the awe-inspiring presence of tigers -- 10/07/21
Today's encore selection -- from A Wild Life: A Visual Biography of Photographer Michael Nichols by Melissa Harris. Michael "Nick" Nichols photographed tigers for National Geographic:
"'There is no creature on Earth who will make your hair stand on end like a wild tiger,' says Nick. 'They are magnificent.'
"Wild tigers are the first predatory animals Nick photographed, and determining the ideal approach was initially confounding. He began in late 1995 with a two-month scouring trip to central India, where much of their natural habitat has evolved into protected national parks that restrict tourists to certain areas at designated times of day. Although accustomed to seeing humans, the tigers are not in any way 'tame.' Also, during the annual monsoon season in this part of India, the parks may become more or less inaccessible to visitors, sometimes even to park rangers, for many months. All the animals thus go through a kind of cyclical rehabituation process each year. The tigers here are wild -- solitary, territorial, nocturnal hunters.
"Nick viscerally conjures the tigers' awe-inspiring presence: 'When a tiger walks, the whole forest talks. If you get tuned in, you can hear it. The monkeys are saying: He's walking; the birds are saying: He's walking. Each makes a singular alarm call for the tiger.'
"Nick had learned in the early 1990s that National Geographic wanted to do a story on tigers. Even though he almost always proposed his own ideas, he wanted this one. Because other projects precluded tackling the tigers story for another three or four years, he asked the magazine's editors to hold off on the piece until he was ready. They agreed.
"During his coverage of new zoos, Nick had seen seemingly endless funds allocated to conservation efforts and breeding projects with captive tigers -- an attempt to help save a species whose numbers are rapidly dwindling. Nick, however, believes that the only real tiger is a wild tiger. From his perspective, if the species is going to continue to exist, conservation must be weighted in favor of the wild tiger. Hoping to do a project similar to his work on chimpanzees -- contrasting images of wild and captive animals -- he would document the species in zoos, living as pets, and working in entertainment, demonstrating that while big-cat owners may, in their way, love and cherish their animals, they still diminish the wild cat to a domesticated shadow of its former self. When cornered or otherwise provoked, its tiger-ness may reemerge from deep within, but otherwise what remains is a broken creature. Nick wanted to balance his work on captive tigers with a long-term engagement with wild tigers.
"For this project, he was in the field about thirteen months altogether, including visits to Russia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Again, National Geographic offered him the time and resources needed to go deep into the story.
"Nick focused his work on wild tigers in India. Over two years, he made five trips in all (of six to twelve weeks each) to the 268 square miles of jungle then comprising central India's Bandhavgarh National Park, in Madhya Pradesh. The park also offered topographical and seasonal variations: a dry season of muted tones as well as a brief period of saturated greens after the monsoons.
"Nick recognized that the tigers' survival here derived, paradoxically, from their historic value as trophies:
The tigers' stronghold is in one of the most populated places on Earth. It seems almost impossible that India would have wild tigers -- yet it does. But they wouldn't be there if Indian maharajas hadn't liked shooting them. They set aside land in India for these tigers to live on so they could hunt them for fun -- not in a sporting way whatsoever -- and almost every piece of that land now is a national park that has tigers in it. They have survived this long because wealthy people liked hunting them.
"The bizarre codependent relationship between legal trophy -- or 'sport-hunting and conservation,' and the implications of wildlife habitats abutting dense human populations, are tensions that would continue to amplify Nick's stories. The presence of humans -- whether violent or benign, rich or impoverished -- must be fully and sensitively considered for any hope of peaceful coexistence and long-term ecological balance. Geoffrey C. Ward is the author of the 1993 book Tiger-Wallahs: Encounters with the Men Who Tried to Save the Greatest of the Great Cats, and contributed the text for Nick's 1998 book The Year of the Tiger. He also wrote the article accompanying Nick's cover story on tigers in the December 1997 National Geographic, 'Making Room for Wild Tigers.' In his text, Ward refers to 'alarming drops in the world tiger populations' and outlines the challenges, first in broad strokes, of 'how to preserve wild cats in wild lands as farms and cities eat away at habitat.' But recognizing the reality of living with predators, Ward acknowledges:
Asians living with tigers must regard them pragmatically. Farming villages on the fringe of tiger territories lose livestock -- and human lives -- to tiger attacks, and villagers fight back.
"A more immediate threat to the tigers are poachers, who collect bones, organs, and other body parts -- all in frighteningly high demand because of their supposed value in traditional Chinese medicine and as aphrodisiacs."