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22 august 2011

Susie Green's Tiger is both one of the more rhapsodic of the Reaktion Animal series, and one of the most accusatory. Green finds the tiger a source of poetry, and an occasion to indict human exploitation of big predators.

Like lions, tigers reside at the top of their local food chains. To dominate them is to dominate Nature itself. Humans have been emblematizing their mastery over nature by killing tigers for many centuries. But Green almost praises the 16th- and 17th-century Mughal emperors of India for their sustainable domineering and their sense of fair play.

Although the Mughals kept hunting records, and like many other peoples, enjoyed animal contests, they were far more interested in accruing the kudos that came from real courage than tallies. The emperor Jahangir killed only 86 tigers and lions in 48 years of hunting. Bottom-of-the-run servants of the Raj would shoot nine in a day, in perfect safety, for fun. (75-76)
That last sentence identifies the tiger's greatest enemy, according to Green: British rule in India. British overlords, their client kings, and the staffs of retainers that displayed the power of the Raj loved to hunt tigers. For the British, to kill a tiger was to kill India itself; for the maharajahs who took up Western-style assembly-line killing, the tiger hunt was a chance to borrow the power asserted by the British.

Similar fates, of course, met lions in Africa and bears in North America. But for Green, the tiger carries a separate package of meanings that make mass tiger killings even more sinister. Unlike the family-values lion or the sleepy bear, the tiger is a sexy thing.

Tigers may make love for five days and at the height of their passion copulate as frequently as 50 times in a day, the female rubbing herself seductively along her mate's flank or nuzzling his neck to arouse him. (33)
Humans have long borrowed tiger sexuality. They've used it physically in dubious attempts to anticipate Viagra. (In Sanskrit, Vyaghra means "tiger" mere coincidence, says the drug's maker [49-50].) The trade in tiger skins and body parts continues to this day, the demand now fed mainly by farm-raised tigers. But poaching continues as well; if the supply of wild tigers has crashed, it only means that the price has risen accordingly and made the risks worthwhile for the poachers.

But humans have also tapped into tigers' sexiness for more symbolic purposes. Green prints, on facing pages, Salvador Dali's supremely erotic Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate before Awakening and a supremely kitschy image of Jayne Mansfield sprawling on a tiger rug. Though I suppose the second image was not purely symbolic for the poor tiger who ended up providing material for the rug.

Louis MacNeice said of the Depression-era spivvy rich that "Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison." Flaunting dead tigers is an unspeakable practice. But living with live tigers has its drawbacks, too. Another of Tiger's remarkable images shows Tippi Hedren at her animal-sanctuary home Shambala, wiping a dish with a tea-towel as she looks up in mock amazement at a ginormous tiger popping in through the kitchen window much as little Whiskers might walk through your pet door. Both Hedren and the Las Vegas staples Siegfried and Roy made much of their ability to live in peaceable control of the great cats, and all paid the price in bodily trauma.

Ironically, tigers who live truly in the wild seem one of the more harmless of jungle animals toward man. People aren't big enough to feed them for very long, for one thing, and tigers are naturally solitary, wary, and sensible in their approach to prey. Or so says Green. She knows tigers and those who know them well, having spent much time in tiger-conservation efforts in India. But she may be among the last to know much, even second-hand, about wild tigers.

Green, Susie. Tiger. London: Reaktion, 2006.