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THE SIBERIAN TIGER and the Country of Tiger Tales

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JANUARY 28, 1998 BEGAN THE YEAR OF THE TIGER, OR LUNAR YEAR 4697. BUT THE TIGER, WHOSE POPULATION THROUGHOUT ASIA WAS AROUND 100,000 AT THE TURN OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, IS NOW IN DANGER OF EXTINCTION. TEACHERS OF SCIENCE, SOCIAL STUDIES AND LITERATURE CAN BRING THE CRISIS OF THE TIGER’S ENVIRONMENTAL PLIGHT AS WELL AS ITS PLACE IN ASIAN CULTURE TO THE ATTENTION OF THEIR STUDENTS BY PRESENTING AN INTEGRATED CURRICULUM— DESCRIPTION, HABITAT AND SPECIES CONSERVATION, ALONG WITH HISTORY AND FOLKLORE—TO STUDENTS IN GRADES K THROUGH 12. 

By studying the tiger’s home range, students can grasp the geography of Asia, (note 1) and by studying the folklore and mythology of the tiger, they can understand more about the people who lived near this animal. This essay will concentrate on the Amur, or Siberian, tiger that roamed China, Russia and the Korean peninsula, and on the stories of the Koreans who have remembered the tiger as a protector, brother and friend, as well as an enemy and trickster.

Today, only about 5,000–7,000 tigers of all five subspecies exist in the wild across Asia. In the past their territory ranged from southeastern Russia, throughout China and the Korean peninsula, south to Indochina and Indonesia, west to India and as far north as the Caspian Sea. The Bali, Caspian and Javanese tigers have become extinct in the past seventy years, and other subspecies of tigers are in serious danger of extinction in India and Russia, as well as Northeast and Southeast Asia.

Koreans have such a fondness for this animal that they nicknamed

Before the turn of the twentieth century the Siberian tiger (also known as the Amur, Manchurian, or Northeast China tiger), the largest of the five subspecies, roamed over China, Russia, and North and South Korea. Forty years ago, after several wars in the region— the Russian and Chinese revolutions, World War II, and the Korean War—the Siberian tiger population was reduced to an estimated twenty-four in the wild. Perhaps through benevolent neglect, their numbers rose again and in 1998 it is believed that there are approximately 400–500 Siberian tigers living in the wild (mostly in eastern Russian) and about 490 in zoo programs around the world (again, primarily in Russia). This is still far from the prewar numbers, however, and while the Siberian tiger may be better off than some of the other subspecies, the demand for tiger bones and parts as a medical panacea makes their complete extinction in the wild a possibility. The Siberian tiger’s status is considered to be “critical” by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). (note 2) 

Tigers can survive in a variety of habitats, yet loss of land is one major factor causing their reduced numbers. As tigers have encroached upon farmers’ livestock, they have been hunted and killed without license. But the major factor leading to the tiger’s demise is illegal poaching for economic gain. Although tigers are protected in many areas of the world, including China and Russia, hunters kill them for their bones and body parts which are thought to give health and potency to people who consume them. China has recently outlawed the sale of tiger parts, on penalty of death, and a “tiger farm” in Harbin, China has been converted into a tourist attraction, which offers its owners legal income for raising tigers. Unfortunately there is still a market for tiger parts, and the products bring high prices in pharmacies from Tokyo to Los Angeles to New York. (note 3) None of the medicinal claims have been proven, but still the illegal trade continues.

The tiger, which is the largest of the cats, is a creature of great power and mysterious beauty. Its dramatic markings of black or dark brown stripes accented with white might aid in camouflage, but no one knows from where or why the tiger got its stripes. Each tiger has its own distinctive, asymmetrical markings, like human fingerprints, so no two are exactly alike. A creative writing project might ask students to create a story about how the tiger got its stripes! The stripes of the tiger have even been connected to Chinese writing. It is said that the Siberian tiger often has the Chinese mark wang (“king”) on its forehead.

There are several Internet websites for science and social studies teachers to use to teach their students about the tiger. They contain zoological and geographical data, interactive games and projects, photographs, and resources they might contact to help save all endangered species. One is the IUCN site specializing in cats, http://lynx.uio.no/catfolk/. The Tiger Information Center has an excellent site called “All About Tigers.” One of their interactive links, “Tracking the Tiger Trade,” gets students to read a story and decide on the course of action to take in order to save the tiger. The link http://www. 5tigers.org/teachers.htm will guide you to up-to-date on-line resources for teachers. The Tiger Information Center is sponsored by Save the Tiger Fund (1-800-5Tigers), a program of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. (note 4) 

NOTES

1. See David Nemeth, “Geographic Gateways to Seeing and Understanding Korea,” Education About Asia , v.3, no. 1 (Spring 1998), 47–51 for his interesting approach to introducing the geography of Korea. The tiger could easily be used as a “geographic gateway” to the study of Korea.

2.The IUCN is one of the oldest international conservancy groups in the world, which sponsors programs and publications dedicated to the relationship between nature and society. http://www.iucn.org or IUCN/USA, Suite 502, 1400 16th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.

3.http://www.5tigers.org/index.html

4.They can be reached by phone or mail: The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, 1120 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20036, 202-857-0166, 202-857-0162 (fax) in partnership with the Exxon Corporation.