Putin Calls Meeting on Tiger Threats
The New York Times, November 22, 2010
Ministers from several countries gathered Sunday in St. Petersburg at the invitation of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to begin a five-day meeting with the goal of protecting tigers. Only a little more than 3,000 are estimated to be living outside captivity.
Mr. Putin is so fond of the animals that he was given a cub for his 56th birthday.
But it is perhaps no accident that Mr. Putin has chosen to make an endangered feline the subject of the conference rather than a threatened canine – the wolf, for example, or the wild dog.
Throughout history, prominent men have identified with the majesty, power and machismo of large cats.
“Leaders especially like to think of themselves as having the virtues of large cats,” said Stephen R. Kellert, a professor emeritus and senior research scholar at Yale University who studies human-animal relationships. “They like the image of the stand-alone, solitary yet fearsome hunter.”
The heads of the military junta in Myanmar, a country not known for its concern about human rights, recently created the largest tiger preserve in the world. In Africa, some Maasai warriors who once killed lions as a rite of manhood work in lion guardian programs.
In contrast, predators in the dog family often not only lack admirers, but are despised. Wolves in Russia, for example, are commonly hunted with the state’s blessing. Wild dogs in Africa are snared and killed by ranchers, despite being critically endangered. In the United States, coyotes are pursued as pests.
The dichotomy of attitudes toward wild cats and wild dogs is noticeable enough that psychologists and conservation workers have developed theories about it. One is that canids – a group that includes wolves, foxes, jackals, coyotes and wild canines – are perceived as betraying the trusting relationship
that humans have built with their domestic cousins. Another is that canid hunting patterns, which often include disembowelment and scavenging, are particularly offensive to humans.
Whatever the reason, the emotions are prominently on display in countries when conservation workers go from village to village and ranch to ranch.
“It is really apparent that wild dogs engender a real visceral hatred,” said Luke Hunter, executive vice president of Panthera, a nonprofit based in New York and London that works to save large cats. Ranchers, shepherds and other livestock owners, he said, “are venomous toward wild dogs in a way that they are not to big cats.”
Dr. Hunter noted that he saw quite the opposite reaction to mountain lions, jaguars and other large felines. The same men, he said, hold the animals “in great esteem.”
“They are elusive and secretive,” Dr. Hunter said of the cats. “Even a cattle rancher, who doesn’t much want them around, respects them.”
The connection between leaders and large cats in particular has a long history. In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh was often represented as a sphinx – part lion, part human. In Europe and the Middle East, lions came to be associated with royalty – partly due to their fierceness and partly because the mane made them look the part – and they appear on official symbols for more than a dozen countries, from the coat of arms of England to the Lion of Judah in Jerusalem.
In Asia, tigers have similarly been aligned with royalty, so much so that the Chinese character for king is thought to resemble the markings on the tiger’s forehead.