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Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2000

Requiem for Asia's resplendent tiger

Special to The Japan Times
TIGERS IN THE SNOW, by Peter Matthiessen, with introduction and photographs by Dr. Maurice Hornocker. North Point Press, 154 pp., $25.

The tiger is one of nature's most provocative metaphors for power, independence, grace and spirit, but a world consumed with symbols is hardly noticing as the animal sinks slowly toward oblivion.

Now one of the most intuitive nature writers of our time, Peter Matthiessen, lends his poet's voice to the desperate effort to save the tiger in "Tigers in the Snow."

He makes an eloquent case for enlightened coexistence between humans and tigers, starting in a remote corner of Siberia where the species has staked its last best hope for survival. Their impending extinction, he argues, would not only damage the world's ecology, but also our collective imagination.

"Tigers in the Snow" is more analytical and less lyrical (and far less introspective) than "The Snow Leopard." Matthiessen's fans will find "Tigers" comparable to his 1992 book, "African Silences," a sobering account of the catastrophic depredation of the African landscape and its wildlife, particularly elephants.

Indeed, as with many ecological calamities-in-the-making, the causes of the Asian tiger's decline -- hunting, reduction of food supply, man's encroachment and government policies (or lack of them) -- tragically resemble the African elephant's deterioration. But there's one elephantine difference: Elephas has been well studied, while Panthera tigri has not.

And so, Matthiessen postulates, the world might lose the wild tiger forever before we even know it intimately. For example, many Americans still believe the tiger inhabits Africa, even though no trace of the animal has ever been found outside of Asia. "In arguing for heroic efforts on behalf of tigers, one could cite the critical importance of biodiversity as well as the interdependence of all life," Matthiessen concludes, "but finally these abstractions seem less vital than . . . the aura of a creature as splendid as any on our earth, infusing man's life with myth and power and beauty . . ." And the myths run deep.

In Java, hunters believe they must keep their nose hairs closely trimmed lest the keenly alert tiger hear the whistle of air through their nostrils; in Indonesia, Muslims are taught that Allah empowered the tiger to protect the faithful . . . and presumably to eat anyone who transgresses Islamic law. But man's predilection for mythology can hurt as much as help: Asian faith in the medicinal qualities of every body part of the totemic tiger, down to its penis, has been a huge factor in its decline.

Matthiessen also laments a different loss related to the tiger, a human loss among people who are the least powerful to combat it, but who might spearhead a front-line backlash against tiger conservation.

"What seems most unjust is that the penalty for saving tigers -- as I think we must -- falls entirely upon the rural poor, who must live with them for better or worse, with all the drawbacks and dangers, and few or none of the rewards," he writes.

Matthiessen invokes the ghost of primatologist Dian Fossey, who believed local Africans were the mountain gorilla's greatest enemy and was hacked to death in 1985 by local poachers, although more as an object lesson for future conservation efforts than as a celebration of scientific arrogance. For him, Fossey's fate preceded the "welcome change" among conservation biologists and environmentalists to seek more participation -- not less -- from local villagers, who should reap the first benefits of saving the tiger.

But while he makes an eloquent case for coexistence, Matthiessen's scales remain tipped in favor of the tiger, and for good reason: One hundred years ago, biologists believe 100,000 tigers survived, even though they were under tremendous hunting pressure. Since then, it's only gotten worse, with estimates ranging from a realistic 4,600 to a politically inflated 7,700, and all scattered in small, disconnected groups throughout Asia.

Either way, the tiger enters this new millennium facing an abyss. Maurice Hornocker is director of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute at the University of Idaho, and a founder of the Siberian Tiger Project. Most of his photographs in this graceful book were taken over the past 10 years at a 2-hectare preserve in a remote area some 200 km north of Vladivostok; the Siberian tiger, it turns out, is extremely camera-shy and only a few photos of them in the wild exist -- most of them dead.

An American newspaperman and novelist, Ron Franscell is the author of "Angel Fire," recently voted by San Francisco Chronicle readers among the Best 100 Fiction Works of the 20th Century West.

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