Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 5 – The Origins

Mood: Humbled

It dawned on me about a week after I started this blog, which is centered on my attempt to get into tiger conservation in Thailand, that I haven’t even dedicated a post to telling why it is I decided to get into conservation in the first place! It would certainly be a good idea to fill anyone in who might not know.

In reality, my decision to go into tiger conservation was hardly the result of one single event, but the confluence of many different things. I’ve spent the time mapping out the different influences in my life that prepared me to make the decision, but describing them here would require a considerable amount of time. Instead, I’ll focus on the most relevant influences which, occurring within the span of about a year, pushed me to dedicate my life to ensuring the long term survival of the species.

Even though I consider this a shortened version, it still is over 3,000 words long. Some might not care, but I just wanted to give a heads up.

The Tome

I would be lying if I said I felt the same way about tigers my whole life, but I know harboured a mild appreciation for them. The problem was that I cannot remember having too much exposure to tigers. Of all the Animal Planet and Discovery Channel I watched, I can remember more about snakes, Steve Irwin, lions and sharks. I remember the charismatic characters from the Lion King, but not Shere Khan, whose role in The Jungle Book was villainous, for want of screen time and, ultimately, forgettable. Nevertheless, there must have been something that caused me to like tigers...when I can trace myself back to the deepest of roots, I’ll let you know.

In late 2003, I was in my fourth year of high school (normally the last) and was assigned a final essay for English class which centered on deriving themes, arguments and evidence from a novel. The choice of novel was to be ours and since I was hardly a literary connoisseur, I went to a local book store to see if anything jumped out at me. Something did... out of the labyrinth of literature, I stumbled upon a beast far more fascinating than the minotaur. It was a tiger, and its ferocious visage was leaping out of the cover of a book I had pulled off the shelf. It was this visual that I was drawn to. The book I found is called “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel and chronicles the adventure of a young, shipwrecked boy drifting perilously in the vast Pacific Ocean with the only companion being a Bengal tiger. At the same time, the book explores deep religious and spiritual themes, boasting that it is a tome which will inspire one’s faith in God.

Anyone who has gone through high school English class knows that you aren’t supposed to like the books you have to read. Books reports and essays are dreadfully dull experiences that give us a new appreciation for our free time. However, this book was much too profound for me to dislike it and I took from it an unlikely interest in religion, spirituality and mythology. I eventually, became interested in the world’s most prevalent religions and discovered, past the dogma and within the spiritual core, how similar and beautiful they really were. I also found my first true introduction to the species which would later define my life.

The tiger in the book was depicted as being terrible and ferocious, which is a common image we conjure; from a child, we learn that tigers go “ROAR!” and can be big and scary. The book appeals to such feelings of tigers which enhances the danger involved with sharing a small boat with one. However, the author researched enough about tigers to discover that they are not so one-dimensional. While reading, I found out about something called “prusten” or “chuffing” – in close quarters, a tiger in an agreeable and friendly mood will gesture to camaraderie with a series of short puffs through the nose. I was intrigued by this idea, which built upon ideas I discovered from Steve Irwin (the Croc Hunter) that even the scariest of creatures can have some of the greatest virtues and that we should look past the facade of “heartless beast” to understand just how much we can relate to animals. While the main character struggled with the tiger’s natural tendency for frightening aggression and independence, he looked upon the tiger as a friend. I, too, felt the pull of relationship. Coupled with the spiritual themes I was discovering, my introduction into the world of tigers felt magical and I couldn’t resist wanting to find out more. We are indeed, in the same boat.

The Video

My English class eventually ended in early 2004, though I was still attached to the book. Winter became spring and spring gave way to summer. Though finished with my final year of high-school, I elected to return for half a year – I didn’t feel prepared to move on to university where I would pursue modern arts. I had begun working at an amusement park, which would likely end up being one of the worst experiences of my youth. Almost paradoxically, that summer would also play host to one of the greatest moments of my life.

