Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Rajasthan - Tyger Tyger, burning bright

As I've been learning about Rajasthan, I've come across Ranthambore National Park, famous as a tiger sanctuary, in the east of the state.  The tiger is India's national animal and, although we usually think of the Bengal tiger and eastern India, there are still tigers in Rajasthan, probably the most western part of Asia that tigers have managed to survive in.

The plight of tiger populations is so typical of mismanagement and overhunting by humans.  Voted the world's most popular animal, tigers could once be found as far away as the Caspian Sea, Turkey and the Central Asian republics like Uzbekistan.  I remember the very striking image of two tigers on the Registan in Samarkand, unusual in Islamic art for its depiction of animals.  Nowadays all species of tiger are endangered, most of them can be found in India, South East Asia, Sumatra and Siberia. 

One thing the British and the ruling Rajputs of Rajasthan had in common was their love of hunting.  For the Indian tiger, this was an unfortunate alliance of (human) predators.  It was quite common in the 19th century for British officials and Rajasthani princes to go on hunting expeditions together, as a kind of 'bonding' experience.  Many a British stately home and Rajasthani palace is bedecked with the heads of animals killed for sport. 

Young, healthy tigers are not usually a threat to human populations, nevertheless the tiger has a reputation as a fierce animal and kills more humans every year that the other 'big cats'.  Mythologised as wise and powerful kings, tigers are an important part of Eastern mythology.  The Chinese symbol for King looks a lot like the typical markings a tiger has on its forehead.  This is the year of the Tiger, according to the Chinese Astrology.  Durga, a manifestation of the female Hindu goddess Devi-Parvati, rode to battle on the back of a tiger.  Whether it's Kipling's Shere Khan, innuendos about sexual prowress or Frostie's Tony the Tiger, they have entered Western culture and mythology, just as much as in the East.  The title of this blog is taken from William Blake's Songs of Experience and exists in stark contrast to his Lamb, in the Songs of Innocence.

I learned that, unlike other felines, tigers can swim and have been known to pursue its prey across rivers and lakes.  12,000 tigers are kept as pets in the United States.  A group of tigers can be called a streak or an ambush.  In Tibet, tiger pelts were used in traditional Buddhist ceremonies, until the Dalai Lama spoke out against the practice in 2006. 

Like a lot of animals, birds and insects, tigers have 'eyespots', or light circles in their fur that look like eyes.  Most animals/birds/insects use these as a distraction, to keep predators from biting their more vulnerable areas!  Tigers' eyespots are believed to reflect their mood - as solitary animals, when two tigers meet each other (especially males or male/female), identifying which one is more powerful becomes a matter of urgency.  The peacock, which is the national bird of India, is probably the most famous example of a bird using eyespots - this time for mating rituals. 

There are plans to introduce tigers to Africa for the first time ever.  Certain tiger body parts are desperately sought after for the Chinese medicinal market.  The decline of the tiger population in the south of China is so bad that the Chinese government want to use South African conservation expertise to re-introduce tame tigers to a wild environment.  I guess the plan is to recapture them and release them back into the wild in China, but how that's going to work, I can't begin to imagine.

The situation is, of course, incredibly serious and there are many organisations involved in the preservation of tiger populations.  One of them is 21st Century Tiger and, if you're interested in finding out more, their website has a lot of information about a possible future of these amazing creatures. 


A lot of the information I gathered on tigers was taken from Wikipedia, as usual, it's one of the best resources around.

The image of Durga on the back of the tiger is from Wikimedia Commons and is copyright free. 

The amazing photo of the tiger is from flickruser Durotriges, who is an amateur photographer and flickr enthusiast from Weymouth in Dorset. You can see more of his photos and find out how to order prints at his flickr photostream http://www.flickr.com/photos/durotriges/
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