confronting a tiger -- 3/13/19

Today's selection -- from No Beast So Fierce by Dane Huckelbridge. Having recently been within 10 unimpeded feet of a huge tiger in India's Ranthambore National Park, I am glad I had not read this book in advance:

"'The normal tiger,' writes Charles McDougal, a naturalist and tiger expert who spent much of his life studying the big cats in Nepal, 'exhibits a deep-rooted aversion to man, with whom he avoids contact.' This is a fact corroborated time and time again by biologists, park rangers, and hunters alike, all of whom can attest firsthand to just how shy and elusive wild tigers actually are. One can spend a lifetime in tiger country without ever laying eyes upon an actual tiger, with the occasional pugmark or ungulate skull the only hint at their phantomlike presence. Even for modern-day Tharu who live alongside reserves with dense predator populations, it's fairly uncommon to see a tiger. Sanjaya, who served as my host and guide in Chitwan while I was conducting research for this book, grew up fishing and foraging in local forests, and in all those years, he had spied a tiger just once. No, the normal tiger has little interest in our kind, and even less in challenging us to a fight. With hunting, mating, and fending off territorial rivals taking up most of its time, the normal tiger has more important things to worry about; we barely rate a passing glance. We are a nuisance to be avoided, and nothing more.

"However, for the abnormal tiger -- that is to say, the tiger that has shed for whatever reason its deep-seated aversion to all upright apes -- there are essentially two ways it will kill a member of our species.

"The first category of attack is a defense mechanism, a means of protection, and it is employed only when a tiger sees a human as a threat to its safety or that of its cubs. When a mother tiger is sur­prised in a forest, or when a wounded tiger is cornered by a hunter, its instincts for self-preservation kick in and the claws come out. This tiger will often roar, come bounding in a series of terrifyingly fast leaps, and commence bearing its human target head-on with its front paws, with enough power in most cases to smash the skull after the first strike or two. And from there, it only gets worse­ according to Russian tiger specialist Nikolai Baikov, once the of­fending human is on the forest floor, 'the tiger digs its claws as deeply as possible into the head or body, trying to rip off the cloth­ing. It can open up the spine or the chest with a single whack.' This is strictly a combative behavior, the inverse of predation (although defensive attacks do sometimes result in consumption as well). It manifests itself when the tiger senses imminent danger, and for that reason, calls upon its considerable resources to save its own skin­ figuratively, and, given the price a tiger pelt can fetch on most black markets, literally as well.

Siberian tiger, the largest tiger in captivity.

"And the results of this behavior, as the rare individual who is both unfortunate enough to encounter it yet still fortunate enough to survive it can tell you, are understandably horrific. There exists a video -- and a quick Internet search will readily reveal it -- of one such attack that occurred in Kaziranga National Park in northeast­ern India in 2004. Filmed from atop an elephant, it shows a group of park rangers tracking a problem tiger that had roamed beyond the boundaries of the reserve and begun killing cattle -- almost certainly as a result of diminished habitat and limited natural prey. Armed with tranquilizer guns, their intent was not to harm the tiger, but rather to capture it before angry farmers did, and return it safely to its home in the park. But alas, the four-hundred-pound cat was not privy to this plan. Although grainy, and shot with an unsteady hand, the film makes the terrific competence with which a tiger can protect itself abundantly clear. With astounding speed and athleticism, the roaring tiger materializes from the high grass as if out of nowhere, leaps over the elephant's head with claws at the ready, and with merely a single glancing blow, manages to shred the poor elephant driver's left hand to bloody ribbons before mak­ing its getaway. And this happened to a group of heavily armed men mounted on towering pachyderms -- one can imagine what such a tiger could have done to a single individual alone in the forest. They would have been dead before they had time to squeeze off a shot, a fact supported by one lethal Amur tiger attack re­corded in 1994 in the Russian Far East -- the local hunter's gun was found still cocked and unfired, right beside his mittens, while his ravaged remains were discovered in a stand of spruce trees one hundred feet away.

"There is, however, a second means of attack that the tiger employs when it regards something not as a threat, but as a potential food source -- one that relies less on claws than it does upon teeth. Specifically, a set of three-to four-inch canine teeth, the largest of any living felid (yes, saber-toothed tigers are excluded), designed to sever spinal cords, lacerate tracheas, and bore holes in skulls that go straight to the brain. And it makes sense a tiger would have such sizable canines given their usual choice of prey: large-bodied ungulates like water buffalo, deer, and wild boar. Two of the Ben­gal tiger's preferred prey species -- the sambar deer and the gaur bison -- can weigh as much as a thousand pounds and three thou­sand pounds, respectively, which gives some idea of why the tiger's oversized set of fangs are so crucial to its survival. They are the most important tools at its disposal for bringing down some of the most powerful horned animals in the world. To crush the muscle­bound throat of a one-ton wild forest buffalo is no easy task, but it is one for which the tiger is purpose-made."



Dane Huckelbridge


No Beast So Fierce


William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers


Copyright 1995 by Dava Sobel


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