One day, I was preparing to go to work and decided to eat my breakfast in front of the television. I began watching Animal Planet and noticed WWF-Canada was broadcasting a television show which served to educate people about wildlife species extinction and to ask for donations. I was already well imbued with a strong environmental ethic so I watched intently. My interest increased when they began to reveal information about tigers. I knew the tiger was an endangered species so much of what they said I was already familiar with; however, the information was presented with horrific images. The video that burned its images most deeply into my mind was that of hunters chasing down a tiger with a pack of dogs before cornering it and stabbing it to death. Though we deny animals like tigers our standards of expression, the level of pain one could see as the tiger lay frightened and dying was vivid. The tigress killed happened to be a mother and video was shown of her cubs being loaded into the back of a truck, starved to death and frozen, having lost their most important link to survival.

Up until that point, I do not think had ever seen something so emotionally scarring. I was so distraught that I called in sick at work and spent the day in my room struggling to comprehend what I had experienced. I had built up a tremendous love for the tiger and was unprepared for the truth of what was happening to the species. Looking back, I can appreciate, for all the trauma, the necessity for what was shown to me. Feeding people statistics can work for some, but most people will respond to emotional images (this was confirmed by my brother, the psychologist). Case and point, it helped to jolt me into action.

The Photo

The revelations of the tiger’s status in the wild hit home with the striking images I had seen; however, I was only given a brief glimpse of why the species was in such trouble. I set forth to find out more, primarily using Internet resources.

It didn’t take long for me to discover the horrifying truth of why the tiger is in trouble: it is being eaten into extinction. I found out the tiger was being killed in the wild so that its body parts could be consumed in Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as in exotic dishes like tiger penis soup (supposedly a dish that increases virility). I also found out about rapid habitat loss and prey depletion, but the fact that this magnificent animal, associated with divinity in many cultures, was being reduced to magic potions and sexual stimulants angered and sickened me. This wasn’t a health care issue, this wasn’t about cultural sovereignty and respect, this was about pride and avarice...pride and avarice that are resulting in the complete annihilation of an entire species. Millions of years of evolution that created a god among beasts brought to an end in an instant to satiate wretched egos.

I saw the images of the tiger’s apocalypse: truck-loads of bones, dried penises hanging in stores like ornaments of death and boxes of tiger wine arranged like tombstones. However, not even these images, nor those I saw in that fateful video could desensitize me to what I saw next.

With my growing love for the tiger, I had taken great pleasure in collecting some of the greatest images I could find online of these beautiful animals. Google image search helped me out and I made short work looking through the vast archive of pictures taken by the world’s best wildlife photographers and created by artists with incredible talent. I eventually came across a black and white image of a tiger that I couldn’t quite make out. I enlarged the photo and what I found tore my heart in two.

The photo depicts a tiger hanging upside-down in a cage in being rolled to a market center where it will be torn apart, having its body parts sold to the highest bidder and its blood bottled. Whether it was alive when the photo was taken, I do not know, but the effect would be the same no matter what. The way the tiger is staring up at the photo, caged, tied, humiliated, helpless, about to be utterly ripped asunder while shadowy figures look down upon its defeated form...its eyes just pierce you, pleadingly, as if asking for help.

The photo summarized everything I had come to feel about the tiger’s fate. To see something I loved and respected so much reduced to such humiliation brought about a unique kind of emotional trauma that I wouldn’t attempt to describe with words. I don’t know if I felt more anger or sorrow, but I remember an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and shame...shame that I was part of a species that could render such horrors and hopeless as it seemed nothing could defeat such indescribable cruelty. That photo made me feel so many terrible things, but I can honestly say that had I not seen it, I probably would not be on the path I am on today, which makes it all the more powerful.

I keep a copy of this photo in my wallet in case I need any motivation.

The Encounter

I continued to find about tigers using resources available online. However, I was compelled to visit a zoo and see tigers for myself. I remember going on a school trip to the Toronto Zoo once, but I was too preoccupied with friends to care about any of the animals. I wanted to be able to see them in the flesh...alone, with no one to distract me. I took a week’s vacation from work at a cottage north of Toronto and researched nearby zoos. A zoo called Elmvale was the closest so I decided to make the 30 minute trip and spend the day there.

