Death on the menu

28th January 2000 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Of all nature's predators, tigers are perhaps the most ferocious. They hunt alone, often at night, using their superior vision and sense of hearing, and travelling several miles in search of food. After stalking their prey they pounce swiftly, sinking their long canines into its neck. Large mammals, such as the deer killed by this cub's mother in the Ranthambhor National Park, in India, are their favoured meal, but tigers are opportunistic and will kill almost anything they come across.

Only one in 10 of its chases might end with a kill, but if the prey is big enough it might not have to eat again for several days. The man-eating tiger of mythology was often a sick or injured animal unable to catch its usual prey. But in the Sundarbans river delta, between India and Bangladesh, several people were savagely killed before locals took to wearing face masks on the back of their heads to confuse the tigers, which habitually attack from behind.

However, even from their elevated position in the food chain, tigers have one species to fear - homo sapiens. The biggest cat in the world, the noblest of beasts, this champion of the animal kingdom has been undone by a man with a gun. The ultimate hunter is being hunted to the brink of extinction.

Not so long ago tiger skins were prized as fireside rugs in the homes of colonials, who shot them for sport. Nowadays there is a price on their heads, and poachers can earn tens of thousands of pounds for illegally killing an animal for use in Far Eastern medicine. Their body parts are claimed to be cures for everything from arthritis and ulcers to acne and laziness. Their bones are ground up to make tige wine. In the ultimate indignity, the tiger's penis is sold as an aid to virility. Sadly, there is no known cure for the men who buy it.

Tigers are loved and feared, tamed and idolised. Tigger and Shere Khan have filled the imaginations of generations of children. Sports teams and terrorists groups adopt their name to invoke power and strength. Advertisers appropriate them to sell sugar coated cereals or petrol. In Hinduism, the deity Durga is depicted riding on the back of a tiger, and those born in the Chinese year of the Tiger are said to enjoy strength and good health. The markings on a tiger's head sometimes appear as the Chinese pictogram "Wang", meaning King.

But these potent symbols may soon be all that's left of the tiger. At the turn of the 20th century there were an estimated 100,000 tigers in South East Asia, India and Russia. Since then three of the eight sub species - the Javan, Bali and Caspian - have disappeared. Today there are thought to be fewer than 5,000 tigers in the wild. Extinction is final, and in 10 years, the lifetime of this cub, tigers may be gone forever. Look her in the eye. Do you want to tell her or shall I?


tiger information centre, user friendly:

world wildlife fund site on threatened European species: www.wwf-uk.orgcarnivorescarni-intro.htm

big cat conservation:

This shot was a runner up in the BG Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, published in Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Portfolio Nine, Fountain Press pound;24.95, on show in Bath's Octagon Galleries, tel 01225 462841 until March 26. Picture by Patricio Robles Gil.

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