Eyes on the Tiger

A survey on the striped survivors of Sumatra

A very big kitty cat. (Photo credits: http://www.tigersincrisis.com)

John Cleese in his capacity as Minister of Silly Self-Defense, instructs his students that if they are being attacked by an assailant armed with fresh-fruit (especially raspberries!), they should locate and pull the nearest lever to release a tiger. Not only does the tiger effectively disarm the vandal, but the tiger will also eat the criminal’s nutritious device rendering them harmless without their harvest (tigers are carnivorous by nature but when tasked to defend, they eat fruit). It is to be remembered that releasing a tiger should be the last recourse, that is, if one does not have a gun nor a 16-ton weight at ready disposal.

Nowadays, the preferred method of defense is a lot less animal and a lot more martial. There are plenty of reasons why.

For one, the released wild animal might opt for leisure than for lethal. Second, weapons research have branched out from the botanical to traverse other territories in biology in search of new and deadlier arsenal: fresh-fruit has been successfully usurped by firepower —crates of cabbages being airdropped for trivial warfare is a thing of the past. Third, the decline of special tiger use for self-defense might be caused by the simple fact that tigers as a species are dying; and at the face of imminent extinction, they simply have no means to defend themselves.

But for all its helplessness against extinction, tigers carry with them a strength acknowledged and respected in various human communities and cultures.

Tigers (Panthera tigris) are venerated in the arts, literature, and religions of Asia and beyond for the mystical allure they exude and command. In Hindu iconography, the Goddess Durga rides a tiger that represents unlimited power. The Shu emperor Liu Bei confers to his five most competent military personnel the title “The Five Tiger Generals” in the classic Chinese text, Romance of The Three Kingdoms. Tigers are the subject of many South Korean folklores and myths, and is also the country’s national animal — featured as the official mascot of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. The “Emperor of Muay Thai” Sagat’s devastating offensive arsenal is filled with a variety of species under the genus tiger (e.g. T. knee and T. uppercut). Heavy Metal legend Dio, in his song Holy Diver, comments on the cleanliness of the cat’s coiffure of camouflage singing “you can see his stripes but you know he’s clean.”

Academics and pundits were quick to latch on to the tiger trend. Economists, especially.

Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan all enjoyed high economic growth rates and rapid industrial and technological development from the late 1950s to the 90s and were thus christened “The Four Tiger Economies.”

Other Asian countries followed suit, creeping behind and fighting each other to have a spot in the echelons of economic elites; the right to bear the tiger epithet holds prestige beyond measure. The contenders are legion but economics think tank Market Watch names Indonesia and the Philippines as the top two contenders,claiming that the two have “the potential to leave a bigger imprint on global growth for years to come.” In present economics parlance this may sound like good news, but these two countries’ forebears might have some precaution for posterity to ponder.

Of Monsters and Men

A hypothetical scenario: When peoples from pre-Colonial Indonesia and Malaysia set for the seas and landed on (yet to be named) Philippine soil they brought with them countless materials for trade and nourishment. Along with these, of course, were stories from their homeland which they then shared to their children and so on. As one of the major functions of children’s stories is to instruct safety precautions, the theme of monsters grabbing naughty and unwary children as grub is a popular choice (the amount of stories set to this theme in Grimm’s Fairy Tales seem to lend credit to this idea). One of the hypothetical stories that may have been told before bedtime was that of the harimau, a creature that stalks, swipes, and savages unwary human beings walking carelessly in the forest. After successive generations of retelling, the harimau’s nightmarish notoriety was removed from reality and then transferred to the realm of mythology, becoming the Filipino word for monster: halimaw.

The Malay word for tiger is harimau.

(Paleontologists have found remains of tigers in the island of Palawan. These tigers went extinct during the Pleistocene, predating the arrival of and contact with peoples from the Malay Archipelago by thousands of years.)

There is no conclusive proof that the etymology of halimaw can be traced to harimau. But one can do a series of things to measure the probability of an actual relationship.

