Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tiger truths? Not from zoos or TV shows

By Nirmal Ghosh, Thailand Correspondent

Some years ago, on a now memorable New Year's Eve, I was walking with two friends in a dense jungle in northern India when a wild tiger growled at us from a distance of about 4m.

We kept our cool and simply walked away. The tiger, which had been disturbed while taking its afternoon snooze, sent us an unmistakable signal with a series of menacing growls - but it did not attack.

Had we panicked, run and inevitably fallen in the undergrowth, we would have spooked it and it would have lashed out at us, and I would most probably not be alive today to write this piece.

Whatever the species, animals act for a reason, even if that reason is not readily apparent to humans.

A tiger in its natural state would avoid humans. But if it did encounter a human and it felt threatened, it would first try to drive the human away with a short charge and a series of snarls, designed to intimidate the human into backing off. It would feel threatened if the human made any abrupt move or sound.

If the human did not back down in the face of its threat, but continued to agitate it, the tiger might well attack.

Mr Nordin Montong would have known all this. The 32-year-old from Sarawak, a contract cleaner at the Singapore Zoo, chose a path that would inevitably lead to his own death when he entered the white tigers' enclosure on Nov 13.

The white tigers might not have intended to kill him. They were probably just defending themselves against a perceived threat. As captive-bred tigers, they would have had little or no experience of killing. But just a mauling from such powerful animals would normally be enough to cause severe injuries that could easily lead to death.

Tigers are like all cats big and small - predators by nature even if they have little experience of killing. Prey that runs around, struggles or tries to get away would excite them further, and they would continue to maul this prey until it grew still. Tigers behave no differently from a household cat playing with a ball of string or a mouse.

Yet, at least one visitor to the zoo thought at first that the dreadful scene in the tiger enclosure was a 'show'. Following the tragedy, there has been a scramble to find out more about tigers in order to explain what happened.

It is ironic that after the millions of hours of programming that have been run on TV channels such as Discovery, Animal Planet and National Geographic, we are still far from understanding the realities of nature.

Further, the role that zoos perform arguably does not help us bridge that distance; it might even reinforce the divide.

The days of the measured wildlife documentary are regrettably almost over. TV networks today have to compete with a range of media determined to use shock tactics to draw in audiences whose attention span is decreasing in direct proportion to the increase in news that feeds on and emphasises conflict, sensation, titillation and the bizarre.

Whether a khaki-clad TV personality wading into a swamp and pulling out an anaconda from the water is a true reflection of reality is questionable. Most of the viewing public would not know that, invariably, such scenes are rigged. Snakes and other animals used to produce such sequences are usually already habituated to humans.

It is doubtful whether showing the general public scenes that would not occur in real life furthers their understanding of nature.

The trend towards sensationalism, with ever-increasing scenes of predation and aggression hogging the screens, exploded in the 1990s because of the proliferation of network TV and the competition for audiences.

But the compulsion to sensationalise emerged long before that. In the early 1900s, British writer and cinematographer Cherry Kearton wrote: 'People who try to give us 'sensation' both in films and books appear to imagine that... the wild life of animals is sadly in need of a little 'gingering up'.'

Wildlife is often portrayed as strange, exotic and dangerous, or conversely, cute and cuddly. Both views are distortions.

Animals need not be feared, but they need to be respected, just as much as people respect one another and give one another space.

Zoos, unfortunately, use wildlife as exhibits. White tigers are one example; they have been selectively bred for commercial purposes.

Essentially, white tigers are inbred, and there have been many deaths and deformities in cubs in the process.

Since the original white tiger was captured as a cub from the wild in central India in 1951, there have been only a handful of purported sightings of white tigers in the wild. What value is there in displaying a white tiger in a zoo, therefore, if not as some sort of freak show?

Singapore's zoo does a better job than almost any other in the world of keeping its exhibits in sound condition and also of educating the public.

But the bottom line is that animals in zoos are usually bored and often stressed; captivity is captivity even if the cell is a five-star enclosure.

As a result, zoos often only reinforce people's sense of separateness from nature, contributing to rather than reducing a general lack of understanding of the essential character of nature.

There was some encouraging news in the public response to the tragedy in Singapore. During a New Paper poll of 100 people, 99 said the tigers should not be punished in any way. Many have pointed out that the tigers behaved according to instinct. Senegalese poet-conservationist Baba Dioum famously said: 'In the end, we will conserve only what we love and we will love only what we understand.'

It is questionable whether breeding species selectively for entertainment and exhibition in zoos, and emphasising bizarre and sensational aspects of wildlife in the media, will further our knowledge of the world around us.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on 23 Nov, 2008.

Tiger truths? Not from zoos or TV shows
AsiaOne, Singapore