This weekend (Sept. 26-27) Vladivostok, Russia celebrated its 16th Amur Tiger Day. Check out the link to the Phoenix Fund website: Here.
Why should you care? Tigers as a whole are an endangered species, and several subspecies are critically endangered–and some like the Balinese tiger have already become extinct. Along with decreasing habitats, as human beings develop more land (or strip trees from it), the biggest problem for tigers is illegal hunting. Tiger parts (pelts, meat, etc.) are sold on the black market. But as the populations shrink to the verge of extinction, inbreeding becomes another problem.
You probably know Amur tigers by their other name, Siberian tigers. They live primarily around the Sikhote Alin mountain chain in Southeastern Russia (just north of Vladivostok). Because of the lack of conservation policies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hunters killed untold numbers of Amur tigers, bringing the total number down to around 20-40 tigers. The lack of genetic diversity has made the preservation of this subspecies a challenge–the inbreeding weakens their ability to resist certain diseases.
But conservation efforts in the late twentieth century have helped the tigers recover to a number in the low 500s–and there are about the same number in zoos across the world. One of the central efforts to raise awareness about the plight of these tigers and others across the world is the annual celebration named Tiger Day, which began in Russia in September 2000. It has grown into an international event, celebrated in the United States and Europe as well.
Amur tigers are one of the largest of land animals. Their weight, power, and hunting prowess–their teeth and claws–make them dangerous creatures. Those who live near tigers, who live under the threat of a possible tiger attack have a different perspective on the world. But we human beings, with our hunting rifles, have done more than defend ourselves. We frequently have become predators (particularly in the 1800s and 1900s), decimating the populations of many animals around the globe.
Only in the last generations have we begun to understand that such irresponsible destruction has had lasting negative effects. If we bring animal species to extinction, we eliminate parts of the world in which we live, and as we remove more of these elements, we risk seeing the ecosystem that supports us fall apart. In the United States, we have largely wrestled with these issues when discussing wolf populations. When scientists reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone, they saw how their presence dramatically shifted the entire ecosystem.
So even if Tiger Day may seem to be a “distant” celebration to you–Vladivostok may be far away–the issues are ones we all must address. How do we handle our world? How do we treat animals who are more powerful (physically) than we are? Will we support conservation efforts? In several situations we have been too late–there are animals who have gone extinct. Will we be in time for the others?
My novel Wolf Code (due out in November) includes an important dramatization of Tiger Day, and in support of this event this year, I thought I would include this snippet:
Sometimes we are given glimpses into things we do not understand. On our third day in Vladivostok, I caught sight of Mick across the massive crowd that had flocked to the streets to celebrate Tiger Day. He had warned me of the thousands who would be out, but I didn’t believe it until I saw it. People of all ages were dressed in orange, red, and black, with tiger tails hanging and faces painted in elaborate tiger patterns.
When I saw the first painted face, I turned to Tsula and smiled, “I think you could find a place here.”
I saw in her eyes she was impressed too.
An elaborate parade progressed down the street and circled the downtown square. The brightly colored orange costumes and blue balloons starkly contrasted with the neutral gray and sand-colored historic buildings looming in the background. Below a dark charcoal-colored statue of three soldiers, one little girl posed for a picture. She must have been about six, and something about her costume and the smile on her face mesmerized me for a moment. I was going to point her out to Tsula, but I saw she was watching a group of dancers dressed in royal blue costumes. Since I thought the little girl’s costume was more authentic, I turned to watch her, and as I did, I spotted a familiar head bobbing above the crowd several yards away.
It was Mick. For a moment I had the urge to call out, but then I realized there was no chance he could hear me above the celebrations of the day. He was headed away from us, and it looked like he had not seen us. So out of curiosity, I watched him and discovered he was not alone. Beside him walked a woman, dressed in a tight blouse, shredded jeans, and sneakers. From what we knew of Mick, she seemed a strange companion, but I did notice he was different too, dressed in a black T-shirt and camouflage pants, no longer the classy-dressed graduate student we knew. Since they were walking quickly through the crowd on the other side of the street, I almost missed them, but I could not mistake my friend.
By the time Tsula responded to me in the noise of the crowd, too many other people had obscured them; she could not corroborate my sighting. I am not quite sure why, but the difference in Mick confused me. Here we were in his homeland, and he was different. I began to wonder how different.