Tiger Stories: The Tale of a Striped Monk

by Ramesh Pandey
Sighting the elegance of a tiger in wild is like sighting the Taj Mahal, which is beyond the capture of a mere photograph. More so, in the case of a tiger since the sighting of a tiger in its natural habitat is not only for a fleeting moment, but also very uncertain. The elusive nature of the tiger, and the shroud of uncertainty around its character, led to it being regarding as a beastly or aggressive animal, in the general perception.
This notion got further reinforced in the ‘shikaar’ tales of the British in colonial times. Even Jim Corbett, having spent years eliminating man-eating tigers and leopards in Terai and the Lower Himalayas, and narrating their stories, was only able to realize the hidden nature of the tiger in the fag end of his life. Having turned a new leaf and become a conservationist, he wrote that ‘the tiger is a large hearted gentleman’. Dunbar Branders, in his 1923 book Wild Animals of Central India, has also reflected on the true nature of the animal, but the then society was not concerned with the nature of the animal, and were more interested in shikaar tales. These reflections remained somewhat buried, until the 1970s and 1980s when the population of tigers dropped extremely low and the deliberations around its conservation started with the likes of Kailash Sankhla, author of Tiger! The Story of Indian Tiger, delving into its true nature.
However, even in current times, a tiger brings to mind aggression, man-eating behavior, killing, danger, and even violence – in the general perception. For practitioners who have spent years working for the conservation of tigers, the most commonly asked questions are typically around the killings, the attacks, the ferocious behavior, and the aggression of tigers. In villages of the Terai region, that are on the fringes of forests and protected areas, the current generation has been found to have an antagonistic attitude towards tigers and seems to be totally indifferent or unaware of the true nature of the animals that they are around, tigers especially so.
When I see a tiger, it strikes me that it is a very self-engrossed animal. Even minor disturbances in its state of being, surprise it. An onlooker may sometimes wrongly perceive that a tiger is afraid or startled by a sudden interface but this is not its meekness or fear. Instead it is just occupied with its own self, its own tribulations. It is interesting to see how the same animal embodies both the impressions of aggression and innocence at different times, both of which are incomplete realities of its nature. That is why I say that the tiger is a monk.
It won’t bother you, or be bothered by you. It tries to maintain its composure as much as it can. Even if you are around it, it will most likely be unfazed. And even when a tiger expresses its aggression, it is mock. It’s a construct. The reason I say this is that such tendencies or expressions of hostility on the part of a tiger usually depict anomalous behavior – it is either sick, or old, or injured. Usually, cases of man-animal conflict only come to light when the animal is facing untoward human intervention or at the behest of disturbing agents.
The tiger is indeed charismatic, beautiful, magnificent, and powerful but being synonymous with aggression is not a right interpretation of its nature. This leads us to an important notion of respecting the tiger, and having admiration towards it, rather than demeaning, mobbing, or antagonizing it as a species in our interactions with it. In particular, when negative interfaces with tigers take place, many a time human feel that their hypothetical position of superiority and dominance is challenged. They find their imaginary invincibility threatened and end up taking their violent retaliation out on the animal. Having put ourselves on a greater pedestal than other creatures, humankind often forgets that their fellow animals too, have a psychological outlook, and an emotional space that deserves to be acknowledged and respected.