I remember it was a hot, sticky day. I meandered around the zoo with a mild interest in the animals, following the paths laid out; however, I was waiting. I scanned every new enclosure hoping to see a streak of stripes. Eventually, I spotted two eyes looking out at me from an enclosure partially obscured by trees. It was a Bengal tiger and I must have excited its feline instincts by moving in and out of view. My heart leapt with excitement and my heart rate increased. The tiger, satisfied, then moved on to other matters. I could see more tigers in another enclosure so I walked over to them.

They were a pair of white tigers, lounging under some shade and had taken small notice of my arrival, a simple glance. I lounged as well. I stayed in that very spot for over 3 hours, just watching. Then, lo, something happened; no one was around and the tigers had both gotten up and made their way over to where I was watching. After a brief look-around, pacing back and forth, they found a spot and sat down. The male looked up at me with stunning blue eyes. At the time, I would tell you that you would not know magnificence until you have locked eyes with a tiger. The gaze pierced my soul, an unspeakable power rivalling the greatest of weapons. I looked away I didn’t want the tiger to think I was being aggressive or defiant. He then got back up and patrolled along the outer regions of his keep and his mate followed, away from me. I wondered why the tigers had found me so uninteresting, considering how fascinated I was as well. I had begun to realize that I was just another visitor until I then saw the male turn tail and trot over to my location once again. His pace was slow, but determined. Upon getting within about eight feet from me, looking into my eyes once again, he let out a sound. This sound, the quietest of tiger calls was the 'prusten' or 'chuffing' I come to know from Martel’s “Life of Pi” and audio clips online. This statement from the tiger was quiet, but it echoes in my heart to this day. As I revealed before, prusten is used to convey harmless intentions or friendliness. I was almost bowled over with emotion. I was on speaking terms with the tiger! The call was repeated and erased any doubt of its nature. I returned the gesture and the tiger laid back down and rolled over, looking up at me upside down with those blue eyes. It seemed as though he was being rather playful. I was blown away.

I stayed with the tigers for the entire day, watching their behaviour and experiencing chuffing once more. By the end of the day both tigers had honoured me with prusten and I was walking on air. However, it was not the end. I returned to the zoo for the next 3 days finding that the tigers had seemed to remember me - they followed me if I walked to another location, waiting if I were approaching. From what I saw, no other guest experienced this behaviour. I knew from then on that it was something special. Those white tigers (which are not a separate subspecies) were Bengal, but I have also received chuffs from Siberian tigers at Jungle Cat World (many, many chuffs) and even a Sumatran tiger at the Toronto Zoo.

I felt I had experienced something truly special...for me at least. I felt touched by something extraordinary...too incredible to comprehend. All the images, information, video, stories and sounds I knew of the tiger become real. I recalled what was happening to tigers and the war that they were losing. I recalled the cornered tigress dying scared and alone. I recalled the pleading gaze of the caged tiger waiting to be ripped apart. All the sorrow and pain returned. I saw all the zoo visitors walking around, not knowing or not giving a damn about any of these things...about any of the animals. I struggled with the thought of becoming one of those people and letting all that I felt slip away; however, I held on tighter to the things I felt and the things I had learned.

Looking back, the tiger chuffing at me could be interpreted as many things: from a sign of God to a series of electrical impulses in the tiger’s brain in reaction to a stimulus. I saw it as the key which had unlocked my destiny, the caged tiger that had been locked deep within. It was the spark that had set alight my heart, burning with passion. It was a hymn of hope. It was the offering of a choice. In the months afterwards my choice became all the more clear. I had to act.

