A farmer's love of a tiger leaves him on the run

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2003, 12:00am

Successful small-town farmer Zaitun Arshad chomps cigars and drives around in an open four-wheel drive with a young and leggy 'Charlie' beside him.

His companion is 1.5 metres long, one metre high and weighs about 100kg - a fully grown female tiger. The inseparable pair have been a common sight for several months in Bukit Selambau, a small town in Kedah state bordering the Malaysian-Thai border. But they went missing on Monday and a search for them is under way.

Residents were at first pleasantly surprised and amused when the 50-year-old farmer appeared with a young tiger riding in his Jeep.

They played with the tiger, fed it chickens and competed to name it, finally settling on Charlie, as in Charlie's Angels, the popular television series.

But the bigger Charlie grew, the more worried villagers became, especially when their children crowded around. Local officials said villagers were reminded of several highly publicised cases of displaced tigers attacking and killing farmers.

It was inevitable that worried parents would call the police, but instead they first tipped off the New Straits Times, the country's oldest English language daily.

The newspaper was only too happy to run the story on the front page in its Sunday edition, alongside a photo of Charlie sitting behind the farmer's four-wheel drive in the middle of town.

The rest of the media headed for his house the next day, along with police and Wildlife Department officers. All they found was an empty house and empty cage.

Police believe the pair might have walked into the jungle across the Thai border and are lying low for a while.

Red-faced wildlife officers, who have been criticised for not protecting tigers, say the farmer faces a five-year jail term and a 15,000 ringgit (HK$30,800) fine for keeping the tiger, a protected species.

'We have widened our manhunt and are confident of getting them if they have not crossed the border,' officer Azmi Johor said.

Officials believe the farmer could have trapped Charlie or bought her about 18 months ago. Either way, he is in trouble.

'We wish residents had tipped us off first,' Mr Azmi said.

The Wildlife Department, which has obtained a court order to seize Charlie, is likely to hand her to the zoo.

Displaced tigers are not released back into the wild because of the severe loss of forest habitat.

Charlie's partner has said he loves tigers because they symbolise power and success, the very reason why Asian tigers are losing the fight for survival to poachers and makers of traditional medicine. The tiger is a national symbol and only about 500 are alive in the wild compared with about 5,000 in the 1960s.