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.
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.
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 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.
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.