I had spent all of high-school pursuing the arts and had a specific interest in photography and was never good in science. I entertained the thought of becoming a wildlife photographer and transitioning into conservation, but deep down, I knew that it would never be good enough. Valmik Thapar, perhaps India’s most prevalent tiger conservationist said “the tiger commands a deep involvement from those who pursue it”. I was pursuing the tiger and the tiger didn’t have much time left. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I was going to try...I was committed. I eventually applied to a university which offered environmental sciences and got accepted, but before that, I had fuelled my thirst for action by researching tigers and volunteering with organizations that helped to protect them. I eventually became knowledgeable enough to teach people about tigers and how they could help as well. Just over three years after I met that tiger, I was invited to be a part of the International Tiger Coalition, which has some of the most respected organizations and conservationists out there.

Humans have shown that they have the power to change the world, for better or for worse and with this power they must understand that they have an obligation that surpasses all known responsibilities in order to foster all living things. With this logic, Paola Manfredi states that “the tiger’s right to survive as a species overrides the rights of individual men to extirpate them” and “such preservationism is ethically justifiable under any moral or social code we can think of.” As someone who cares, I feel responsible to act. I feel that I must not only leave this world in a better state than it was in when I got here, but that the tiger’s world is secured indefinitely and long after I die. I am proud to have something I believe in so strongly and that I discovered it so early, but humbled that I still have a long way to go.

Photo by Colin Dunjohn

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 4 - To Chiang Mai

Mood: Inquisitive

I’ve been lagging behind on the journal entries so there will be no shortage of stories to tell once I get time to actually post them, albeit they will be a bit dated.

After visiting the Grand Palace in Bangkok, we drove by Tuk-tuk (three-wheeled motor cars with a small carriage behind the driver) to a massage parlour. I was apprehensive at the thought of having some stranger poke and prod me, but only for a few moments; it dawned on me that I must take advantage of opportunities to try new things and to “leap first and think later” in certain situations. It was a wise decision because the Thai massage was absolutely wonderful. I was so relaxed that I almost fell asleep.

My stay in Bangkok would (unfortunately) be short-lived. That evening, I packed my things and endured heavy traffic to the train station where I would begin a 13-hour overnight trip to the northern region of Thailand and the city of Chiang Mai. It didn’t take long for me to fall asleep on the train as the beds provided were surprisingly comfortable; however, shortly after drifting off a group of Americans boarded nearby and (not helping to shed American tourists’ reputation for being obnoxious) conversed loudly and without restraint. Eventually, the train became silent, save for the clickity-clack of the train wheels and I had a reasonably restful sleep.

I awoke at dawn and spent the last few hours on the train watching the scenery speed by. The human-dominated landscapes contrasted sharply with deep green forests. I saw no wildlife to excite my hope that tigers still roamed the latter; however, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a tiger out there, struggling with a precarious selection of resources upon which it could survive and avoiding the humans which quickly convert what’s left. I casually perused one of the latest “Tiger Conservation Landscape” reports, evaluating just where tigers exist in Thailand – they lack a true stronghold where their long-term persistence can be assured and their occupation is spotty at best, but there is potential. Scientifically, we know what needs to be done, but our understanding of how to address tiger-human dynamics is anything but certain...otherwise the tiger would have been saved already and I wouldn’t even be here.

After pulling into Chiang Mai, I hopped aboard a Song-Tow (a sort of converted pick-up truck with a rear-cabin to hold a group of people) and crossed the city to Chiang Mai University’s International Center Hostel. I took notice that Chiang Mai was slightly cooler than Bangkok and though this might be primarily due to latitudinal variation in temperature, the former had far more vegetation, which has a cooling affect on the local landscape. The city is surrounded by green mountains, which excited my sense of adventure.

Over the next few days, I sampled some of the city sights, aided by a group of kind, English-speaking CMU students. I was pleased to see that there was no shortage of broken english (or "Engrish"), which can be quite amusing. One apartment advertised a "big pipe of Internet!" and after asking about it to one of my Thai friends he happily acknowledged it, saying "Yes...BIG pipe". Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any pipes of internet though, let alone big ones.

