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Guy Mountfort, once director of the international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather and now in his retirement a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund, looks out over the soft, placid South-of-England landscape where sheep are safely grazing and talks passionately about tigers.
"Beauty, grace and glamour," he says quietly. "Once you've seen a tiger in the wild you'll never understand all the fuss about lions. Rather lethargic creatures in my opinion. But a tiger is the most beautiful animal in the world."
And, alas, one of the rarest. Six of the seven tiger subspecies had already achieved Red Data Book status—a list of severely threatened animals kept by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—and in November of last year, at its 10th general assembly in New Delhi, the IUCN announced that they would be joined by the last and mightiest of their race: Panthera tigris tigris, the Bengal tiger. This great feral cat which can weigh more than 700 pounds, exceed 10 feet in length and has the strength to carry a dead buffalo up a steep hillside, is about to disappear, too.
Mountfort is deeply concerned, professionally and emotionally, with the tiger's fate. For the past four years he has virtually been commuting between his Sussex home and the Indian subcontinent, making ecological surveys in the field and talking with high officials of Asian governments to get their backing for tiger reserve schemes.
"All the other tigers have almost gone," he explains. The Caspian tiger is down to 50 animals, mostly in Iran and Afghanistan. The Siberian tiger of the Soviet Far East and Korea may number 120 to 140. Possibly a dozen Javan tigers and an unknown number of Sumatran remain. The Bali tigers are presumed to be extinct, and the only Chinese tigers may be the paper ones of Maoist metaphor. A recent report by a Chinese zoologist on the mammals of Yunnan and Szechwan provinces, formerly the main strongholds of the tiger in China, fails to mention the species.
Mountfort reckons that there are about 2,000 Bengal tigers left in India, Pakistan and Nepal. In 1930 the equivalent figure was better than 40,000. It is destruction of the tiger's habitat, Mountfort believes, that is responsible for its catastrophic decline in the last 20 or 30 years. In postwar India and Pakistan millions of square acres of jungle, swampland and prairie have disappeared to make way for commercial crops, new towns and new roads. And deer—the tiger's chief prey—have been scarce. Hydroelectric schemes have flooded valleys (even nature reserves like the Chittagong Hill Tracts), and although tigers did not need the valley for grazing, the deer did. A tiger requires around 15 pounds of fresh meat a day to survive. If it cannot find game, it turns to domestic cattle or man. Then the villagers band together to kill it.
Since prehistory man has hunted the tiger in India. But until recent years killing Panthera tigris tigris has been enormously expensive or enormously difficult or both. The picture of a royal shikar with hundreds of elephants and thousands of beaters, penning tigers into a ring for slaughter, is enough to blow the mind of any honest conservationist. So is the boast in 1966 of a maharaja who claimed to have slain, during a long career, 1,300 tigers. So is the hunting of King-Emperor George V: in 11 days in 1912 he and his party shot 39.
But, in fact, the tiger population of India actually rose between 1907 and 1934, according to one authority. The great princely hunts were not frequent, and even to shoot in the British style from a machan was an elaborate, costly and time-consuming business.
Two factors changed this pattern. During and after World War II, firearms became much more available to the Indian population, though it was basically the tiger's prey—rather than tigers themselves—that was drastically thinned. The other was the introduction of go-anywhere four-wheel-drive vehicles, cheaper and far more convenient than elephants. Night hunting with the aid of powerful searchlights became possible, and this proved a deadly technique. In newly independent India and Pakistan, moreover, tiger hunting was no longer the sole privilege of Indian princes and British officers.
Since the war there has been an orgy of tiger killing. Not until June of 1968 did the Indian Board for Wildlife approve a ban on the export of tiger skins, and there are still plenty of loopholes in the regulations. Although the tiger is now a "protected" animal in India, there are still 27 agencies offering tiger hunting to tourists, at a cheaper price (around $2,000) than that of a lion safari in Africa.