian territories outperformed the Army officials in the sport. Although they found a sense of superiority exceeding the killing feat of the officials, their moral compasses were as broken as their colonial masters. In just 150 years 95% of the tiger population vanished. The Independence of colonial India only brought more devastation. By 1972, an estimated number of only 1,827 tigers remained in the wild. These staggering statistics are a result of our barbaric atrocities. And there will be consequences.
Scientists are suspecting that we are in the middle of the sixth biggest mass extinction period in the history of the planet.
We were not bogged down though, not by the statistics nor by the human code of ethics. If this continues, our steady decline towards an ecological holocaust is guaranteed. Habitat loss and urbanization are some of the constant threats to the population of big cats who need lush green lands and tropical forests to thrive. Only 3900 of these majestic beasts remain in the wild today. Also, tigers are not the only species whose habitat we have plundered, rendering them vulnerable. Scientists are suspecting that we are in the middle of the sixth biggest mass extinction period in the history of the planet. Since the year 1500, an estimated 900 species have disappeared from the face of Earth (see graph below). In our sheer arrogance, we ignore the implications of our actions, we deny the interconnected nature of the world. Our self-consuming idea of grandiose makes us feel invincible. Our technologies make us Gods. We often forget that we came from the Earth and its intelligent evolution mechanism. We will never be able to foresee her grand schemes, we will never exceed her in scale. We exist in an intricate relationship with nature. We forget that the existence of our species relies on this delicate balance that we are trifling with. We have driven the unique tiger species to the brink of extinction in merely a couple of centuries. But our monstrosity didn’t end there.
We dabble our feet in greed and status symbols at the cost of an endangered animal’s life. Somewhere in between keeping up with the trend and our social media fad, we lost our humanity.
The rise of wildlife tourism has brought a new opportunity to monetize something that should remain innate and sacred only to the wild expanses of Mother Earth. Wildlife trade is already a multi-billion dollar illegal industry and the growing demand in wildlife tourism is the cherry on the cake. In China, traditional medicine has played a crucial role to promote poaching and persecution of tigers. As per a thousand-year-old unscientific Chinese belief - tiger body parts can heal various ailments. Consuming tiger meat to titillate their taste buds and being drunk on tiger bone wine (which is rumored to provide strength and virility), is still considered to be a recreation for the rich. An exemplary abuse of status and power. The criminal syndicates, which are involved in the illegal wildlife trade, are the foster children of corrupt government officials and paralyzed laws that fail to prosecute criminals. As a result, the tiger farms have proliferated in thousands, across China and South Asia. Out of which many are suspected of being involved in illegal commercial trade of tiger pelts and body parts.
Under their superficial tourist-friendly facet, these tiger farms breed tigers like livestock. The marvelous beasts are reduced from their natural glory. They are beaten and injured. The females are kept in small confined spaces with several males to be raped and impregnated. All in the name of tourism. They are usually chained, barred, and confined in inadequate unhygienic closures. The cubs are separated from their mother and are drugged and chained to be used as photo props for the tourists. Extra money is charged to bottle feed and cuddle with the cubs. After the removal of the cubs, the mother tigress is again forced inside confinement with males to breed. Most of the time due to inbreeding and malnutrition these tigers die an early and painful death. If they don’t die a natural death, they will anyway be murdered eventually for trade. These farms and zoos profit from the hideous crimes while they use ‘tiger conservation’ as an excuse. If you ponder deeper, it will become evident that breeding in captivity is not tiger conservation. This has only added to the woe of the tigers.
Here are six reasons why captive breeding of tigers is not equivalent to tiger conservation.
These places are often run by people who breed without a license or any government approval. These people are often inexperienced in the field of genetics and do not qualify as tiger experts either. Currently, there are no prerequisites as per law to be able to breed tigers. No wonder outlaws dominate this trade.
Tigers are solitary creatures. In the wild, they mark a territory that has a sufficient supply of the prey species, as their own. The tigress often takes care of their cubs alone. However, when confined in inadequate enclosures, they are forced to share their territory. This increases the risk of conflict amongst them and also makes them aggressive.