I was, however, able to get to know the four other students in the program and gave out business cards detailing what they could do to help stop the illegal trade in endangered species, which I hear has a niche in Chiang Mai’s various markets (more of that later...). It didn't take long for everyone to acknowledge my love for tigers as a defining characteristic of myself and I've become a bit of an archetype, although I have no problem with this. The program coordinators have affectionately called me "Seua" (pronounced in a rising tone as if asking a question) which means "tiger" in Thai.

I also had the opportunity to look at some reports penned by former students of the program, detailing their own experiences with community or NGO work. I was intrigued to read one report by a student who participated in swidden agriculture (whereby the landscape is burned to free up nutrients stored in existing organic matter so they can be accessible to crops planted in the cleared area) in a hill tribe community. I don’t know much about swidden agriculture, though I know how damaging it can be to local ecosystems. In more tropical climates, most of the nutrients in the ecosystem are locked up in organic matter rather than the soil; when this matter is burned, it is released, but not all of it is returned to the soil, which is otherwise quite nutrient poor. Over time, the nutrients endemic to the ecosystem are washed away through erosion and agriculture must eventually switch to a new patch of land. So, in addition to the blatant loss of wildlife and wild habitat destroyed by fire, the loss of nutrients means that recovery of the ecosystem to its natural state may take an unfathomable amount of time. While this practice has been occurring for quite some time, never has it been occurring at such a massive scale, given the increases in human populations. This form of agriculture has become an unfortunate key component in the current mass extinction event we are rendering onto the life of earth; much of swidden agriculture occurs in the tropics where species richness is greatest.

(Feel free to correct me if I got it's been quite some time since I studied ecology)

In the report, the student used elegant wording which effectively romanticized the process of hill tribe agriculture and marvelled at the sight of an entire mountain engulfed in flames. I wonder if the student had stopped to think about the implications of this form of agriculture or if they simply believed it to be acceptable by right of it being commonplace within another culture. I would think that the sight of an entire mountain of forest being set ablaze might raise questions on the environmental implications to most western students, whether or not they particularly care about such implications. However, these environmental implications were never mentioned. Trent University students are quite environmentally conscious so I wondered if there was some other reason for not commenting on the environmental impacts of swidden agriculture.

It would be indeed be arrogant of me to conclude whether the agricultural practices of this specific community were “good” or “bad” because there exists significant lacunae in my understanding of local conditions, both ecological and anthropological. Nevertheless, it caused me to wonder about the interaction of foreign beliefs or understanding with a different set of beliefs and understanding within the realm of “culture”. Applying to the Thailand Year Abroad Program, I was warned time and time again of the pitfalls of judging foreign culture and practices based on my personal beliefs. As a participant of the program, I am meant to learn by being an impartial observer, immersed in a culture I should respect and, therefore, accept. I can understand and appreciate the reasoning for this; however, reading the student’s report, I began to wonder if some students had become so distant from their own ideas, opinions and beliefs that they didn’t allow themselves the opportunity to question what they experienced for fear they could be accused of being culturally intolerant. There is indeed a fine line to walk between cultural insensitivity and upholding a global citizen’s responsibility to make their world a better place through questioning how we, as a species, conduct ourselves; however, I think that is no excuse to avoid walking that line.

