Eye of the tiger

  • An understanding of the cultural and religious value of tigers can help conserve the animal



MAY 13 -

Before the creation of parks and protected areas, people were connected to natural resources both intrinsically and materially. Until recently, however, biodiversity conservation focussed strictly on species protection without consideration for the humans who inhabit the same ecosystems. As a result, tension between local people and the protection authorities arose and people’s attitudes toward wildlife protection became negative. They lost interest in conservation since it directly impacted their livelihoods.

Humans and tigers

The results for tiger conservation have been catastrophic, with fewer than 4,000 individual tigers remaining in the wild. Involving local people, local knowledge and local culture in conservation projects will be crucial to bringing tigers—and many other species—back from the brink of extinction. Throughout Asia, human and wildlife coexistence has long been common. However, these attachments eroded as people lost their traditional culture and as their societies placed greater emphasis on material well-being. People were distanced from natural resources in the name of economic development.

Contemporary scientific research and articles on tiger conservation concentrate mostly on spatial distribution, landscape conservation, human and tiger conflict management and conservation awareness. So far, no significant efforts have been made towards valuing tigers culturally, religiously or socially to understand the human-tiger cultural and ecological nexus. Despite an international understanding and declarations on the importance of a people-centred policy, community engagement in biodiversity conservation is still in its infancy.

Some initiatives in Asia and Africa are attempting to engage communities in species conservation; however, they are faced with many obstacles. Problems include disparity in fair allocation of resources and an imbalance between needs and greed. Poor people from developing countries bear the costs of global environmental and economic crises. And international scientific communities are either mute or deaf to balancing the needs of the poor and considering issues of equity in conservation.

Cultural value

Cultural knowledge, which has been prevalent for centuries in India and Nepal, offers an immense resource for protecting the environment. These ancient belief systems teach that all aspects of the environment—including water, forest, wind, and animals—are part of nature and are to be respected as part of divine creation. Such local cultural knowledge has existed for 5,000 years or more in Asia but much of this knowledge has become fragmented and eroded under the forces of modernity and greater economic priorities. The present-day environmental consequences of seeing nature as a collection of objects to be commodified and exploited by excessive human greed had even been predicted in some eastern scriptures.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species for Nepal now lists 31 mammals, 33 birds and nine reptile species. In India, 95 mammals, 80 birds, and 55 reptiles are threatened. All of these species held local cultural values. In fact, tigers, elephants, monkeys and snakes are worshiped as gods, with people believing that these species provide good luck and power, and help balance ecosystems for human living. Religious and cultural information stipulates that all of these species are nature’s creations and each one provides immense ecological benefit. The majority of rural people in India, Nepal and other Asian countries strongly believe in a human-nature system. This belief comes from traditional culture, religion and faith. Each ethnic group understands and views biodiversity from their unique cultural frame of reference.

The ancient scriptures of the Hindu religion provides guidance on how we as humans should live in a humane manner. It says: respect every being in its physical form, appreciate nature, live a sustainable life, spread unconditional love and protect nature’s creation. This knowledge, based on religious beliefs, also highlights how to maintain health and wellness and how to be happy all the time. The scriptures further teach us about valuing nature and all its diversity without being contained in political bias.

The stories I was told during my childhood were about animals as sources of natural energy that guided the human psyche towards love and compassion. Numerous tales about tigers, elephants, birds (pigeons, parrots, raptors, vultures and many others) carried important messages about maintaining human health and well-being. For example, a tiger is considered a powerful and sacred animal in Vedic literature. The tiger is the vehicle of the god of power (Durga). Durga also symbolises the optimal energy source in nature. The cultural metaphor of the tiger is, thus, the optimal natural energy, which is also supported by ecological science in that tigers are at the top of the food chain in the forest ecosystem.

The importance of the tiger is also stated in Buddhist scriptures: in a past life, Lord Buddha sacrificed his bodily flesh to feed five hungry tiger cubs. In later life, these tigers became Buddha’s popular disciples and spread Buddhism throughout the world. In Chinese culture, different coloured tigers represent cardinal directions and are symbols of the earth and after life. There are great stories about the tiger and its religious significance in various Buddhist and Vedic literature. These value systems can help highlight the importance of biodiversity at the local level. Documenting culturally held biodiversity values will provide additional information that may also be useful in developing climate change adaptation strategies.

Culture of conservation

How can understanding cultural values save tigers? It may be hard to believe that understanding cultural and religious values can help conserve the tiger. This is a question most scientists and professionals ask. Such values can empower local communities to reclaim the traditional conservation knowledge that their ancestors practiced for generations and acknowledge that each cultural group that value tigers has unique aspirations and perspectives that can benefit the larger community. Cultural knowledge can overcomes racial and ethnic barriers to conservation by eliminating intercultural misunderstandings in valuing nature. It can also open up an avenue to appreciate diverse cultures in the conservation decision-making process. Beyond conservation, respecting and valuing cultural diversity creates a more equitable society and paves the way to eliminating discrimination and corruption.

Dhakal was project director for the National Trust for Nature Conservation and is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, the US

Posted on: 2014-05-13 08:39