In captivity, the veterinary care provided to these animals is almost negligible. In addition to this, the cramped spaces create poor hygiene and may be a breeding ground for many novel diseases.
The wilderness is a strange and dangerous place for a tiger born and raised in captivity. Without the early adaptation to the merciless wild, these tigers have very minimal to zero chances of surviving in the wild.
The bred animals are monetized for commercial tourism and when the animal becomes old and requires more support, they are butchered and sold to animal trafficking rings for their body parts. It is unethical, inhumane, and is avoidable if proper laws were in place.
A less diverse gene pool and consistent inbreeding have resulted in abnormalities like Down syndrome, bent spinal cord, short necks, oversized heads, crossed eyes, tiny ears, and many more deformities. Most of these untreated deformities lead to progressive diseases and untimely deaths.
When we make a wildly beautiful and rare animal go through such tormented and inferior existence, we collectively fail as humans. We dabble our feet in greed and status symbols at the cost of an endangered animal’s life. Somewhere in between keeping up with the trend and our social media fad, we lost our humanity. If this doesn’t make you reconsider your choice to buy the next wildlife tourism package, then I don’t know what will. Your money is directly used by criminals to harm the very animal you cuddled fondly on your last Thai trip. To find out which farms/zoos are using unethical breeding visit here.
Out of 147 tigers rescued from the monastery, 86 have already died under government care. The reason cited to be a viral neurological disease called laryngeal paralysis, a devastating result of inbreeding.
Tigers have suffered a worse fate in the hands of man than they suffered in the wild. Nature at least gives them an honorable death. The captivity and tourist-friendly tiger farms are a derogation of their existence. It creates the idea that tigers are a commodity. It encourages poaching and further endangers the last 3900 tigers remaining in the wild. Below is an interesting case that will help me conclude my claim that tiger tourism is unethical and should become obsolete.
The infamous Tiger Temple of Thailand
The story of this Buddhist monastery is horrendous, to say the least. You can find all the details here. In short, the temple profited from animal abuse and wildlife trade for more than a decade. They marketed themselves as compassionate animal-loving monks who raise harmless tigers and live a simple life. However, the truth was far from that. One particular woman, Sybelle Foxcroft worked restlessly for 9 years to dismantle their entire syndicate and help rescue the tigers from their horrible living conditions. In 2016 when the temple was raided, appalling evidence of abuse surfaced. The officials found hundreds of adult tiger pelts and dead tigers. They also found other items of paraphernalia, such as amulets and necklaces made using tiger body parts like teeth and bones. If that was not devastating enough, listen to this. Out of 147 tigers rescued from the monastery, 86 have already died under government care. The reason cited to be a viral neurological disease called laryngeal paralysis, a devastating result of inbreeding. All done by men of God who claim to follow a path of non-violence and self-sacrifice to attain enlightenment. If this is what faith and religion lead to, I feel better to be an agnostic.
The extinction of one species irrevocably changes the ecosystem (below is an analysis on the Dodos)
The nature of the interconnection of the species is strangely amusing. For instance, when Dodos went extinct no one cared at all, at least not for the first couple of centuries. When the Portuguese and Dutch colonialists landed in the islands of Mauritius, they found an amusing species of bird. The birds used to be overly trusting of the humans and hence they named it Duodo in Portuguese meaning simpleton. Because of their trusting nature, it was easy to capture and kill them. The colonialists consumed Dodo meat and eggs voraciously, and in less than 180 years the birds became extinct (last Dodo was killed in 1681). Since then the wheel of time has turned slow and no one has noticed any significant changes. However, this level of eco-vandalism is bound to bear some consequences.
