The Object at Hand

The story behind the Smithsonian’s display tiger leads back into tiger history, man-eating and otherwise, and back to the fact that tigers are 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."

It is not that humans and tigers cannot coexist. On the Indian subcontinent a century or so ago, tigers prospered on huge belts of wilderness interspersed with human settlements. The villagers' own habitat —cleared land for grazing their animals, thick forests for gathering firewood —enhanced the habitat for tiger prey such as deer and wild pigs. It wasn't until demographic pressures began to strain the equation in the waning decades of the past century that the eating of humans increased.

It has been estimated that tigers have killed a million Asians in the past 400 years, an average of 2,500 per year. Considering how available and vulnerable people are, Seidensticker adds, "it is puzzling why tigers didn't kill more than they did."

Historically, whenever man-eaters became a problem, native people found ways to get along with the tigers, using a mix of discretion, decorum, ceremony and mother wit. In the hill tribes of Vietnam, if a man-eater snatched only women, as sometimes happened, the offending tiger was seen as the soul of a deceived husband, a considerable encouragement to marital fidelity. Even to this day some tribes never mention a tiger by name for fear of attracting its attention.

It is only in the Sunderbans, the great mangrove swamp that straddles the India-Bangladesh border, that tigers seem to regularly stalk humans —usually woodcutters, fishermen and honey gatherers who have crept into this sparsely populated 4,000 square miles of wild preserve for a little poaching. Rough estimates suggest that around 300 people are killed each year. But as one Indian tiger expert calculated, if people were the major food item for Sunderbans tigers, some 24,000 would be killed annually.

It's not too surprising that when Indian maharajahs and British sportsmen in search of trophies went to war with the tiger during the past century, they were able to "bag" the enormous numbers they did. They rode elephants and had swarms of beaters to drive the tigers into the open. The Maharajah of Surguja set an all-time record of 1,100 kills, just edging out the Maharajah of Udai-pur's 1,000 for the same period. Both the Maharajah of Rewa and the Maharajah of Gauripur notched in at 500 each. The only British sportsman to come close, George Yule, a British civil servant, stopped counting at 400. Other English scores seem almost measly in comparison: the next highest belonged to a Colonel Nightingale, who did in about 300. With a little help from the following account of "an enthusiastic though rather inexperienced sportsman" in the Calcutta Englishman of April 24, 1874, the British showing may be put in perspective:

"He was seated in his howdah on the elephant when the mahout suddenly cried, 'Shr, Sahib,-burra Shr!' for a tiger had made his appearance unexpectedly close to the elephant. The gentleman hurriedly fired, and planted a ball from his rifle not in the tiger's shoulder but in his abdomen. This mistake must have been due to the surprise at the tiger's sudden advent on the scene . . . otherwise such a want of knowledge of anatomy as was evinced in seeking a vital spot in the abdomen would be unpardonable. The consequences of the mistake were serious; for the tiger, resenting the sudden disturbance in the region where remains of his last kill were peacefully reposing, charged the elephant, and by a spring succeeded in planting his fore paws on her head, while his hind legs clawed and scratched vigorously for a footing on her trunk. Imagine the feelings of the mahout, with a tiger within six inches of his nose! the elephant trumpeting, shaking, and rolling with rage and pain, till he was barely able to maintain his seat on her neck at all, and the occupant of the howdah, too, tumbled from top to bottom, and from side to side of it as if he were a solitary pill in a pillbox too large for him." The mahout, wrapping his seat cushion around his arm, picked up an iron elephant prod and began beating the tiger manfully about the ears.

The mahout kept beating and the tiger kept coming until the elephant charged straight at a sal tree, thinking to make an instant tiger pancake. The tree gave way, sending tiger and elephant into a deep pit. By sheer luck both the mahout and the hunter fell to earth outside the pit. When the elephant trampled the tiger senseless the drama was over.

Though tiger-shooting nearly everywhere now is confined to photography, the prospects of sighting a "Tyger! burning bright" or otherwise are dropping rapidly. Zoologists forecast that by the end of the century there will be more tigers in captivity (there are now 1,157 in zoos) than in the wild. The only hope, a faint one, lies in protecting habitat. Happily, this fall the Exxon Corporation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation launched a multimillion-dollar Save the Tiger Fund.

But even if there are no wild tigers to see, as John Seidensticker reported in his memoir, Bearing Witness-which detailed the extinction of tigers in Bali and Java-people still have "many stories to tell of encountering a tiger drinking near a temple or of a tiger that regularly rested along a mountain stream at Pondok Macan (Tiger Place). . . . Animals as metaphysically important as tigers live on in our minds after they are gone."

Meanwhile, at the Museum of Natural History there are plans to reunite the Royal Bengal with the famous little axis deer once more. The new display-a reality check-will note how the tiger has leapt into the air too far away from the deer to actually "bag" it. It is estimated that tigers are successful only one in 20 times. For the moment, though, museum visitors continue to take their cue from Charles Darwin, who wrote, "I always felt a strange interest in the tiger."

By Adele Conover

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