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How Men’s Cologne Might Catch Man-Eating Tigress

A musky ingredient in this infamous scent may be the secret to ensnaring an elusive killer

India is now home to about 2,500 tigers—over half the world’s population. (Pixabay CC0 Creative Commons)
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Sleek, fierce and striped, a murderous female tiger with a taste for human flesh has now claimed the lives of 13 people in Central India—and is showing no signs of stopping. But even this feline femme fatale is no match for the sultry allure of Calvin Klein’s Obsession cologne.

Or at least, that’s the hope of Indian authorities who have been tracking an elusive, ravenous tigress called T-1 in vain for the past six months, reports Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times. She’s believed to have attacked and killed up to 13 people near the town of Pandharkawada in Central India, even devouring large chunks of human flesh.

This eau de cologne approach is a last resort for desperate forest rangers, who have tried everything from bulldozing the tigress’ jungle home to herding her with a small cavalry of elephant-riding veterinarians armed with tranquilizer guns (seriously).

Obsession, which first hit the market in the 1980s, has become a bit of a musky male mainstay, achieving “iconic status” in 1993 when Kate Moss took the photogenic helm of the cologne’s campaign. Since then, it’s been billed as being irresistible to women. But while some ladies may or may not be drawn to Obsession’s “masculine fragrance,” scientists swear by its feline appeal: Male or female, wild cats go bonkers for the stuff.

It’s not the cologne’s “enthralling blend of citrus and spices” that’s got these cats climbing the walls, however. It turns out Obsession has a not-so-secret ingredient: civetone, a chemical derived from the scent glands of civets, little cat-like mammals native to the tropics of Asia and Africa and one of the world’s oldest perfume additives.

Civetone, which civets normally secrete as a thick, yellow substance from glands near the anus, is thought to resemble a territorial marking in cologne. This musky mimicry encourages big cats to inspect the scent and attempt to replace it with their own, reported Jason G. Goldman at Scientific American in 2013.

There’s some suspicion that the vanilla notes in Obsession could also be a minor culprit. The smell of this foreign chemical could make cats curious. Regardless, Obsession is a strong lure for those of the feline persuasion, and it’s given researchers a critical—and easily available—tool to coax wild jaguars to camera traps in the field.

At Taronga Zoo in Sydney, the big cat cohort luxuriates in Obsession on the regular, taking several minutes out of the day to waft in the scent, rub their cheeks in it, roll around and “just look to be in heaven,” reported Bec Crew for Scientific American in 2014. Among the most cologne-crazy? The Taronga Zoo’s tigers.

This may be good news for Indian patrollers tracking this deadly, young tigress. Her killing streak is alarming, and the unusual nature of this string of crimes has left authorities baffled. As Gettleman, along with Hari Kumar, reported for The New York Times last month, it’s wildly uncommon for a single tiger to have attacked this many people. The region’s tigers, which are still critically endangered in India, have enjoyed a recent boost in numbers thanks to diligent conservation efforts: India now hosts over half the world’s approximately 4,000 tigers. But this boom has left cats and humans tussling for territory. And with deer populations dwindling in the region, T-1 may have developed a taste for people: According to Nawab Shafat Ali Khan, one of India’s most famous hunters, human meat is particularly sweet because of the heavy presence of ginger, salt and spices in our diet, Gettleman reports.

T-1 is mother to two cubs, making officials hesitant to take any drastic action. While many plans have centered around quarantining her to a zoo, locals—several of whom who have lost family members to the flesh-eating tigress—have rallied for more extreme measures.

“I don’t want to kill this beautiful animal,” K. M. Abharna, a top forestry official in the Pandharkawada area, told Gettleman and Kumar last month. “But there’s a hell of a lot of political pressure and a hell of a lot of public pressure.”

Last month, after much debate, India’s Supreme Court gave the okay to kill T-1 if all capture efforts fail. But if we’re to trust scientific data in feline fragrances, there may yet be hope. Rangers are currently planning to spray Obsession cologne near a series of camera traps. If her interest is piqued, she may pause long enough to be surrounded, snared and sentenced to a life of permanent captivity.

Obsession has stunk up shelves for thirty-some years. Shoppers praise its “mellow, seductive fragrance” as an “awesome scent for a man.” But can it catch a tiger? Only time will tell in this game of cat and musk.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a PhD student in Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard University and Co-Director Emeritus of Science in the News, a graduate student organization that trains young scientists to communicate science to the general public. She is also a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine. Website: katherinejwu.com

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