Vanishing Goddess

Fight to Save Wild Tiger Pits the
Shoeless Against the 4-Wheel Drive

Several nations have recently gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in a last ditch effort to prevent the imminent extinction of tigers. Big cats face threats to their natural habitats, which shrink as the human presence increases, are hunted relentlessly for the black market value of their skin and body parts, and are down to an ever-diminishing genetic pool. Captives living in private reserves, which outnumbered those in the wild, don’t have the necessary biological diversity to guarantee the species’ survival.
Without a global, effective and consistent strategy to preserve them as they’ve lived for millennia, neither their mythological charisma nor the powerful allure they’ve always exerted over our civilization will be enough to save them for future generations. And it’ll be, of course, to everybody’s loss to let that happens.
The 13 mostly poor nations that still hold tiger populations struggle to maintain the expansive lands they require to thrive, and are in the losing end of the battle against a well organized illegal trade. Such black market is driven by wealthy unscrupulous collectors and by high demand from Asia, where tigers are associated with magical powers and their parts are thought as having medicinal and sexual properties.
Ministers of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam and Russia, are joined at the summit by members of respected preservationist organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society and the Global Tiger Recovery Program, among others.
Russia, as host, has assured itself a prominent position in the efforts to preserve the survival of the tigers within its borders, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a cat lover, is personally committed to the issue. The fact that his support may also help to advance his political ambitions is a point of contention among his critics. But the threat of extinction is so serious that even some political grandstanding may serve a useful purpose.
Incidentally, Putin’s affinity with tigers, on public display recently when he was given a cub on his 56th birthday, shares a common thread with political leaders of all eras. There’s a long history connecting them with big cats, and a few theories to explain it. Personal vanity, display of strength, the use of atavist symbols to convey an idea of power, pure megalomania, the list is copious but wildlife experts, historians and anthropologists are not prepared to settle on one single explanation.
More than any other species, though, felines seem to be the beast of choice. From ancient Egypt (where several cat-shaped deities were worshipped) and the sphinx, to African tribes, Middle East kingdoms, to England’s coat of arms and the Jerusalem’s Lion of Judah, history books are rife with examples of leaders great and small, just and tyrannical appropriating the cat imagery to instill respect and fear in the heart of their subjects.
On the other hand, preservationists are troubled that, while any effort to help preserving feline predators is not just noble but necessary and worthwhile, similar attempts to protect canines are not as popular. In fact, in certain countries, including the U.S., home of the biggest population of captive big cats in the world, wolves, coyotes, foxes, jackals and wild canines can be plainly despised and hunted mercilessly.
That’s when cats and dogs, the top two favorite pets adopted by humans for centuries, radically diverge in the way they’re treated from their wild cousins: while cats and all other felines are respected and admired, domestic dogs may be loved but their relatives are usually feared and perceived as beasts out to get us.
Again, scientists have many theories to explain the phenomenon, but none is conclusive. And out among preservationists invested in the fate of both feline and canine predators, there’s some bewilderment about the vagaries of human behavior toward animals. Which, at the end of the day, winds up hurting both species.
Back at the St. Petersburg summit, it has already approved a program to double the estimated number of 3,200 tigers currently in the wild. It’s a laudable but sobering proposal, given the 100,000 believed to have roamed the earth a century ago. An even more dramatic projection points to a possible extinction of the species, if nothing is done to prevent it, by 2022, the next Chinese calendar year of the tiger.
Money, as always, will be crucial to accomplish the summit goals. Countries involved will need at least $350 million each in outside funding, according to estimates, to be able to ward off well organized poachers, driving four-wheel all-terrain vehicles and sporting automatic high-gauge rifles.
On the local law enforcement side, guards often are out in the field wearing no shoes and armed only with wood sticks and spears. Worse, some of them are known to also subscribe to the myth of the feline power, and carry a few tiger bones in their own pocket. How do we know that? They were found in guards shot dead while on duty.

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