Powerful elegy for a predator

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 May, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 May, 1996, 12:00am

What makes Of Tigers And Men different from other environmental books is that it is singularly lacking in hope. Here is an eco-book for realists, one which does not deal in political correctness or romantic cant.

The facts are brutally simple: the series of developments that will lead to the tiger's extinction in the wild, probably by the year 2010, have begun. In all likelihood, the last tiger to wander the Earth has already been born.

Ives, and the many characters he talks to on his travels, are sure of this much. The planet is in deep trouble and the tiger is about to become another symptom. It is too late to start attaching blame. Our best hope that we can find a solution, but the chances are remote.

Ives, a naturalist and safari tour guide, puts forward the idea of international parks, as opposed to national parks.

But it's a howl in the wind. Tigers will not even be allowed the dignity of dying on their own terms; more and more will end their days in circuses, or as novelty attractions in Chinese nightclubs.

The seeds for the tiger's destruction were sown, according to a wealthy Indian businessman whose obsession with the tiger springs from a harrowing incident in his youth, almost from the very beginning.

At the precise prehistoric moment that the tiger was beginning its radiation outward from China, another predator was rapidly evolving - a predator that would increasingly come into relentless conflict with it. That predator was, of course, Man.

Man is still in conflict with the tiger. It has never been otherwise and it would take a fool to think so.

Around Dudhwa national park in India, where another of the many great characters in this book, 'Billy' Arjan Singh, is fighting a losing battle to save these magnificent creatures, human and domestic animal populations have grown so much that forests have been cut down to make room for them.

Dudhwa is an isolated haven surrounded by land-hungry farmers who view its uncultivated spaces with envy.

How long will the Indian government be able to go on telling these farmers that they and their families must go hungry, in order that the tiger be saved? India was once seen as the tiger's only hope, but now even that hope has faded to naught.

Ives asks Billy what the tiger's prospects are. 'I do not believe there are any prospects.' Billy is defeated. His life's work is about to come to nothing.

Elsewhere, the outlook is just as bleak. Since 1990, nearly half the surviving tigers in Siberia have been slaughtered so their body parts can be used in Chinese medicine. A compelling fund of evidence now suggests that most of the tigers killed in the wilds of Asia eventually end up in Chinese hands.

Blame usually falls at the feet of the Chinese, and so it should. But no one is free of guilt.

Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, openly supported by corporations and financial institutions in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Europe and the United States, continue their genocidal war against the tiger's habitat.

The green lobby, for too long too simplistic in its attitude towards preservation, can no longer point the finger at one country, or one government. Asian forests are vanishing, but only because consumers in Europe and America demand that it be so.

This is a book of great beauty, but a depressing one, devoid of platitudes. Ives comes down from the moral high ground usually staked out by environmentalists and deals with the problem with a passionate, but sober mind.

It is, he seems to be saying, too late for the usual weary invocations of hatred towards anyone who has killed a tiger. (Billy Singh, in fact, was once a tiger hunter, famed throughout India for his bravery). The best we can hope for is some dramatic, indeed miraculous, reversal of attitude on our behalf.

This is also unlikely. Ives' proposed international parks, paid for entirely by the wealthier nations, would be the focus of pride, he argues. He fails entirely to take into account the real problem: that the world, specifically its governments, do not care.

Corruption in India is another nail in the tiger's coffin. And while Bill Clinton might pay lip service to the environment, tigers will not win him another four years in the White House.

The tragedy of Of Tigers And Men is that it should have been an optimistic tribute to the tiger and its future.

Instead it is an eloquent, impassioned funeral rite. Ives takes us on a trek beyond illusion, leaving us haunted and deeply troubled. There is no other conclusion: in 15 years, the tiger will be gone.

TIGERS AND MEN: Entering The Age Of Extinction Richard Ives, Doubleday $250