The first step is to compare words from modern Filipino, Indonesian, and Malaysian and see if there are any observable patterns. The most obvious modification in halimaw is the phoneme l in place of r. Filipino has plenty of loanwords from Indonesian and Malaysian that follow this pattern: from berita to balita for “news”; harga to halaga for “price”; rasa to lasa forflavor”; surat to sulat for “letter”. Though there are a plethora of other examples, the replace r with l pattern is not a general rule, for it is quite ridiculous to call that pungent but succulent fruit as dulian when one eats it in the Philippines.

Since a pattern in modern usage is observed, an inquiry into history to discover the extent of this relationship is the next step. For this purpose, the Laguna Copperplate Inscription (LCI), the oldest document found in the Philippines (bearing the date 900 AD) — discovered by accident from a dredging activity in the Lumbang river in Laguna — serves as our best material for inspection. What’s interesting about the LCI is the script and language it bears. Antoon Postma, one of the first anthropologists and major leading figures in deciphering the LCI, says that the script in the document “belongs to the so-called Early Kawi Script that was also employed in the inscriptions that were found in lndonesia during a period of almost two hundred years (about 750–925 A.D.).” Moreover, Postma adds that the script in the LCI traces its roots “from the script-types used on the Indian mainland, that gradually spread into Southeast Asia and further into the Malayan Archipelago.” Regarding the language used, Postma explains that, “the main language of the LCI is clearly Old-Malay” while also having words from Sanskrit and Old-Javanese. It then raises the question why Old-Malay was the language mainly used in the LCI and not the local language of the early-Filipinos. For this problem, Postma offers three points that may lead to an answer: 1.) “[Old-Malay] was the medium of communication” of traders and settlers “with outlying regions like the Philippines that used their own indigenous languages”; hence 2.) “its intended purpose” was “for communication with a ‘foreign country’”; and 3.) “[the LCI] was issued by Srivijayan authorities in Sumatera Selatan [South Sumatra], where Old-Malay was the vernacular and current language of communication, serving also as the trade language farther afield.”

Photo credits: https://xiaochua.net

Taking hints from Postma’s suggestions, the LCI creates a picture of a pre-colonial Filipino people deeply integrated in a greater South-East Asian maritime community freely trading and communicating with each other. They were familiar with Old Malay, Old Javanese, and Sanskrit, and from these they developed their own unique script and language. A possible scenario one can deduct from all this is that a large portion of pre-colonial Filipino settlers were either from Sumatra, where the Srivijayan kingdom had its base, or the island of Java; and that the LCI was one of the many instances where they maintained contact with their homeland. The most interesting and important fact about these two islands is that they are home to two of Indonesia’s three tiger subspecies: the Javan tiger (P. tigris sondaica) and the Sumatran tiger (P. tigris sumatrae).

The Language of Loss

Across time, language in general and words in specific undergo changes that are both fascinating and bizarre. We use the word nice to define things that are pleasurable and agreeable to us. But its origin is the Latin word nescius meaning ignorant — which may also be the origin of the saying, “ignorance is bliss”, for ignorance is indeed kind of nice (in small doses, let me qualify).

While the early-Filipinos were nescius of the halimaw, modern Filipinos and Indonesians are feeling nice at the inscription of harimau to their respective economies. The distinction of being called a tiger economy is indeed tempting — as it entails progress in the fields of technology and industry. But this tiger carries around the specter of the halimaw, and it seems like the economic trajectory being followed by these two countries is headed to a way that makes both nescius of its foreboding.

Rapid economic growth demands rapid production. For production to take place there needs to be consumption at the same time. This relationship is best illustrated by Karl Marx in Grundrisse, saying that “production is thus at the same time consumption, and consumption is at the same time production”, as evidenced in the fact that, “the production of a plant involves the consumption of elemental forces and chemical materials.” So if rapid production is pursued, so too will rapid consumption in order to fill the need of raw materials. And it is in this chimera of production-consumption where the harimau hovers its haunting halimaw head.

As economies upped their game, forests were being torn asunder. According to a Philippine senate report, forests covered 57% of the country’s total land area in 1934, and this was reduced to only 24% by the year 2010. Within that span of time, mining and logging firms made the most out of the growing economy. The Philippine Tropical Forest Conservation, Inc., reports that “a logging boom occurred in the 1960s-70s to feed an industrialized economy. Mining was introduced and became a major industry. Tracts of forests were also cleared to make way for agricultural and human settlements. By this time, forest cover had been reduced to 10.2 million ha.”

