A Very Fine Art

This article was written for the dakini Tigers Campaign. Read the original post here.

Last Tuesday, I went to Asia House in New Cavendish Street, to hear Ruth Padel speak about tracking tigers in the wild and her wonderful book, Tigers in Red Weather.  At university I had read a little of Padel’s poetry and several of her books on Greek theatre – but I had no idea she was involved in tiger conservation.

In fact, Padel is something of a tiger conservation expert and speaks very compellingly and beautifully on the subject. She explained the concept of ‘trophic cascade’, the disastrous effect of removing a key animal or plant, especially a top predator, from the intricately interwoven network of living things in any ecosystem. By taking something out of the cycle too abruptly, the precarious balance between all other creatures can be completely disrupted – leading to a catastrophic population decline throughout the entire system. Padel explained this by taking an example of eight living things co-existing in the same forest: a wild pig, a mango tree, a leafcutter ant, a monkey, an owl, a lizard, a mosquito and a frog.

Essentially (this is a little abridged) after millenia of gradual adaptation, the eight living things are neatly balanced in their shared environment: the wild pigs scratch the earth on the river bank for food, leaving water-filled holes in the mud that make perfect places for frogs and mosquitoes to lay eggs. Some of the mosquito larvae is eaten by tadpoles. The frogs provide food for the owls that make their nests in the mango trees. Monkeys also live in the trees, where they collect and eat the mangoes, spread the seeds as they go and in doing so help new trees to grow. Leafcutter ants collect the fallen leaves to eat and to ’feed’ the fungus they use to incubate their larvae. Lizards rely on the leafcutter ants for food.

Then humans come to the forest and hunt all the wild pigs. Suddenly, there are no muddy holes in the bank for the frogs to lay their eggs. This suits the mosquitoes – they can lay their larvae anywhere damp and, now that none of this is being eaten by tadpoles, they grow in number. The frogs must either die out or leave to find somewhere to lay their eggs, and the owls leave, too, to find other food sources. There are now so many mosquitoes that they are plaguing the monkeys, so the monkeys move on. With the monkeys gone, there is nothing to spread the mango seeds and over time, the mango trees die. Without the leaves from the mango trees, the leafcutter ants can’t eat or breed, and they also leave or die. The lizards have no ants to eat and so they move on, too. Eventually there is nothing left but mosquitoes.

The same principle is true of any ecosystem, and certainly applies to tigers. Tigers are often seen as indicators of a healthy, functioning forest and throughout Asia have been depicted as powerful guardians – of the jungle and of the spirit. Asia House’s Tigers in Asian Art exhibition, which I was lucky enough to take a look around after the talk, vividly displays this clear common theme. One of my personal favourite pieces is a painted Begali story scroll, depicting a series of scenes of a solitary woman who has to give birth whilst journeying through the jungle. She is shown at first heavily pregnant and then nursing a baby boy, watched over throughout by the eyes of a protective tiger.

Another of the exhibition’s striking artefacts was a solid gold tiger head, decorated with emerald eyes and a ruby collar, which once formed part of  Tipu Sultan’s throne in the late 18th century. Dubbed “The Tiger of Mysore,” Tipu Sultan was by all accounts a fearsome warrior, famous for his assertion that ”it is better to live for one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep” and for posing a particular problem for the invading British forces, by whom he was eventually killed in battle in 1799. He was also famous for ‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a huge, rather sardonic music-box style creation which depicts a tiger mauling a British colonial soldier to death; as you turn the handle on the box, the tiger growls and mauls, and the soldier moans in his death-throes. It’s absolutely brilliant.

During the evening, I also got talking to the exhibition’s curators, including Betty Yao, who has invited me to the Tiger Forum being held at Asia House on 7th December. This will be the only event of its kind in London, reporting on the outcome of the International Tiger Summit and discussing how we can, and must, progress in order to give tigers a fighting chance for survival. It was heartening to meet others striving for the same goal – especially as Asia House represents an important cultural link between the UK and countries across Asia. Here’s hoping that this is indicative of a shift in attitudes towards saving tigers, especially in China and its surrounding nations.

Something that Ruth Padel pointed out, which I found fascinating, is that to make a symbol of something is both a benefit and a curse. Many of the key reasons that tigers inspire beautiful artworks and passionate responses – their awe-inspiring beauty and power, their fierceness and independent spirit – are precisely the same reasons that they have been hunted, made into trophies, eaten and drunk by people who come to see them purely as symbols that can be attained and absorbed into oneself. It is crucial to understand that tigers are magnificent, but they are only so when respected in their own field, understood not simply as an image of strength but as a living thing with an intrinsic right to existence. Their magnificence cannot be owned, only admired.

Whilst putting together our book, we have tried to remain mindful of this. We have wanted to avoid simply pulling together images of tigers as lovely to look at and symbols of strength, but to go a step further and to really explore the life of the tiger, its needs and development – to follow the cubs as they grow up and learn from their mother what it is to be a tiger. We have endeavoured at all times to show these animals as rooted firmly in the context of their environment and as belonging exclusively to this. In short, we have sought to celebrate the tiger without making it into a symbol. When we come to take our book and its content to the media around the world and especially in Asia, it is precisely this message which we hope will, ultimately, save the tiger from becoming an historical artefact and instead be seen for what it is: a key element of a vibrant landscape, which we cannot allow to disappear.


Tigers in Asian Art is on until 12 Feb 2011, at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London W1G 7LP.

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