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Paw relations;The big picture

(Photograph) - Would you dance with a tiger? Six-foot-four Gregg Lee, a worker at Marine World Africa USA in California, has no qualms, even though the white Bengal tiger is twice his size (12 feet from head to tail-tip). Says Gregg: "When Rajah weighed two pounds, I held him in my palm and fed him." But Gregg, Rajah is bigger now.

Tigers in the wild face extinction. There are no more than 7,000 left in the world; in China, fewer than 30. "The tiger dies, but his stripes remain," says a Malay proverb. Hunted for their body parts which are used in traditional Chinese medicine as aphrodisiacs, robbed of their skins, feared as predators, tigers may soon be just a stripey memory. In the bazaars of Burma, tiger skin sells for pound;3.50 per square inch; rib is slightly cheaper at pound;3 per inch.

Worse yet, the deer on which tiger depend for food - an adult needs up to 70 kills a year - are almost extinct in Indonesia, South-east Asia and much of India. As tigers' habitat shrinks, they have to compete with each other for food. Grown tigers are solitary; they do not share. They kill by throttling. Surely it is this untamed ferocity which makes the tiger so attractive - what William Blake in his famous poem "Tyger, Tyger" called "fearful symmetry". Once removed from the "forests of the night", for which it is so superbly camouflaged, does it become the "tamed and shabby tiger" of Ralph Hodgson's poem?

Don't count on it, Gregg.


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