Tigers—Lords of the vanishing forests

tiger statuesTigers in Thailand

Lord of the vanishing forest…and notorious serial killer

In memoriam: Panthera tigris

Although tigers still roam some forests in Thailand, it is unlikely that visitors will spot one during a trek in the North. Thailand’s tiger population has dwindled at an alarming pace over the past decades. At present no more than three hundred animals may be left in the wild. In most neighbouring countries the situation is hardly brighter. However, once the ‘tyrant of the wilderness’ was rather common from Caspian Sea to Bali, and fear as well as respect for the tiger had a lasting impact on Asian cultures and religions. Tigers are conspicuously present in almost all travel accounts of former days.

“ ‘Whoaah!’ A mighty roar pierced the silence. It was at once exultant, dominating and oppressive. Its sheer volume startled the jungle into subservience and its reverberation ended brusquely, like a proclamation of superiority, absolute power and almightiness, forcing every creature to grovel on the ground.”

Thus begins a hunter’s encounter with a wild tiger in Thai novelist Sila Khoamchai’s story Thang Sua (The Path of the Tiger). While lost in the jungle, and followed by a tiger, the hunter climbs into a tree. After a night of terror and inner conflicts, he finally resolves to climb down to the ground to confront the Lord of the Forest.

Late in the afternoon, on my own in the Malaysian jungle of Taman Negara, I once was startled by a breathtaking ‘Whooahh’ — the source of which was about sixty metres away, from within a tall  stand of dense vegetation. Although there had been no reports of tiger attacks on visitors in the park for many years, I lacked the nerve to wait for any closer encounter. As quietly as possible, I sneaked away.

A second close encounter with a tiger was near the beautiful Thi Lo Su waterfalls in Thailand’s Umphang reserve. Early in the morning, we could  hear from our tents a series of loud barkings. Suddenly, a huge sambar deer bounded out of the forest and collapsed nearby. The animal was bleeding from the raking of claws on a large paw, but the body also had scars of similar wounds that had healed. A veterinarian among us after inspecting the animal concluded that it had succumbed to stress and exhaustion. It had probably been harassed for some time by a large predator. Since leopards usually regard the sambar as too large a prey and won’t attack it, the aggressor was likely a tiger. Because of several failed attempts to kill the same deer, it may have been incapacitated through old age or injury — the very kind of animal that often looks for easy prey, such as human beings! This conclusion may have been premature, since an estimated ninety percent of a tiger’s stalks are unsuccessful. However, it impressed my small group of ecotourists. They were happy they wouldn’t need to stay one more night at the camping site.

Well, two close encounters with a tiger — albeit without spotting either — isn’t bad, considering the little time I have spent in the jungles. Even Stanley Aiklone Kham Mwe, a seasoned guide in Chiang Mai, who has been trekking for many years in the most remote and untouched areas, has seen tigers only six times. I remember how his voice trembled with excitement when he told me about one of these sightings along the Burmese border.

At present no more than 300 wild tigers may roam the forests of Thailand, and some experts even consider this estimate too high. However, less than a century ago, large parts of the country were tiger-infested. As late as the 1960s tigers were even spotted on the slopes of Doi Suthep near Chiang Mai.

Man-eaters also occurred. For instance, in the 1920s logging in the forests of Phayao was hampered by a killer tigress. This infamous man-eater of Mueang Pong had slain 29 employees of the concessionaire, apart from numerous people from scattered jungle villages. Interestingly, the tigress got her taste for human flesh when a local was killed by a train carrying teak over a private railway. The corpse was left beside the track, as an official report of the the accident had to be made. Thus it became an easy dinner for the tigress, a magnificent animal in prime condition — evidence that man-eaters are not necessarily old or wounded.

During the construction of the railway from Bangkok to Chiang Mai — finished in 1921 — numerous coolies were killed and carried away by tigers, while a German supervisor was seriously injured — a tiger was actually crunching on his leg when it was shot.

At present man-eating is not a problem in Thailand, where tigers are typically shy. For example, in the Khao Yai national park, one of the best known tiger areas, they stay away from humans and are rarely seen. Though recent reports suggest there may be only one surviving tiger left. Only one man-eater has been reported in the park and it was killed in 1981. However, just a few years ago a forest ranger was attacked by a tiger, which was later shot.

Over most of its habitat, tigers avoid humans and prefer the meat of other species. Basically, experts agree, they do not attack people. Yet in the past man-eaters have been a plague, especially in India where they were rather common. Probably the most notorious serial killer was a tigress, finally shot by the celebrated hunter Jim Corbett. It had reportedly slain 400 people in India and another 200 in Nepal. The extent of man-eating may have been inflated systematically by tiger hunters, yet nevertheless, in the light of all the evidence it is surprising that well-known Indian tiger conservationist Kailash Sankhala believes that “man-eating has been, and continues to be, the creation of the human mind”.

