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Disappearing Act

By Daniel Burrows. AF Keck is unwell.
Illustration www.mothi.biz

Tiger, tiger burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy immortal symmetry?

Extract from William Blake’s poem, The Tiger

Alas, it would seem that the tiger is not quite as immortal as William Blake might have liked. In fact, tigers are heading for imminent extinction according to a new survey conducted by a panel of eminent conservationists. Three of the eight species have already perished, and with their naturally habitats shrinking at an alarming rate and poaching for fur and body parts rife, we may well see the end of the iconic creature that ‘put a tiger in our tanks’ and Frosties on our tables by 2010, in the wild.

The tiger is the largest and most powerful living cat, with males measuring up to 3.3 metres in length and able to leap over 10 metres in distance. Their domain once stretched across Asia from eastern Turkey to the Russian far east, and at the turn of the century their population numbered some 100,000. However, due to habitat depletion and poaching, there are now only around 7,000 tigers in the wild and of these 80% reside in India, which since the 70s has been operating a stringent conservation policy on behalf of the big cats.

Tigers are formidable hunters, ambushing their prey, usually medium to large herbivores, in the forests and grasslands that are their natural habitats. Powerful swimmers, they have also been known to hunt prey in rivers and lakes and even capsize fishing boats to eat the crew and their catch. However only 3 to 4 tigers in every thousand have feasted on human flesh in their lifetime. Sadly for the tiger it is the very coat that camouflages it from its prey and conveys its image of ferocity and strength that have brought it into the sights of human beings.

A tiger’s pelt can fetch up to £5,000 on the black market, while a kilo of the big cat’s cock is valued at around £15,000. Therefore a single Siberian tiger kill equates to what a Russian poacher might otherwise earn in six years. In China, the end market for much of the illegally poached tigers, meat, bones and fur serve as a cure for a wide variety of illnesses and possesses powers that protect the user of tiger product from the supernatural. For example, eat a tigers penis and it will improve virility, wear the bones of a tiger’s tail and it will ward off evil, while the skin can abate the fever brought on by the encounters with ghosts, and if you are lazy or suffering from yuppie flu then a balm of tigers’ brains and oil rubbed on the skin is the perfect cure. As you might expect there is no medical corroboration for any of these uses. Two thirds of Indochina tigers killed – the world’s second largest species that now number some 1,800 animals – go to stock Chinese pharmacies, with organised gangs involved in drug and arms trafficking much of the illegal imports to China and Tibet. The last recorded kill of a South China tiger was in 1998 and none have been seen in the wild for 20 years. Of this species only 59 remain in captivity, all of which are descended from four cats, therefore inbreeding will lead to their ‘ecological extinction’ within a generation.

In the wild, too, ‘ecological extinction’ is a threat, as tiger colonies become fragmented by the destruction of their habitat. In the past ten years, the tiger’s domain has been halved, and with each male tiger prowling a territory of 60 to 100km2 a policy of habitat protection is needed. In Sumatra, logging of supposedly protected national forests led to the shooting of 66 tigers between 1998 and 2000, which equated to 20% of the species population.

The human population explosion has also consumed territory, and the increased demand for bush meat has reduced the natural prey of the tiger in the wild. However perhaps the most insipid cause of tigers’ demise is trophy hunting by the ‘great white hunters’. These days their ranks are not made up of the priggish Raj, but from wealthy businessmen who choose to prove their manhood and furnish the walls of their mansions with the corpses of rare animals by pitting them against their hired trackers and high-powered hunting rifles (Onboard would like to warn this bunch of fuckheads that come the revolution their breed will be ruthlessly hunted to extinction). All in all, the tigers future looks pretty grim.

So how can we protect the tiger? The remedies are numerous as are the organisations confronting the problem. Project Tiger, which was launched in India in 1972 and is considered one of the most successful wildlife conservation projects to date, has led to an increase in the population of the Bengal tiger. And with aggressive habitat protection policies from governments where the tiger still exists, populations can regenerate, as tigers breed quickly and don’t require pristine terrain to survive and flourish. As individuals we can lobby governments to instate tougher penalties on poachers and illegal loggers, as well as supporting politicians who advocate the species protection. Thankfully in China the government and pharmacies are looking for alternatives to the medical uses of tiger medicines but a rigorous education scheme is needed to wean the population off phoney witchdoctory. Combating the demand for tiger by-products is the key to its survival.

So dig deep into your pockets and support organisations like the WWF who fight for the lives of endangered species so that generations to come will not only be able to read about tigers or have their breakfasts served by them but will be comfortable in the knowledge that somewhere out there are creatures that are more powerful than themselves roaming the world’s wildernesses.

To return to William Blake, it is us who should put the question to the ourselves: ‘Did He who made the lamb make thee?’ as we are indisputably the most fearful and dangerous creatures on Earth.


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