Consider the issue of endangered species in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the 1980’s, tiger conservationists discovered that India’s tigers were disappearing from the very parks established to protect them. It was eventually discovered that tigers were being killed and exported to China where their body parts would be used to make medicine under the Traditional Chinese Medicine (or TCM) system. This system of health care is widely accepted in China and has been practiced for thousands of years. More recently, however, the demand for tiger parts increased and the South China subspecies of tiger was virtually wiped out; TCM had turned to other countries to provide tigers and their coveted body parts. Panic spread throughout the conservation community and campaigns began to address this issue. However, those seeking to save the tiger from being eaten into extinction had to tread carefully...with the cause of poaching being linked directly to TCM, the issue might have been interpreted as one culture versus another and an attack on Chinese sovereignty from the west. I am sure those heavily invested in tiger medicines attempted to paint the issue as such, but the conservation community was successful in convincing China to respond. In 1993, trade in tiger parts and derivatives was banned in China and government sponsored ad campaigns warned of the implications of buying medicines with tiger parts. I find it fascinating that tiger conservationists dared to question what was seen as part of another culture and dared to call upon action to change processes which were detrimental to something they valued. I would be lying if I said I knew exactly how they did it, but observing the recent actions of the International Tiger Coalition in response to a lobby in China seeking to dissolve the 1993 ban, I’ve been able to get a sense of how they situation may have been handled. The conservation community has interacted intimately with the TCM community. A forum of mutual respect has been able to give rise to culturally acceptable solutions which involve herbal alternatives to tiger parts and action within the TCM community to remove tiger parts from acceptable ingredients. Many representatives of this community have spoken out against poaching of tigers for their body parts, citing their responsibility not only to their patients, but also to the planet. Moreover, the TCM community does not want to be blamed for the extinction of the tiger.

It is possible that we, as fellow humans, can learn from each other and question what we do for the sake of creating a better future. We should not promote cultural imperialism or an international cultural monoculture nor should we promote apathy. Instead, I think we need to uphold our respect of our inherent potential as a species while maintaining a healthy level of humility, reminding ourselves that we are not perfect...that no person, no group of people and no culture is perfect. We are greatness in the making, shedding the mistakes of generations past, but building upon its triumphs. We still have far to go... we currently cannot seem to coexist sustainably and peacefully with the environment and wildlife even though we rely on the persistence and integrity of the latter for our own survival. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t. Every religion, every country, every culture has, embedded within their value systems, virtues which promote our responsibility to protect and sustain nature as well as ourselves. If we dig deeper and allow ourselves to forgo pride, we can incorporate these virtues and ideas into our own lives, and share our own with others while still maintaining our own independence.

I was incredibly moved by an Indigenous Environmental Studies course I took in my second year at university – the ideas in the course, though centered on the world view of Haudenosaunee culture, was relevant to all cultures. When the Dutch interacted with the Haudenosaunee people, the Haudenosaunee created a wampum belt depicting two horizontal lines upon a background of white. These two lines symbolized a Dutch boat and a Haudenosaunee canoe. The idea was that these boats, representative of two different cultures, were travelling together along the river of life...applied within a larger context, we as a species, travel along the same river together. It is possible that both vessels can navigate close enough to each other that they can exchange tips on how to navigate this river or provide other kinds of aid; however, the boats must not attempt to steer each other nor crowd out other boats. With diversity comes strength for us to navigate this river of life, even when the river becomes difficult to navigate. I think it is a wonderful analogy that one should keep in mind when interacting with different cultures and one I will keep in mind when touring the many wonderful vessels of culture we travel upon.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 3 – A Brief Disclaimer

Mood: Anxious

I would like to apologize in internet activity is anything but consistent at the moment. I'm trying to find a groove to get into, but with the beginning of classes, things are still a tad chaotic. It may take some time for me to reply to any messages you send. Rest assured they are read and they are most certainly appreciated. It is nice to know there are people out there rooting for you, even if you do feel isolated and alone.

I have also cleared up the matter about posting comments. Previously, you had to have an account to post comments on my blog which was the default setting. However, I understand not everyone cares about blogging. I changed the settings to allow anyone to comment...just be sure to identify yourself so I know who is out there.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 2 – Bangkok Bound

Mood: Content

Well, I arrived safely, though the trip to Chiang Mai was a tiring one. I still have not slept in a real bed, but my spirits are high. I love traveling, especially when there is no pressing agenda.

Takeoff from Pearson International in Toronto was...uplifting. I had a permanent smile on my face due in part because of the feeling of soaring into the air at high speeds, but also because it was another one of those “first step” moments. The flight was short and uneventful.

Chicago saw a small level of stress as I had to run around frantically to figure out how to get my plane ticket within a couple of hours. I wasn’t taking American Airlines, but Japan Air (Sugoi!) My seat was situated at the top deck of the plane and after ticket-holders got settled, I was able to move to spot with ample leg-room, a window seat and a whole row to myself. Unfortunately, I couldn’t lie down and I never got any sleep on that 12+ hour flight. I did, however, get to see a number of cool things out my window.

