April 4, 2017

CNF/Essay by Rekha Valliappan: "Orange Mystique"

Rekha Valliappan blogs, writes and lives in New York. She has taught college level English Literature and 'A' Levels Law. Much of her time is spent in community service. She now devotes her time to her first love - fiction-writing. Recently she was adjudged the 2nd Prize winner in the Annual Short Story Contest held by Boston Accent Lit. She was born and raised in Bombay and looks to Asia for inspiration.   https://www.silicasun.wordpress.com

Orange Mystique

“The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage.” - Jim
Corbett Man-Eaters of Kumaon

I see a flash of mesmerizing magic, the swirl of orange with patterns of
black stripes adding the punch of energy. 'Tiger!' I yell on a hot afternoon,
adding to the colorful vibrancy of the moment. I am traversing the main road
which cuts through the Bandipur-Sikri Game Reserve. Muddy terrain has
camouflaged three tiger cubs by the side of the tar road, which I almost miss
sighting, till I see their anxious mother emerge in a hurry, breaking forest
cover. Our Land Rover pulls to a stop some distance away. And for all of
two minutes I am treated to a rare performance of unbridled love as tigress
and cubs roil and frolic in symphony. This will be one of only two
encounters my karma has permitted me with this spectacular beast.

It is almost impossible to spot a tiger in the wild - this marvelous maverick
of the jungle, larger than a station-wagon. One may spot its signature
markings if one embarked on a fastidious search. One may know it is
around, or sense it is near, by the immense silence of the forest floor. One
may even hear its powerful roar, reverberate all of two miles. But the fluidity
of its presence is such, that its mystique prevails. In the jungle there is a
saying that for every one time you have seen the tiger it has already spotted
you a hundred times over.

To me, tigers are beautifully iconic. They symbolize courage and strength
combined with grace. Powerfully structured their magnetism looms
compelling. They walk solitary blazing their own trails which adds to their
charisma. The manner in which they can inspire fear is unforgettable. With
their Bohemian lifestyle, eclectic tastes, spellbinding demeanor and offbeat
humor, yes I do get carried away, I can only conclude that of all the five big
cats, it is the tiger that has earned from me the utmost admiration. If ever
these winsome creatures could grow their orange fur they would grow it
luxuriant and long.

We need the tiger - not for photographs, trophies, fur, animal trading,
hunting, circuses, zoos, paintings or drawings (Source : Bioscience The Fate
of Wild Tigers). We need them alive in the wild. They serve no purpose
captured or dead. Our very survivability and ecosystem are dependent on
their good health. Our biodiversity, environment and forest vitality is the
very responsibility that we can least afford to shirk. Tigers are apex
predators. They occupy the very top of our food chain. One healthy tiger in
the wild occupying the very top of Darwin's pyramid cascade, indicates that
a healthy environment exists. If food is scarce indicators are that the forest is
not healthy. If a forest is not healthy the entire ecosystem is compromised. A
feeble sub-par animal is a demoralizing sight by any degree of measure.
Without food there is no tiger in the wild. Food and spaces to roam are what
these creatures need the most to maintain optimum numbers. With world
populations ballooning in leaps and bounds to a staggering ten billion fifty
years into the future there is real cause for alarm. We can least afford to lose
any of our endangered species, particularly not our finest.

With a voracious appetite to pursue, a consumption rate of  88 lbs. of meat to
satisfy at one go, a lean mass of 300 - 680 lbs. of optimal body weight to
maintain depending on its gender (Source : Live Science), there is no second
guessing or binary choices to be made. A tiger, to put it simply, must be fed.
No tiger management succeeds without ample food supply inbuilt into the

How impossible could that be to achieve, one may very well ask and
wonder? To spare just a scanty few hundred square miles of contiguous
forest, for a few thousand struggling tigers, valiantly trying to survive, given
that the majority of them are long dead? To spare less than 0.0001% of a
country's total acreage, given the size and vastness of countries, continents
and the entire planet? I am at a loss for words to ruminate in dead earnest on
this bigger picture - the triceratops horridus mentality in our homogeneity if
Darwin is to be socially understood. It renders a moribund question
impossible to resuscitate, much less answer as it turns out; like trying to
articulate the new black hole paradox theory of the universe.

