This is a short post I wrote for the A&U blog for Global Tiger Day...
Once I was king of the scarey [sic], towering, tangled green jungle where tigers are big and the way they should be. I growled and roared and snarled and ground my teeth and frightened all the other animals
Robert Vavra, 1968
So reminisces the tiny tiger with the soulful eyes that cannot scare any one, or any thing, anymore. A great wind has blown through the jungle and swept all the creatures and plants far, far away to a place where everything is inverted. Mushrooms tower, the birds are Jurassic, and the tiger has been reduced to the size of your index finger. It’s the ‘60s, so he has also developed a fetish for flowers.
I was captivated by this book as a child. Fleur Cowles’s paintings are gorgeous but most thrilling of course was the miniature tiger. In one painting it balances upon a blade of grass. I longed to hold and stroke it. Terrors are tamed in picture books and Tiger Flower was intended as a parable of peace – a place where tigers have been shrunk is devoid of terror, right?
My fixation with tigers started with my father. He considered it part of his job to scare us. The grimmest of Grimm. Erratic driving; a sometimes maniacal laugh. He took me to horror movies when I was still in primary school – The Shining, The Thing, The Unseen. I asked friends along but they never came a second time, even with the barbecued pork in Chinatown thrown in. And tigers. He took us regularly to the zoo and we would watch them together. It was something we shared – the mortal terror, but also: wonderment, reverence, and a sort of wordless remorse.
When I was researching Leap, I once again made regular visits to the tigers at Melbourne Zoo to try to embody my character Elise who is mourning her dead daughter. Her daughter was besotted with tigers so when Elise is with the animals she is communing with Jennifer, but Elise also identifies with the tigers’ captivity, feeling imprisoned herself by grief. In a more obscure way, I think Elise is drawn to the beauty and ferocity of the tigers, the handle they seem to have on life and death. The tigers are teaching her something.
I was taken back to earlier visits with my father as I listened in to conversations between parents and their offspring. I was struck this time around by the homogeny of the human response to the predators. Even with those solid barriers in place, most of us approach with a light tread and slightly hushed voices, bringing our awe and our primal fear – try making eye contact with a caged tiger and not feeling those barriers melt away. Many (myself included) display a sort of condescending affection towards the cats but beneath this, and you hear it quietly expressed, lurks a sorrow with nowhere good to go. ‘Oh, it’s so sad,’ the mother mutters to her offspring. ‘That tiger should be chasing deer.’ I’m sure my father said the same thing.
In the past century alone the number of tigers in the wild has been more than decimated, through poaching and loss of habitat mostly. Three subspecies have become extinct and the remaining six are critically endangered. There are now more tigers in cages than in the jungle and a very real possibility there will be none left out there in a short few decades. I find it inconceivable that this could have happened so silently and swiftly. Talk about an ambush.
I still have Robert Vavra's gorgeous book but it reads less like flower power this half-century later than a fable of a place where humans have grown way too big, causing everything else to shrink. Look, Mr Tiger, you’re less than a tenth your size!
But today is Global Tiger Day, an opportunity to celebrate these beautiful terrors and give thanks to the excellent humans who are working tirelessly to stop poaching and the trade in parts, and to conserve the patches of tangled green jungle we have left and rebuild vital corridors between them. Because tigers are an umbrella species, their conservation protects hundreds of other species and the biodiversity of our planet.
King of the jungle, you scare us half to death; I hope you always will.
10% of royalties from Leap go to support tiger conservation. You can donate here to the WWF Save the Tiger campaign