Literary Hub

The Death of a Symbol: How Western Writers Exploit the Tiger

tiger

Tigers live secret lives, tucked away in forests and mountains, and avoid contact with humans at all costs. They hide when they need to, engage when they need to. They require large swaths of land to call their own, and they mark their territory by scratching trees with their claws, writing their names. The Siberian tiger needs the most land, almost 4,000 square miles. That’s almost 20 times the size of Manhattan.

You’d want to help a newborn. They’re born toothless and sightless, and when their milk teeth grow in, they’re thin, like pins. A mother becomes engaged in the ruthless conundrum of survival: if she leaves her cubs for too long, they’ll die, and if she doesn’t leave them at all, they will surely starve.

You can hear a tiger’s roar two miles away, but that’s for the best, because their bite is worse. Their canines can get as long as your middle finger. One chomp of their 30 teeth renders a pressure of 10,000 pounds per square inch. They could snap your back in half.

Do you want to kill them because you are afraid—or because you covet their power?

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A few months ago, The New York Times’ South Asia bureau chief started writing about a tiger hunt in India where authorities ruled that T-1, a 5-year-old tiger who was proving to be a menace to village populations, could be shot on sight. For the purposes of this essay, let’s give her a name: Tara.

This bureau chief—a white man—bylined several breathless articles about this tiger hunt, and in one quoted a hunter who said that “once a tiger encounters a person and kills, it may develop a taste for human flesh [which] is sweeter than other animal meat because of all the ginger, salt and spices people consume.” South Asian human flesh apparently tastes better than regular animals—a curious, trivial tidbit thrown in for good measure in an article amused with its own description of Calvin Klein’s Obsession as viable catnip. (Similar to an Axe advertisement, the cologne is described as “scientifically proven to make wild cats go gaga.”)

In the space of one article, Tara is called “psycho,” but at the same time “brilliant.” Another piece in The New York Times calls her “something out of a Rudyard Kipling tale.”

Tiger hunting may seem antiquated, but the practice only started with the Mughal emperor Akbar’s rule in the latter half of the 16th century. Past royals would engage in combat with the tigers, usually with swords. It was, in other words, a dangerous venture. But the British turned shikar into a sport; royalty, both white and otherwise, would go out in large parties with as many as 50 elephants, oftentimes drugging and baiting tigers so hunters faced little danger. Historian Mahesh Rangarajan estimates that around 80,000 tigers were slaughtered in the half-century between 1875 and 1925.

The killing of a Malay tiger in 1852 was described in The New York Times in dramatic fashion:

Behold him in our presence! More beautifully striped than the zebra, snorting, astonished much more than frightened at our presence—immovable at first, putting forth deafening and profound roars, raising his furry eyelids, licking his half-opened lips with a rough and red tongue… A bullet is discharged, the tiger roars, attempts to spring, but falls to the ground like an aerolyte; the young girl advances and lances her harpoon, which penetrates his body, he attempts to retreat, but the more he moves the more deadly weapon enters his flesh. A general discharge of our rifles brought his end to a “dead certainty.”

Here, the tiger hunt is poetic: it is the stuff of literature, and any collateral damage makes it ever the more romantic. (The writer goes on to remark as an aside that the remaining two Malay people found part of the head and throat of their younger brother.)

Despite the history of this callous approach to living, breathing tigers, symbols of tigers are everywhere: embroidered jackets, restaurant logos, laptop stickers, book covers. Our visual culture is saturated with tiger substitutes that allow us to marvel at the species’ fierce beauty without the inconvenience of confronting their ferocity.

The values of the colonizer endured the bloody rupture of the subcontinent.

In Kipling’s The Jungle Book, it is curious that Shere Khan is the major antagonist in a jungle full of potentially villainous animals. Shere Khan, depicted as isolated and fixated on murdering a human, is alienated from the law of the jungle—“for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” In The Jungle Book, Mowgli is the native ready for taming; and Shere Khan, the wilderness that threatens to consume him.

The tiger hunt was legitimized through vilification, and not just of the literary variety. Tigers became evil monstrous murderous cats in the public view around the time the sport picked up in the British Raj—after the Crown took its vicious hold of the subcontinent in 1857—when more hunters showed up, lesser skilled than ever before, maiming tigers and slowing them down. Shaitans (devils). Unable to hunt their usual prey, injured as they were, tigers took to hunting humans. Now perceived as cunning maneaters, tiger hunts became more urgent, more necessary.