A strange pattern started to emerge in the islands of Mauritius - a certain indigenous variety of trees called Tambalacoque (earlier known as Calvaria) or more commonly the Dodo tree, were mysteriously disappearing from the island. Scientists found out the rather healthy-looking seeds produced by the plants were not germinating anymore. The 300-year-old Ents-like trees were disappearing and with it the opportunities for the natives to trade timber. This mystery was solved by Stanley Temple, a botanist who was then studying the correlation between species extinction and its ecological impact. In his theory, Temple suggested that the seed of Calvaria have a hard exterior therefore they cannot self geminate. The Calvaria fruits used to be eaten by the dodos. And after passing through their sandpaper-like gizzards, the seeds used to be perfectly crushed and ready for germination. With the extinction of Dodos, the Calvaria trees which were growing on the island for 300 years, became an endangered species. In 1970, the population of Calvaria was reduced down to only 13 trees. This affirms how intricately each species interacts with its ecosystem, and why the extinction of even one species can dangerously flip the balance.
If we think of ourselves as technological Gods masquerading as mortals, then this is a good time to demonstrate some of our problem-solving skills.
We are at a similar crossroads with the tiger population. We will either tip it off beyond repair or reform our methods to build an innovative habitat that enables us to coexist with them without risking any lives. It is a problem to be solved rather than a threat to be dealt with in primitive ways. If we think of ourselves as technological Gods masquerading as mortals, then this is a good time to demonstrate some of our problem-solving skills. But first, we need to let go of our primal fears and stop seeing the tigers as a threat. We have to realize that we are the ones who have intruded into their ecosystems, plundered their habitats, and endangered their entire existence, not the other way round. If we fail to be accountable for the damages inflicted on these marvelous beasts, our ecosystems will soon spiral downwards. Without its Apex predators, the ecosystem will collapse. In the absence of the tigers, the Mesopredator species and the prey species will be on a steady rise. This can lead to a crumbling ecosystem. It might not seem obvious at first but the invisible thread that connects everything in nature is more fragile and intricate than it seems.
If the Mesopredators (like raccoons, skunks, fisher) population increases dramatically it will topple the balance of even smaller prey populations (like birds). If the bird population is toppled, the earth will become infested with worms, flies, and bugs. I am sure no one will be thrilled to live in a living room infested with insects and their larvae. Similarly, tigers and other apex predators keep the population of the ungulates in check. The predators maintain a balance between the herbivores and the vegetation on which they feed. In absence of predators, the population of the ungulates will explode. This will lead to overgrazing and vegetation loss. In the lack of a lush habitat, the herbivores will die of starvation. The sheer scale of the dead animals will be overwhelming and hence delayed decomposition may give birth to novel diseases. It will only be a matter of time before these diseases would spread to the closest human settlements and become another novel epidemic/pandemic.
The golden dust of mother Earth will bury our past atrocities. And from her grand expanses, she will give birth to a brave new world.
We humans often do not care about the consequences unless it is we who bear the brunt. Suffering is our greatest teacher. A price has to be paid for deliberately tugging at nature’s delicate balance. Nature is like the game of Jenga, when you pull out a significant block, the whole structure will collapse. The world is interconnected and all our small actions compound to create a domino effect.
By ignoring the nature of interdependence of our world we act like an ignorant and isolated species. This has rendered our world broken and sharp at its edges. We are now at a very crucial stage in the timeline of the planet. Thousands of species of plants and animals face a danger of extinction today - the outcome of which can only be anticipated but never truly confirmed unless a catastrophe happens. But, alas, nature is far more intelligent and self correctional than our self-absorbed species. Nature will always figure out a way to repair its ecosystem. If it has to destroy first to rebuild, I do not doubt that it will do so - even if that comes at the cost of human beings. The coronavirus pandemic is a good reminder of that. Mass extinction has already started and the sheer scale of it could be cataclysmic. It is imperative that we actively try to save at least the species that are endangered due to our insolent actions. Tigers are one of those species.
I don't need to be an oracle to predict that, there are only two immediate possible futures. Either we will learn to live in harmony with other species of our planet or we will eventually be reduced to ashes. Either way, the Earth is too big and magnificent to even notice if we disappear. It will flourish incessantly with or without us. The golden dust of mother Earth will bury our past atrocities. And from her grand expanses, she will give birth to a brave new world.
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National Geographic and Cee4life collaborated in 2015 to publish a report paper on the Thailand Tiger temple, which eventually led to the rescue. Check here.
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