The Object at Hand | Science | Smithsonian
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The Object at Hand

The story behind the Smithsonian's display tiger leads back into tiger history, man-eating and otherwise, and sadly, back to the fact that tigers are now endangered

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Its "fearful symmetry" arrested in mid-air, a Royal Bengal tiger, 11 feet 1 inch long, hurtles at unseen prey in the World of Mammals Hall in the National Museum of Natural History. As it happens, this object at hand was almost certainly a man-eater until put out of business in 1967 by big-game hunter David Hasinger, a Philadelphia industrialist.

As famed hunter Jim Corbett once claimed, it is "alien" to tiger nature to eat humans. According to Corbett, a tiger will do so only if it feels "compelled, through stress of circumstances beyond its control, to adopt [such] a diet." Whether or not the Smithsonian's tiger conformed to the outlaw profile as a wounded, snaggle-toothed, landless, aged cat that in better days would have been a "large-hearted gentleman," as Corbett maintained most tigers are, is unknown. But one thing is certain: this 857-pound tiger was not hungry when Hasinger dispatched him. Earlier that day the Bengal had dragged off a buffalo calf and the 80-pound rock to which it was tethered, leaving footprints "as large as dinner plates."

Hailing as he did from the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, the Smithson-ian's tiger nevertheless could have been the great-great-grandson of the Champawat man-eater, a tigress encountered by Corbett in the early 1900s that had just made her 436th known kill — a 16-year-old girl out gathering wood. Corbett trailed the tigress through thickets of blackthorn that held "long strands of the girl's raven-black hair." Near a small pool, he came across what proved to be part of a human leg. "In all the subsequent years I have hunted man-eaters," Corbett wrote, "I have not seen anything as pitiful as that young comely leg-bitten off a little below the knee as clean as though severed by the stroke of an ax." While looking at the leg, Corbett forgot about tracking the tigress until, as he said, "I suddenly felt I was in great danger . . . and saw a little earth from the fifteen-foot bank in front of me, come rolling down the steep side and plop into the pool. . . ."

After Corbett shot the bandit tigress, he found that the upper and lower canine teeth on the right side of her mouth were broken-the upper one in half, the lower one right down to the bone. This permanent injury, Corbett claimed, "had prevented her from killing her natural prey, and had been the cause of her becoming a man-eater."

After David Hasinger presented his man-eating tiger to the Smithsonian in 1969, it was displayed at the Constitution Avenue entrance of the Museum of Natural History with an axis deer fleeing before it. In 1976 new exhibits were moved into the entrance hallway, and it was decided that if the deer "got away," the solo tiger could fit into a smaller space by the museum gift shop. Besides, at the time there was also growing concern that showing a tiger chasing a deer might be a bad idea. As one museum functionary put it, "Children would [see it], and from that moment hate the thought of a tiger because it kills nice little deer."

By then tigers were already in considerable trouble, and things have become steadily worse. (The worldwide tiger population at the turn of the century was an estimated 100,000; today the number hovers at about 5,000.) Tigers once ranged from Siberia and the Caspian Sea south through India, China and Southeast Asia to the Sunda islands of Java, Bali and Sumatra. Of the eight subspecies, three are now extinct. By the early 1970s in India alone, the tiger population — 40,000 at the turn of the century — was down to less than 2,000. That statistic spurred Operation Tiger, a public-awareness campaign, in 1973.

Gone are the tiger-filled days when Corbett, as a small boy wandering the jungles of Nepal in the 1880s, peeped over a plum bush that heaved as a tiger walked out on the far side. The cat, Corbett recalled, looked at him with "an expression on its face which said 'Hello kid, what the hell are you doing here?'" Then it turned around and walked away without looking back.

Experts have little trouble rounding up the usual suspects — overhunting, deforestation, conversion to cultivation, expansion of human population, loss of prey, poaching for pelts, and the Asian medicine trade. The skin trade has fallen off a bit lately, but the hunger for tiger parts —including whiskers for use in love potions —remains relentless.

No tiger, not even the Smithsonian's, is safe. Taxidermist Frank Greenwell, who is charged with the Bengal's upkeep, reports that he is continually replacing the big cat's "whiskers," which keep being filched by wayward tourists. "Unfortunately," he says, "the original whiskers were replaced with fiberglass broomstraws —an unlikely aphrodisiac."

Tigers and humans have always crossed paths, but most zoologists agree that the big cats, for the most part, are not inherently man-eaters. "Walking in a normal upright posture," says zoologist John Seidensticker, "a person does not represent the 'right' form for prey." It's more likely that tigers regard humans as competitors. Says Seidensticker: "Since far back in history, Man has lived with tigers, sometimes competing with them directly for food. Men killed tigers, tigers killed men."

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