The killing of tigers escalated in India after independence in 1947. The values of the colonizer endured the bloody rupture of the subcontinent. The Maharaja of Surguja told a biologist that he had killed over a thousand tigers. Everyone had guns and bloodlust. Everything was a trophy. It was a seizing of nature. Lives had value; so did tiger fur.

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Kurtz, the wayward imperialist of Heart of Darkness, turns from taking up the “white man’s burden” to wanting to kill indigenous people; the book is often read as a seminal work on racism and colonialism. Chinua Achebe describes the common stereotype of “Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril,” in An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?” Achebe asks.

“Jungle” comes from the Sanskrit word meaning uncultivated, arid land, not some impenetrable thicket of the Orient, as Western literature pictures it. The “jungle” came to refer, in the colonial imagination, to undominated land: tropical rainforests, mangroves, the habitat of the “wild native.” Jungles were colonized lands before the white man’s arrival.

And along with the jungle, its creatures, especially sinewy marvels of evolution with massive jaws and impressive, though cryptic, abilities, became a vivid metaphor for the wild—and the colonial drive to conquer it. Jim Corbett, hailed as a savior-conservationist-hunter who only killed big cats that threatened human lives, couldn’t resist the urge to kill a leopard with the first rifle he received as a young boy.

Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, ruled over a largely Hindu population in the south of India in the 18th century and hated the British, though at first he tried to ally with them against the Marathas. Around 1795, Tipu had his people—some historians say with the help of the French—build a mechanical tiger that roared as it bit the face off a prone, weeping British soldier. Tipu delighted in this imagery; the mechanical tiger was one of a series of artworks portraying the violent dismissal of the British, usually by tiger. Tipu weaponized the metaphor of the tiger against the British.

Large carnivores view humans as superpredators, and they greatly fear us. Their avoidance of us disrupts ecosystems.

In response, the British were outraged at this portly man who sat on a golden tiger throne. Their army killed him and broke apart his throne to divide as loot—the “Prize Fund”—between the generals, though the Governor-General, who wanted to present the throne to the English King, did not approve. (A gold ornament from Tipu’s throne, bashed apart with a sledge hammer, sold for half a million dollars ten years ago.) The East India Company issued medals emblazoned with the British lion destroying the tiger in celebration.

The East India Company captured Tipu’s Tiger in 1808 to display in its own museum and library, where the English public could freely crank the mechanism. Within thirty years or so, reports of its state of disrepair spread. Transferred to the Victoria Albert Museum in 1880, it was originally intended for the Tower of London, famous for its prison. 

“It is imagined that this memorial of the arrogance and barbarous cruelty of Tippoo Sultan may be thought deserving of a place in the Tower of London,” wrote the Marquess Wellesley to the Governor General after they killed Tipu Sultan in 1799. India has not made a formal request for Tipu’s items, perhaps because Tipu’s popularity varies by population. Some think the Muslim ruler beheaded the Brahmins near the city of Mangalore, though some historians disagree with this narrative. Vijay Mallya, a billionaire who is facing extradition on allegations of stealing money from India, bought Tipu’s sword and other objects to bring them back to India. As troubling is the knowledge the British still profit from their loot, it’s almost more disturbing that Mallya “gave away” the valuable sword after his family said it was bringing him bad luck; patriotism, history and capitalism make slippery bedfellows.

A study released last year from researchers working at Western University and the University of California Santa Cruz shows that large carnivores view humans as superpredators, and they greatly fear us. Their avoidance of us disrupts ecosystems. There is only one superpredator. The narrative of human supremacy—loosely described as an implicit belief in the exceptionalism of our species, that is, and our rights over everyone else’s—is ultimately what makes the hunt of a maneater so self-righteous, and thus morally unquestionable.

Threats to the tiger population still thrive, especially in the forms of governments that turn a blind eye and sanctions. China lifted its ban on tiger bone recently, but their supply comes from India: the South China tiger is “functionally extinct” because it hasn’t been sighted since the ban was put in place 25 years ago. The Chinese medicine trade ushered in what was called the “second tiger crisis” in the form of Chinese poachers in 80s India, after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. There are more tigers in captivity in the U.S., maybe even just Texas, than in the wild.

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I read this essay out at a popular venue and disappear to soothe my nerves. A number of people seek me out, tell me about the time they pet a tiger, they didn’t realize it was wrong until I said there is no honorable way for me to cohabit space with a tiger. Tara is shot dead two days after. I find out that animal rights advocates had been calling her Avni—the earth.

A white British man tries to caress my hand, earnestly venting about how Trump is the worst thing to have happened to him, personally. Trump, says this editor of a major magazine, is one of the worst disasters in human history. I laugh in my booming, warning way. My teeth are large, and they show.

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