Would a brachiosaurus or a tyrannosaurus rex have survived in the world of  
today? Probably not. They will have been converted into trophies too. Or

Nine tiger species once inhabited the earth. Today we are told only six
remain. The 20th century alone became the single 'holocaust era', decimating
the last of these carnivores worldwide to fewer than 4000. (Source :
National Geographic) Putting all at risk.

From an archaeological spread fanning the far reaches of Alaska, Turkey
and Japan, today tigers reside sparsely in limited edition only in parts of
Asia and eastern Siberia. (Source : IUCN Red List of Threatened Species).
Of the 6 subspecies remaining, it is reported the South China Tiger may
already be extinct - the result of wanton apathy. There have been no known
recent sightings, although a plan exists for its re-breeding in Africa. How
this will work is anybody's guess, depending on China's affable Fortune

When it emerged that India's majestic Bengal Tiger too was diminishing in
size and stature the situation felt incongruous. How could this happen I
bemoaned? Our National Animal in jeopardy? Our progeny of gorgeous
tigresses Sita and Machali 'Lady of the Lake' drastically shrunk? Our most
world-renowned, well documented, twice imprinted on National Geographic
covers diminished? Was it food? Or lack of? Could not an entire cabal of
avuncular, like-minded eagles - Government, Non-Government, Media,
Environmentalists, Naturalists, Lesser Agencies, Others - bound by their
joint perspectives have the beak, claw, will and roar to make conservation
work? Could not a business plan of primal priority be permitted to succeed,
granted that hunger is undeniably the tiger's most visceral of natural

A tiger goes ballistic when hunger takes over.  This is not a hypothesis. It is
a simple scientific fact. He forgets comportment and every vestige of
customary deportment. The disobliging ungracious side of his personality
seeps through. All malaise is remarkably forgotten. He turns razor-sharp and
flint-like as an obsidian blade. The manner in which a tiger can savage a
good dinner is nothing short of jaw-dropping. One must truly appreciate the
spectacle when all sense of control is irrevocably lost. The tiger is
quintessentially a master-class of a beast when in the throes of hunger.

Much documented evidence exists of a tiger's nuanced table-manners, or
lack of it demonstrated thereof, when hunger strikes. Tigers have effortlessly
grappled giant crocodiles more than twice their length; mighty elephants
more than five times their body weight and four times their size. (Source :
The Indian Express 2009.) As for temperamental buffaloes, which no animal
on earth in the right mind will tackle, they are pulverized to shreds. Tigers
throw all caution to the winds when hunger strikes.

It gets worse when the erstwhile creature's hunger games drive him to turn
'Man-Eater'. This is the anomaly I find the hardest to fathom; since tigers by
nature and history are never known to actively seek out human flesh for their
midnight snacks. Tigers in fact have survived quite healthily long before the
advent of man; anthropologically from nearly two million years ago in the
late Pleistocene age, when it migrated slowly south in stages from Far East
Asia; arriving in India since 12,000 years. (Source : Journal Bombay
Natural History Society 2003). Human meat therefore is definitely not their
favorite quick cuppa or desired haute cuisine of choice.

Unfortunately tales of man-tiger bitter rivalry, of human encroachment into
jungle preserves, of humans forming part of the tiger's grisly food chain, do
exist. (Source : McDougal 1987, Karanth 2001). This has been frequently
evidenced in the Sundarbans Delta on a regular basis; sad and gruesome
instances, but strangely all true. Stories include grim first-hand accounts of
those who survived and lived to tell. Many a dangerous tiger has had to be
destroyed for the brutal practice of food eccentricities.