In the nineteenth century, tigers frequently swam from the Malay peninsula to Singapore to indulge in human flesh. (It was also in Singapore that an escaped circus tiger sneaked in and was shot while hiding under the billiard table. Of course, this could only have occurred in the legendary Raffles Hotel.)

Altogether an estimated one million Asians have been killed by tigers during the last four centuries. Understandably, this has had a lasting impact upon man’s relationship with the big striped cat — as expressed in his beliefs, culture and religion.

Besides provoking fear, tigers are often treated with great respect — even in the case of man-eaters. In The Soul of the Tiger authors Jeffrey McNeely and Paul Spencer Sochaczewski mention how, in 1974, the people of a Lisu hill tribe village in Myanmar gathered around the corpse of a tiger that had been shot. Although this animal had killed 24 villagers, they asked its forgiveness in prayer: ‘We have not been ruthless in killing the tiger. The tiger has killed a number of persons for no reason. May the tiger rest in peace.’

The Lisu’s attitude markedly contrasts with the mass hysteria triggered in a nineteenth century Javanese village after a feared man-eater was slain — as was witnessed  by the German explorer and naturalist Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn.

“A whining widow threw herself upon the corpse of the tiger,” Junghuhn wrote. “With both her hands she grubbed into its wounds and greased herself with its blood. Then she grabbed the head and hit it on the eyes, bit the skin and licked the already clotted blood. She jumped up with her fists clenched, and gritting her teeth. Uttering a shriek, she threw herself once again upon the dead body, as if she wanted to tear it to pieces. Soon the other women became intoxicated with her impetuous rage. They jostled each other to get to the corpse, and even children wanted to kick and beat the tiger, or at least to bathe their feet in the tiger’s blood…Some of the men approached the corpse to stab their kris deep into it — they repeated this hundreds of times, apparently in a lustful way.’

The stabbing with the kris was likely aimed at magically enhancing the power of their weapons, since this practice has also been observed among other tribes.

All over the tiger’s habitat, people commonly believe that tigers can embody the souls of dead humans, especially slain heroes. Wandering souls are inclined to take possession of tigers. This close association with the transfer of the soul somewhat resembles that of the werewolves in ancient Europe. When one of the last wild Javanese tigers began roaming the suburbs of the Javanese city of Yogyakarta in the 1970s, the animal was considered to be a reincarnation of the populist, former president Sukarno, whose ouster was followed by the massacre of hundreds of thousands of communists and Chinese. In areas with man-eaters it is often presumed that the soul of the human victim becomes the soul of the tiger. During French colonial rule, the seemingly calculated, merciless attacks of tigers in the Vietnamese highlands were ascribed to the direct instigation of a supernatural power. On the other hand, shamans often became, as in Malaysia, possessed by a tiger  spirit. During a trance-like state they often crawled and growled like a tiger.

In Thailand this belief in transmigration of the soul was noticed by the Norwegian explorer Carl Bock. In 1881 he witnessed how a slain tiger was carried in triumph into the small town of Phrao, one hundred kilometres north of Chiang Mai. Bock remarks: “On his head hung one of the …charms, made of rattan or bamboo, plaited together like an open piece of lattice-work, to keep away evil spirits, which the people believe to exist everywhere, and of which the tiger is supposed to be a particularly malignant representive.”

Sometimes tigers are even regarded as the mediums of gods. When over one hundred people were killed by tigers in the south-west of Sumatra in 1951, these death were interpreted as Allah’s punishment. In the Sundarbans, the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers extending into both India and Bangladesh, the tiger is worshiped as a sacred creature who rules over an enchanted land. The God Daksin Ray — according to one myth a child of Shiva born from the god’s liaison with a beautiful nature spirit — embodies the powers of the Sundarbans’s tigers. It is believed that this god can enter the body of a tiger at will. The sacredness of the tiger in the Sundarbans is no surprise, as it is the most notorious man-eater-infested area in the world. As early as in 1666, a French explorer reported that natives of the Sundarbans constantly fell prey to tigers. Tigers often climbed into their boats to carry off their victims. It has been suggested that these tigers  learned to eat  human flesh because it was brought to them by the holy Ganges — in the form of the corpses of the dead that had been incompletely cremated. Tens of fishermen and honey gatherers are still devoured by tigers annually. Some of the worst hit villages  are even known  as ‘tiger widow villages”.

