Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Tyger

There was a social media uproar recently when an American dentist shot a lion, disarmingly dubbed "Cecil", which had been lured off a reserve into an area where "hunting" is permitted.  I write "hunting" in quotes, as the orchestrated execution of a beast by high-powered rifle (or even crossbow, as in this case) hardly seems the sort of contest of cunning and matched skill implied by that venerable word.  Suburban animal-lovers world-wide were quickly demanding an end to the killing of all "big game".

However, I heard an interesting, alternative scenario on Radio 4, put forward by seriously-engaged conservationists in southern Africa, that without the income from properly-controlled hunting, the conservation of lions would cease.  Reserves would fall into disrepair, fences would come down, and the lands turned to agricultural use; the whole ecology upon which lions as top predator depend would topple.  It seems the pressure from local inhabitants is a far greater threat than that from any number of wealthy dentists with a crossbow and a Hemingway complex.

This does make sense, even if it is distasteful to the kind of person who delights in videos of cute cats, but would happily see a dentist tortured to death.  Big cats are terrifying creatures, not even slightly cute, and I would certainly not want to share my landscape with them, any more than the farmers and villagers of southern Africa do.  I think it was Bruce Chatwin who speculated that some sabre-toothed cat with a taste for hominid flesh was the original "enemy of mankind".

I was reminded of this at Marwell Zoo, when -- as photographers will -- I followed my nose and the light to a half-illuminated, condensation-covered window around the side of one of the enclosures. What I saw was the image above.  In a darkened chamber, a recumbent tiger the size of a large motorbike was luxuriously stroking its tongue, back and forth, along the length of an antelope carcase.   It was a scene as intimate and as primal as if I had inadvertently opened a curtain onto an axe-murderer and his victim.  Cute it wasn't; frankly, it gave me the shivers.  I did feel a pang of sorrow for the great beast's imprisonment, but felt a greater sense of gratitude for the solidity of the barrier between us.  As William Blake -- who probably had seen tigers similarly confined in various London menageries -- once asked: Did he who made the lamb make thee?

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