By: Leela Praneeth
Tigers(Panthera Tigris) are one of the most iconic animals currently living in the cenozoic era. Though the semantics of the title of kings of the jungle belonging to the lion is widely accepted to be misleading, the tigers are still often overlooked when compared to their family members from the same genus.
The anatomy, behavior and the conservation status of tigers are important and critical conversation to have year round but this international tigers day we can celebrate tigers and all the cultural significance they hold around the world. Before getting to various good and problematic depictions of tigers in pop culture we need to look at various historical depictions of tigers. The historical range of tigers ranged from Iran to Korea to far eastern Russia, tigers were also captured for gladiatorial Colosseums. With tigers being present in the cultural Zeitgeist across diverse cultures the depictions range from reverence to a majestic beast to hunt for sport as a show of might. India offers the whole spectrum highly revered as the transport of goddesses all while hunted to near extinction by emperors.
With tigers being the largest of the big cats and 3rd largest extant carnivore they are generally portrayed as powerful killers.
Which is generally true if you look at man-eater( a name given to carnivores who view humans as primary prey) population in tigers killing more people than any other big cat, but if you dig a little deeper we can see signs of old age, habitat/prey loss is what leads these tigers to seek easier prey.
In fiction we can see unique and distinctive depictions of tigers. One of the most recognisable must be Sher Khan, the antagonist of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Sher Khan traumatized many kids with superb voice acting from George Sanders(1967), Idris Elba(2016) and in my opinion the most chilling, surprisingly from Benedict Cumberbatch(2018). Sher Khan in his many iterations remained sympathetic and nuanced and never a mustache twirling evil villain like in so many ‘kids’ movies.
Since then there have been many tiger motifs in pop culture( the intro riff to ‘the eye of the tiger’ is still stuck in my head). But in movies there was a wait till 2012 when Ang Lee brought us life of pi. This Oscar winning movie, according to my interpretation, uses the tiger as a metaphor, but the depiction of the tiger is still outstanding. It was a wise decision to not personify the tiger or depict a dumb brute but a tiger that is as close to nature as it is possible. The tiger was a beautiful companion and it shows the competence of Ang Lee. It is really hard to make a movie with only two major characters(for most of the movie) and one of them cannot communicate and even the inference gained from body language and expressions are approximate.
Till now we’ve been discussing animated or computer generated tigers in the media but there is a dark past to tigers in the entertainment industry. Tigers have been notoriously kidnapped as cubs and trained to perform in circuses, they were starved and beaten in the name of training. In the present day however exotic prey industry is an exploitative and cruel industry and unfortunately tigers are a major victim. An infuriating statistic is that there are more captive tigers in the US(majority are privately ‘owned’) than in the wild. This instead of being seen as cruel it is played for laughs in a modern classic that is The Hangover, in which Mike Tyson’s pet is a major plot point.
This leads us nicely into the latest media that brought back tigers into our collective conscience. Tiger King released in march 2020 when the whole world just went into a lockdown where we were supposed to quarantine ourselves in our home, most people turned to Netflix to fill in the new found free time. Surprisingly, of all the hidden gems in Netflix algorithmic miracle made Tiger king a juggernaut in terms of popularity with the population, you could not talk to friends or family without a mention of joe exotic. Let this be clear, no matter how sympathetic the documentary directors try to make Joe, he is not a good person. Joe exotic is a narcissistic and manipulative person who maliciously caused harm to his animals and employees purely for profit. Though the documentary is called the Tiger king it shows the depravity present in humanity, it takes the agency away from the tigers and shows the abuser’s perspective. The tigers are merely a prop. But it is cathartic to see Joe get comeuppance. Guess he was the only Texan to get in trouble for some Ranch.
Onto some lighter tiger related facts. Tigers have one of the most expressive faces in the animal kingdom, that is why you can see pictures of tigers smirking, angly or sighing. Apart from being stronger, faster and heavier than lions, another point tigers have over their cousins is the roar. The roar is so majestic that even with a lion as their mascot MGM dubs over what we can only assume is a yawning lion with the roar of a tiger. To reiterate, tigers are an iconic animal and an apex predator, protecting them is our responsibility and a form of reparation for our almost genocidal hunting of tigers for sport. Here’s hoping to protect and give the chance for the tiger population to reach a sustainable population and thrive in their natural habitat. We can do our part as citizens by advocating for stricter measures to curb poaching by focusing on the rich buyers and not the poor people who are coerced into hunting, we can also monetarily help by donating to national parks, rewilding from captivity and adoption. If we start with tigers, we can progress quickly to sharing and cohabitating with nature to the foreseeable future.