The flight route took us into Manitoba, Northern Saskatchewan, up to Alaska and down the Bering Sea and Northern Pacific to Tokyo. I took solace seeing many of the pristine areas down below – there was nature, seemingly free of human influence (besides climate change, airborne pollutants and the occasional sound of an aircraft jet). I even saw glaciers and mountains...for the first time in my life! Down there was wilderness where wildlife could function and persist in an environment all their own...harsh, but full of life. I find it disappointing that such a concept seems incomprehensible for the majority of humans – something only has value when it is relevant to people and a world without people is godless, empty, irrelevant and dead. I see life in more than just humans and I find such places to be sublime for their own intrinsic worth.

My day would eventually last about 30 hours after less than 3 hours of sleep. As time wore on, I began to get extremely tired, though it was nothing I wasn’t used to at school and during the flight from Tokyo to Bangkok the kind Japanese waitresses happily bombarded me with smiles and caffeine. Spirits were high throughout the journey as everything was fresh and new. I even got to watch the new Indiana Jones movie on the plane (which was quite enjoyable). I also found myself watching the in-flight maps and seeing just how close I was getting to places with actual wild tigers! I wondered if there was a tiger somewhere on the prowl below while we were passing over Vietnam and Cambodia.

I would to first like to admit that I am a sufferer of “warm-fuzzy-feeling syndrome”. This condition usually arises when I am around tigers, looking at photos of tigers, feeling strong emotions about tigers etc. Symptoms include a feeling as if your heart is on fire, but engulfed in a pleasant, tingly warmth rather than pain. If you think this is weird, you are not alone: I think it is weird as well. I’m not sure what it is, but it is absolutely is another one of those “things” that make up the connection between me and tigers which others seem not to care for or understand. These symptoms began to manifest as we got close to landing in Thailand and eventually reached an apex when the plane was touching down. I’m sure it had something to do with finally being in “tigerland” and although I was in a city, I knew that this was a place where tigers had once roamed, a place I had not yet been in this life.

I finally arrived.

I exited the plane at a fast walking pace, fuelled by the warm and fuzzies in addition to the last cup of coffee. I knew I wasn’t going to run around in the jungle quite yet, though I was still anxious to get going. I was happy to see posters at customs warning visitors about the illegal wildlife trade and though they could have been more visible, I was calmed by their presence: there are many hard working conservationists in Thailand after all. My sense of urgency diminished and soundly silenced after claiming my luggage and I was able to enjoy the rainy sights of night-time Bangkok from the taxi taking me to the hostel.

I awoke after a deep, restful sleep to a muggy morning. The Thailand Year Abroad coordinators eventually gave us a tour of the city, which included a boat ride down one of Bangkok’s canals and a visit to the famed Grand Palace. I was awed by the incredible detail in the palace architecture, though I was mildly disappointed that tigers didn’t feature more. I was able to visit the much respected Emerald Buddha which was housed in a Sistine-Chapelesque golden building where the air was full to bursting with reverence. I found myself thinking about the story of the Buddha and the tigress: one of Buddha’s incarnations saw him a young wealthy price, but after coming across a starving tigress with cubs, he decided to offer his own flesh to her in a gesture of ultimate sacrifice and selflessness. The spot where the noble act occurred is marked with a temple called the Namobuddha in the mountains of Nepal where tigers still persist, perhaps due to the ultimate love of Buddhism for all creatures. The story is inspiring for someone like me and though I seek to do help tigers more in life, I am not afraid of personal suffering or death for this greater good. After all, as conservationist Eric Dinerstein said in his “Tigerland” book, “Every endangered species least one valiant person determined to turn the tide, at whatever personal cost”.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 1: Adventure's Advent

Mood: Optimistic

Where do I begin?