Which is why to me India's Bengal Tiger (panthera tigris tigris) illustrates
the best karmic connection for survival, exemplifying the timeless spirit of
wild India. Given the abundance of  delectable livestock available in the
smallest square miles of jungle territory - wild boar, wild pigs, deer, gaur,
buck, nilgai, bison, antelope, chital and other creatures - its prognosis for
survivability is far greater than its less fortunate counterparts like the
Siberian Amur Tiger, enjoying wide open spaces stocked well with boar, elk,
moose and deer, but requiring several hundred more square miles of territory
per tiger to hunt for its food. (Source : World Wildlife Fund). As for the
other sub-species struggling to survive along the Greater Mekong and
Sumatra their flukes of fortune vary dreadfully; reduced abominably from
apex carnivores to vegetarianism; forced to maul berries and the occasional
small edible animals like the tapir, pangolin, wild hare or porcupine for hors
d'oeuvres. The conceit sadly does not bear dwelling on.

The nonchalant Bengal Tiger strives to hold its own amidst the madness of
the world around it. Making the blip on the tiger pie-charts, it is found
through the length and breadth of India, the land where time stands still.
Forty protected preserves exist, stretching from the Himalayan foothills in
the north to Kerala in the south; from Rajasthan and Maharashtra in the
west to West Bengal in the east; from dry thorn forests to tropical rainforests;
from alluvial deciduous jungles to mangrove shrublands; from Bandhavgarh
home of the most tigers, to the oldest Jim Corbett habitat; from Rudyard
Kipling's enchanted jungles to the Maharajah of Jaipur's famed hunting
grounds. (Source : Sunquist et al 1999, K.U. Karanth 2001)

Its indelible pugmarks trace legend, literature and folklore - from the sacred
animal of Goddess Durga to the ancient Harappa Civilization seals; from
Bombay Natural History Society First Lithograph's 'tiger' to the 1799
lifesize automaton with movable parts of the Victoria & Albert Museum
London; from Kate Brittlebank's 'The Power of Tipu's Tiger' essay
describing it on soldiers' uniforms, coins, walls, flags and spectacular throne
"which displayed a massive gold tiger head with crystal teeth" to William
Blake's most anthologized eulogy ever known in the English language
'Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright'; from the Richard Parker life of pi
believability to the 60 cents Tiger Postal Stamp to Save Our Vanishing
Species. The proclivity of this versatile and enduring ambush predator to
survive gives safari-ecotourism the David Attenborough-esque style
adventure one can only imaginatively dream of.
My own first-hand experience arose late one evening whilst traveling with
my family in our white Landmaster as the Ambassador - India's road-king -
was known then, up the narrow mountain road through Nilambur bordering
the Mudumalai Forest, to the hill station Ooty, nestling high at 10,000 feet.
It would be my Richard Parker serendipity moment of miracle and magic,
too vivid to forget.

The moonless night was sultry, air-conditioners in cars unheard of back then.
The road was winding, severely breached in spots due to the heavy monsoon
rains. We found ourselves perilously negotiating several hairpin bends of the
Nilgiri Mountains over steep precipices below. The car windows were rolled
all the way down to let in whatever breezes the sweltering night had to offer.
Progress was painfully slow. All conversation had ceased, the only grating
sound coming from gears disengaging. Several pairs of eyes nervously
focused on the visible stretches of road ahead. The car's moving headlamps
arched and bumped, illuminating rock, bamboo, tangle of shrubs, elephant
grass and semi-evergreens.

Suddenly, with stealthy ease, from out of nowhere, she soundlessly exploded
in one lissome movement. Had she leapt a second sooner she would have
leapt into our car window, into my face with her laboring maw. I would
remember that rapacious maw forever. The panic that gripped us was
unalloyed. How we made it to the top is another story. To describe the
flashback adequately is beyond words. It is possible the loud roar of our car
engine struggling up the steep incline must have startled her. It could be she
was on her nocturnal territorial rounds, and we were invading her space. In
that brief moment in time I froze transfixed as I saw silhouetted in our
glaring headlights, this huge 9-foot long cat-shaped creature with large head,
muscles rippling under black striped orange fur, fangs longer than my little
fingers protruding through slack open jaws, sharply clawed forepaws and
long tail fully outstretched twitching strongly, take flight, straddling the
entire double-lane road in one powerful leap. And masterfully bound out of
sight, disappearing down the gully of the steep ravine.

© Rekha Valliappan

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