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Sharon Guynup on Saving Endangered Tigers (Part Four)

27 July 2015 | Five-Part Interview Series with Sharon Guynup by Craig Kasnoff

Sharon Guynup has written for the New York Times, Smithsonian, Scientific American, National, Popular Science, and many other significant publications. She is co-author of “Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat”.

Part Four: Tigers in Culture

Q: What role have tigers played in culture?

Sharon Guynup: Throughout history, people living in tiger territory across Asia have feared, worshipped and revered the tiger.

It’s no wonder this animal” sparks fear: The tiger is the dominant predator in every ecosystem it inhabits—and it’s the largest of the world’s cats, incredibly  muscular, possessing fearsome teeth and claws and a roar that resounds for miles.

But the tiger is also the heart and soul of Asia’s jungles (think “The Jungle Book.”) For millennia they’ve stood as an iconic symbol of power and courage, woven into culture, religion, folklore and ritual. The earliest known images of the cats were etched into rock walls across the Indian subcontinent during Neolithic times, some 8,000 years ago.

Their stealthy, illusory habits—suddenly appearing and disappearing in dense forests, often at night may be one of the reasons that tribal cultures across the continent deified this cat, bestowing powers beyond those of any worldly animal. In Tibet, tigers held the keys to immortality. In 13th century China, tigers protected both the living and the dead by frightening away threatening spirits.

The Hindu goddess Durga vanquished a monster-demon while astride her ferocious mount, a tiger.

Legend from many countries describes shamans transforming into tigers to move between the worlds of the living and the dead. Accounts from the early 1900s describe “were-tigers” in Sumatra, people who shapeshifted into tigers at nightfall and shape-shifted back into human form at sunrise; were cats were thought to be malefic, to harm people.

Across Indochina and elsewhere, many once believed that killing a tiger was an unforgivable sin. Others refrained from killing tigers because of a widespread belief that when a tiger killed a human, their soul entered and inhabited the cat’s body. Some tribes, including the Naga in Myanmar and India, only killed tigers as part of powerful rituals or on ceremonial occasions.

The Malayan Tiger: photo by Craig Kasnoff

The Malayan Tiger: photo by Craig Kasnoff

 Q: Why have tigers been “assigned” medicinal powers?

Sharon Guynup: Many traditional Chinese medicine remedies are ancient, prescribed for nearly 4,000 years and compiled in the Pen Tsao Kang Mu (The Great Herbal) during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Demand for the most highly prized items include rhino horn, pangolin scales—and tiger bone.

For millennia, Asian medicine men have ascribed magical powers and healing properties to tigers. Nearly every part, from nose to tail – eyes, whiskers, brains, flesh, blood, organs and more – are used to treat a long list of health problems. Tiger parts are believed to heal the liver and kidneys and are used to treat epilepsy, baldness, inflammation, possession by evil demons, toothaches, skin diseases, nightmares, laziness, fevers, and headaches. Tiger penis is said to have aphrodisiac powers.

But the bones are considered the most useful and powerful, a favored treatment for impotence. There is also a growing, clamoring demand for tiger bone wine, a tonic made by soaking a tiger carcass in rice wine thought to impart the animal’s great strength. Since 1994, some Chinese practitioners have publicly repudiated the efficacy of tiger remedies, with little result

Q: Why do people buy or wear tiger teeth or claws?

Sharon Guynup: Teeth, claws and other body parts have long been used as amulets, usually for protection. In legend, tigers brought food to men and women lost in the forest; tigers fought the forces of evil, protecting tribes, holy men and babies.

The Siberian Tiger: photo by Craig Kasnoff

The Siberian Tiger: photo by Craig Kasnoff

Q: What impact has Traditional Chinese Medicine had on tigers in the wild?

Sharon Guynup: It wasn’t until three decades ago that scientists realized that that TCM was responsible for the tiger’s precipitous decline.  “Beginning about 1986, something…began to happen, something mysterious and deadly. Tigers began to disappear,” wrote Geoffrey Ward in National Geographic in 1997.

As tiger populations in China plummeted, professional poachers fanned out, snaring, trapping and shooting their way across the cat’s range, targeting locations where corruption was common, enforcement was weak or nonexistent—and where there were few economic opportunities. Poachers hired local tribal people to hunt the cats or act as guides. Then they ran prized parts over borders to Chinese TCM manufacturers.

Tigers were classified as globally endangered in 1986. The following year, an international treaty banned cross-border trade in tiger parts. China formally banned domestic trade in 1993, though shadowy networks still thrive. These regulations drove the market underground and though tiger hunting is illegal everywhere, killing has accelerated. Prices for tigers, dead or alive, continue to soar as populations collapse—and as prices soar, poaching increases. Poaching for TCM (and to a lesser degree, for their skins) has become a primary threat to their survival.

Q: Does losing a subspecies of tiger “in the wild” impact culture? If so, how? And does that matter?

Sharon Guynup: The tiger is an iconic animal the world over, even in places they’ve never lived, like the US, where we name sports teams after them and adopt them as school mascots. Sending the tiger the way of the passenger pigeon—or relegating this majestic animal only to barred, cement cages, no more to roam the forest, would be a huge loss to all of humanity, to the ecosystems they help keep in balance, and to the planet.

NEXT Part Five: How to Save Endangered Tigers

For more information about endangered species go to
Find organizations saving endangered species at Saving Endangered
For more information about endangered tigers go to Tigers In
Find organizations saving endangered tigers at Saving Endangered

Tigers in Crisis is Produced by Endangered Species Journalist Craig Kasnoff

to Promote the Plight of Endangered Tigers and the Efforts to Save Them.