During the holidays my family—seven adults, one child and a teenager—visited the Indianapolis Zoo. Despite the unwieldy size of our group, we succeeded in staying together for a while. (The shark-petting pool with its small hint of danger appealed to us.) Before long, though, some of us rushed through the snake house faster than others, and all bets were off.
The sun was beginning to set by the time we reached the Tiger Forest Exhibit. Leaning over the heads of fascinated children, I saw a lonely, nervous-looking Amur tiger, pacing so fast past the glass and over the rocks it was hard to get a clear picture of him.
Later I learned there were other tigers inside, but my mood was already set. I couldn’t help thinking about the worldwide near extinction of tigers. And about my late husband, Eugene, who was born in the Year of the Tiger.
Before Eugene and I were married (and after) he told me stories about the tigers that lived in his home province of Fujian. There were thousands of wild tigers in China when he was a child. Thousands! In fact, the subspecies of tiger from his province is believed to be the root or ancestral tiger of all the tigers in the world. Yet now the Amoy tiger (also known as the South China tiger) is almost certainly extinct in the wild.
Why? Loss of habitat and Mao’s “anti-pest” campaign during the Great Leap Forward are factors. But human population growth is the biggest reason. In 1943, when Eugene was five years old, the population of China was just over 531 million. In 2015, it will top 1.39 billion.
Eugene’s tiger story took place during WWII. He was five or six years old and living under Japanese occupation. The Japanese had confiscated all the good rice. The Chinese were left with rice that was so old it turned to dust when you pressed it between your thumb and forefinger. The Japanese also took pigs, chickens and goats, forcing the Chinese farmers into the mountains to hunt for small game.
Competing with the tigers for wild pigs and tufted deer, farmers inadvertently forced the hungry tigers down from the mountains. Two such tigers swam to Amoy Island where they attacked a Chinese woman. Her husband shot one of the tigers but was too late to save his wife.
When the Japanese soldiers arrived, they forbade the removal of the woman’s body. They wanted to use it as bait for the tiger that got away.
The following night, the second tiger returned, and a sharpshooter killed it.
Both tigers’ hearts, livers, and pelts were reserved for the Japanese officers; their meat, for the soldiers. Leftovers were sold to the Chinese.
You’ll find the full story of how the two hungry tigers were shot and one hungry Chinese family made soup out of a chunk of tiger ‘s tail in my novel.