Animals exist not only outside us, but inside us as well - in our imagination, our dreams, our spirit. From the time that man first emerged from out of his primate background, other animals have inspired him with a full range of heightened emotions: fear, wonder, terror, awe, envy, sympathy, dread, adoration. They have inspired religions, folklore, art. Painting, poetry, even everyday speech are unthinkable without them. The eye of an eagle, the heart of a lion, the hug of a bear. And of all the animals that have infused our speech, our names, our poems, the tiger is surely one of the most magnificent. A world without tigers roaming freely in the wild is a spiritually impoverished place, a world in which imagining, dreaming and wondering must shrink back into a lesser self, a hairless ape trapped inside a concrete cage of his own making.

As everyone knows, the wild tiger is endangered. Its numbers have been reduced from an estimated 120,000 at the turn of the century to about 6000, mostly in the last decade. This number is spread over 5 subspieces, the populations of which survive in mere hundreds. The Javan tiger is extinct; the Bali tiger is extinct. The reasons for the sharp reduction are basically two: habitat destruction and trade in so-called tiger parts. The second is the most vicious, for it promotes the active killing of the last individuals surviving in viable territories. If this trade is not quickly eliminated, the tigers of Asia and Siberia are doomed. They will survive only as frustrated, semi-domesticated specimens in zoological parks, as well as in circuses and other demeaning spectacles.

Of course, environmental groups and other interested organizations are taking action. Exxon Corporation, which for decades has compared its gas to "a tiger in your tank," has pledged $5 million - $1 million a year for five years - to the cause. The Kellogg company, which has used Tony the Tiger to tell us that Frosted Flakes "taste gr-r-reat," should be encouraged to make a big donation. Among the animal rights groups, the World Wildlife Fund has dedicated itself to saving the tiger, working to safeguard habitat, catch poachers and reduce the illegal trade. It has pledged $1 million for the campaign. In particular, it seeks in this year of 1998, the Chinese Year of the Tiger, to "work with traditional medicine communities to find alternatives to tiger parts." All of this work is admirable, even heroic, but it fails to address the crux of the problem: the reason why people eat tigers.

Man is a complex animal. When thrilled by a wild beast, he may respond in a variety of ways. He may draw it, tell stories about it or imitate it. He may also kill it to show to his friends, to prove he is courageous or to possess it, almost as an act of love. He may think that by consuming it he will acquire its qualities: its power, its ferocity, its vitality. He will not. He is engaging in metaphorical thinking, or what psychiatrists in modern times call "magical thinking."

The consumption of tiger parts in the world today is entirely a matter of magical thinking: the consumers think that by drinking the powder of tiger bones in a shake they will obtain sexual prowess, stronger erections, more explosive orgasms. They think that by eating tiger brains they will combat illnesses and become quick-witted. They think that by ingesting tiger organs they will gain muscular strength, firmness of foot and keenness of eye. They will not. Their thinking is primitive, foolish and harmful, yet not one organization dedicated to saving the tiger, to the best of my knowledge, has attempted to point this out. Not one plan, proposal or report I have read has mentioned that tiger parts have no medicinal value.

Why? What is the reason? If people were destroying the world's roses faster than they could be regrown because they thought that eating them made them sweeter, you would think that someone would tell them that they don't: they still smell the same. But the tiger is being driven into extinction by just the same kind of thinking, and newspapers, environmental groups and scientific societies are not saying a word - or if they are, saying it very softly.

The underlying motive for the silence, I suspect, is PC - political correctness. In the era of the new noble savage, official multiculturalism and obligatory uncritical respect for all non?Western cultures, no Western environmentalist wants to appear so insensitive as to point out that those who consume tiger bones, bear paws and rhinoceros horns for voodoo purposes are savages, and so-called doctors who prescribe these parts to cure arthritis and rheumatism are quacks - all those terms that we have politely discarded for people who do not meet minimal standards of civilized behavior. But for such nice manners on our part the tiger could disappear from the wild.

Here is the word that needs to be put in the ear of people who eat tigers, whether in China, New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver or anywhere else: IT DOES YOU NO GOOD. YOU ARE FOOLISH TO PAY BIG BUCKS FOR A PRODUCT THAT HAS LESS MEDICINAL VALUE THAN CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP. STOP IT, YOU ARE MAKING THE WORLD WORSE FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS. But no one is saying this word. On the contrary, in its newsletter "Focus," WWF consistently accredits tiger-eaters as "traditional medicine practitioners" and members of "traditional Chinese medicine communities." The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation even abbreviates the term, TCM. The Tiger Information Center does not mention eating tigers for medicinal purposes on its webpage answering "misconceptions about tigers."

Consequently, the millions of dollars donated by big corporations and the valiant efforts of dedicated environmentalists are being spent in vain. It is impossible to mount a successful campaign against superstition by considering it a traditional belief structure, just as the police could never fight crime by characterizing criminals as traditional practioners of an alternative life style. If tiger-eaters remain convinced that they are obtaining a secret, contraband and highly potent medicine possessing the legendary power of the tiger, they will continue to defy the law and pay for the organs of gunned-down tigers, right down to the very last one.

The war on drugs has failed, because it has not eliminated the demand. The campaign to save the tiger cannot succeed by euphemisizing it. Yet drugs, whether good or bad, produce a demonstrable effect, while tiger powder produces no demonstrable effect. It should be easy to censure. It offers no health benefit that could not be had from taking calcium supplements. And as for its supposed aphrodisiac properties, science has produced a pill that packs the power of a hundred tigers: Viagra. The so-called TCM communities could be brought up to speed with something that really works.

I believe that the most urgent way to save the tiger is to hammer home the news: EATING TIGERS DOES YOU NO GOOD. IF YOU PROMOTE THE KILLING OF TIGERS YOU ARE NOT ONLY CRIMINAL, BUT STUPID AND CRUEL. The anti-smoking campaigns have not been polite to tobacco companies or to smokers, and they are having a profound effect on our society. Why then should the campaign to save the tiger accredit tiger-killers as "traditional medicine communities" and pamper tiger-eaters as "traditional medicine practioners?"

It shows no disrespect to a person, his community or his culture to insist that he use his imagination to glorify a beautiful wild animal, rather than drive it into extinction.

Author of The Last Snow Leopard

Posted on the Xenos Books website, 1998


You may wish to visit these sites:


The World Wildlife Fund:

Tiger Information Center:

Save the Tiger Fund:


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