All over Hindu India, the fearful goddess Durga, who saves the world by annihilating a demon buffalo while riding on a tiger, is worshiped. In India the tiger even became the country’s national emblem. No wonder Indian novelist R. K. Narayan’s chose a tiger to become possessed by the soul of an enlightened human. In his compelling fable A Tiger from Malgudi, this tiger projects tiger-morphic attributions onto humans — just as man projects anthropomorphic attributions onto tigers. Here Narayan’s tiger speaks: “The word ‘God’ had been unheard of by me. We who live in the jungle have never known of the word… Later when my Master questioned me about it, I said that God must be an enormous tiger, spanning the earth and the sky with a tail capable of encircling the globe, claws that could hook on the clouds, and teeth that could grind the mountain, and possessing of course, immeasurable strength to match.”

Furthermore, the tiger stands for the powerful, fearful, and magical in nature, its mercurial and violent power. It is also a symbol of the basic human impulses , of our desires which are often so hard to get under control. Therefore the submission of the tiger is a recurring theme in the hagiographies of famous Thai Buddhist monks. These monks, like Achan Man, Luang Pho Waen Suchinno and Khruba Si Wichai, used to wander deep in the forests to meditate and are said to have been threatened by wild tigers. However, the spiritual power radiating from the monks subdued the animals — perhaps a metaphor for subduing inner impulses on the path to enlightenment.

The proverbial chat suea mai thing lai (a tiger will not lose its stripes) is of course the Thai version of the English ‘spots of the leopard’, emphasizing nature’s domination over nurture. The names of shrewd and powerful (mostly Sino-Thai) business tycoons or godfathers, and even outlaws and gangsters, are often prefixed with a respectful (or fearful) suea (tiger’s), while in the case of general Big Tiger Phichit the nickname stands for the bravery of the former army commander during the war against scommunist insurgency. On the other hand, suea phu ying (‘an after ladies tiger’) is a common colloquialism for ‘lady-killer’.

As a top predator controlling the populations of monkeys, wild boar and deer, the tiger is looking after the forest and silently doing the work of ‘eco-discipline’. This function has been realized in many cultures. It has even been concluded that in that way the tiger is a god. He must eat those who do not pay him respect, otherwise people would lose their respect for the forest and the relationship between the people and the forest — the rules by which everyone survives. Forest-dwelling negrito’s in South-east Asia consider the tiger to be a representive of the Supreme Being, taking revenge on those whose acts deviate from the natural laws. In Minangkabau (Sumatra) man-eating was considered a serious disturbance of the harmony with nature. In such cases special tiger magicians, pawang harimau, were asked to intervene. These magicians tried to convince the animals with diplomacy to return to the forest. If this failed, they requested permission from the forest spirits to trap the animal.

In her fascinating study on the man-eaters of the Sundarbans, The Spell of the Tiger, author Sy Montgomery gives evidence that man was aware of the tiger’s pivotal role in the ecosystem as early as 5000 years ago. A series of clay tablets unearthed at Mohenjo Daro (Indus valley) show a tiger in the forest and a person chasing a tiger from the forest, another depicts a god among trees holding out his arms to the tiger, imploringly. Subsequent panels depict people cutting down trees and the forest bare, tiger and tree-dwelling god gone.

Interestingly, when the last remaining tiger of the Javanese subspecies was killed around 1980, and Indonesia was subsequently stricken by vulcanic eruptions and devastating floods, many believed these disasters were related to the tiger’s extinction.

Nowadays the number of wild tigers in Asia has declined to approximately 7000 individuals — less than five percent of the numbers a century ago. The species is close to extinction and its status reflects the overall decline of wildlife largely due to the destruction of the environment by man. The tiger skin pelt, fashionable in the dwellings of the powerful (and which in Tibet evolved into the tiger rug), is the perfect symbol of man’s domination of nature, and his intolerance and unwillingness to accept a co-predator. Beside the ever-accelerating obliteration of tiger habitats, poaching of tigers to supply the valuable ingredients for traditional for traditional Chinese medicine, is a major cause of the animal’s extermination.

Carl Bock’s travel account testifies that the animal’s body parts were already in high demand in nineteenth century northern Thailand. When a tiger was shot, it was the custom to take the skin to the chief in Chiang Mai. For almost every other particle of the body there were applicants enough: “Some wanted the flesh, which was roasted… [they] love to partake of this dish, from the notion that it will make them strong.  Others asked for the bones to sell to the Chinese, to be powdered and made into a medicine. The intestines … [and] gall-bladder… [are] also used to make a highly-prized and expensive Chinese drug…For the claws and skull I put in a modest claim myself.”

At present the value of a tiger skin is at least US-dollar 5000, while tiger bones will go for about US-dollar 250 per kilogramme, making tiger poaching a highly profitable business.

Besides being a symbol of ‘economic miracles’, featuring in the logos of many brands of beer, gasoline, plastics and, of course, tiger balm, the fate of the tiger now above all symbolizes eco-destruction and man’s dictatorship over nature.

©SJON HAUSER: text and pictures