The state of Indonesia’s forests also suffered the same fate. Indonesia lost approximately “1 million ha of forest each year in the 1980s and about 1.7 million ha per year in the 1990s” according to a report from Forest Watch Indonesia. But it seems like this is just the preface to a greater tragedy, because the rate of deforestation has been going up. Deforestation has accelerated since 1996 to approximately 2 million ha each year!

Deforestation in Kalimantan

It was this rabid forest destruction that turned the harimau of Java into a halimaw — a mere specter. The island of Java had forests covering up to 23% of its total land area in the year 1938. In the 70s, this was reduced to a mere 8% . As their homes were rapidly ravaged, the dwindling tiger population found refuge in the highest mountain in South East Java, Mount Betiri. Almost symbolic as it was tragic — the tiger’s last stand on the mountains, its ascent back to its rightful throne, was also its quick and dreadful descent towards extinction. Only seven were found in 1972, and surveys from the 80s onward yield no sighting. The Javan tigers, once abundant in the island of Java as to be considered pests, were now extirpated to oblivion in the span of decades: what was thought to be a monster was ironically obliterated by something actually monstrous.

Sumatran Survivors

Before the Javan tigers roared their last, their Balinese cousins cried farewell much earlier. It is reported that the last of the Balinese tigers (Panthera tigris balica) was silenced with a gunshot some time in 1937. Of the three Indonesian subspecies, only the Sumatran stock survives to this day. But nothing indicates that they are far from danger— their stripes are fading fast from existence.

Officially declared “critically endangered” in 1996, they have fought a two decades long struggle (almost hopeless) for survival. Estimates say that there are only about 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild and their numbers are steadily decreasing. The continuous destruction of their homes is setting up the finale for their eventual extinction, since Indonesian courts see no reason to protect vital forestland necessary for their existence. Yuyun Indradi of Greenpeace South-East Asia paints a grim picture of the future, saying that, “there will be increased floods, fires and droughts but no animals” if no action against large-scale deforestation is taken.

Their homelessness makes them extra vulnerable for capture, fueling the illegal tiger trade, a multi-million industry bolstered by the many facets of everyday life, from fashion to medicine. For example, the trade benefits from a misguided notion of medicine — tiger penis is a traditional Chinese medicine to increase male virility, and its price stands up to around $6,800. Despite increased global efforts to clamp down poachers, there are no signs of decreasing activity.

Palm oil companies are seen as the main culprits of Sumatran decimation. From 2009 to 2011, 1.24 million hectares of Sumatran forests were destroyed to make way for more palm plantations; the largest swath of forest area affected by this was under the “concessions currently held by the palm oil groups Surya Dumai, Duta Palma, the Incasi Raya Group and Danitama Makmur.”

The palm problem has deeply rooted itself into Indonesia’s economy that it has become a difficult dilemma to. It employs around 4.9 million people while also bringing in more than $20-billion in profits. This insatiable drive to produce palm oil for production’s sake has reached biblical proportions that Indonesia and its cradled companies keep on waving palms awaiting the arrival of an economic messiah. In this regard, one can only expect apocalypse - forewarned by the passage in Jeremiah 5:6

“ Therefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the desert shall destroy them and a tiger shall lie in wait over their cities.”

(Though in some editions, it is a leopard that waits, not a tiger, probably because of the tiger’s impatience.)

The Sumatran tigers will go extinct sooner or later if nothing is done to prevent their fast impending doom. As apex predators, their survival indicates a healthy and vibrant ecosystem, and their absence is a cause for concern. Human beings need to ensure the relative health of their ecosystems that provide them with the means to live — and that includes saving the members that maintain it. Another Survivor, lamenting through song the tiger’s predicament, boldly declares that in the event of their extinction, the tigers will put up one last fight wherein humans will be put in danger, with “ the last known survivor” stalking “his prey in the night.”

Waiting for the perfect opportunity to pull a lever.