First of all, welcome to my humble blog. If you are reading this, you probably already know who I am. If you don't, I will fill you in: I am a young man who's self-assigned life mission is to not only prevent the tiger from going extinct, but to secure a long term future for the species! I have set up this blog in order to chronicle my new adventure in Thailand both for those who are interested, but also for myself. Be sure to check back often. Perhaps we can all learn something amidst my ramblings.


There a few days are left before I depart on the biggest adventure of my life – to Thailand. I have been anticipating such an opportunity to set foot in a tiger range country ever since I realized I wanted to help save the world (for tigers anyway). I remember all the nights I sat awake, feeling a million miles away in a country where wild tigers never roamed. I felt held captive by inexperience, inadequacy and insufficient funds. Going on an adventure to save tigers didn’t seem like it would happen until much later in life...yet here I am.

The events leading up to my departure to Thailand seem too serendipitous and fateful to be true, something more befitting of an adventure novel. I never figured myself to be one of those “smug” or “rich” students who could study abroad, though that is not to say I didn’t want the opportunity. No, my desire was always hamstrung by the fact that I couldn’t afford it; at least that is what the school pamphlets always told me. Going to university allowed me the freedom to explore new opportunities for learning and as I grew I became more inclined to investigate such opportunities even if my initial feelings were such investigations would prove fruitless wastes of time. After reading a speech WWF-Canada President Emeritus Monte Hummel delivered to York University students in my first year, I was able to firmly appreciate the importance of practical learning experiences. The well respected conservationist announced that he would rather hire a student with actual experience and average marks over the bookworm who gets fantastic marks, but has never laced up a pair of hiking boots. I took those words quite seriously, imagining myself in a future job interview at a conservation organization like World Wildlife Fund. In this first year at university, I solidified a search image for any opportunity that might allow me to get such valuable experience that would be attractive to conservation organizations. After seeing advertisements for a study abroad fair on campus, I decided to take a look. I shuffled with mild interest from display to display, encouraged by opportunity, but with enthusiasm suppressed by doubt. I stopped at the booth for Thailand with an older individual standing alone in front of a giant map of the country. As for who started the conversation, I cannot recall; however, I do remember asking about whether Trent students who had traveled to Thailand had ever found themselves doing work for conservation. The old man chimed in happily that there had been cases where students did field work with World Wildlife Fund. My ears perked – mild interest gave way to a very cautious curiosity. I eventually learned that, due to the low costs of living in Thailand, students could essentially pay the same amount of money as if they were studying in Canada. I then was enlightened that, despite this being an Indigenous Studies program, I could actually earn credits towards my Environmental and Resource Studies degree. My Berlin Wall of apprehension and doubt was being chipped away bit by bit, but hearing such fantastic news was tantamount to trading hammers for bulldozers. I could actually get involved in conservation and study at the same time without having to be a rich. I was able to pursue the program with full-throttle enthusiasm, doubts reduced to dust. I began telling people I was going to Thailand only months into my first year, despite me not actually being accepted into the program until the final weeks of my second year. Everything had I ever wished for was taking form – I felt a strong sense of destiny associated with the program and the opportunities it had to offer. I harboured a quiet ferocity and tenacity that told me this was something I could not be denied and would fight tooth and claw to ensure it became reality. I was was just a matter of time.

A summer of waiting has come to pass; months have turned to weeks and weeks into days. My excitement is growing, fuelled by the feeling that my career as a conservationist is truly beginning and the anticipation of adventure. It would be inappropriate to simply focus on this 8-month journey as a means to help tigers. Though it is well established that my life’s mission is the prime reason I decided to participate, I can appreciate that my stay in a foreign country, immersed in a foreign culture will inevitably offer profound lessons. I expect it to be a humbling experience – often the most important lessons are learned through hardship and by no means will this be a vacation. I am prepared to work hard and face adversity if it arises. I feel I owe it to myself and, ultimately, the species I have dedicated my life to serving. I’ll be a better person by the end.

An often quoted, perhaps cliched Chinese proverb declares, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". Well, my friends, this is my running start.