Thursday, November 24, 2011

Geographica: Tigers!

By now it should hardly need saying that every issue of National Geographic is  wonder-park of astonishment (or words, you know, to that effect). It's a continuous source of confusion to me why every thinking person I know isn't a lifelong subscriber, doesn't eagerly await each new issue and put everything on hold to pore over it like I do. Of course, that very same abundance makes a regular feature like Geographica feel almost redundant, since virtually every issue of National Geographic is so bursting with fascination that it feels nearly misleading to point out any one thing. My only justification is that some things strike me more than others in my reading of each issue. And in this current issue, Stevereads recidivists might be expecting the talking-point to be Adam Nicolson's wonderful, fast-paced overview of the King James Bible - its history, its 'reception' as a text, etc. And it was indeed a joy - as was the photo taken by Jeffrey Chua de Guzman on the sea-bed off the coast of Manilla: he spotted something moving and saw a broken soda bottle (it's standing upright in the photo - my inner Suspicious Aloysius wonders if the photographer didn't find it on its side and stand it up himself, for dramatic effect) - with an octopus leisurely canted inside.

But for me, this time around, the highlight was Caroline Alexander's tough but hopeful article "A Cry for the Tiger," in which she writes about both the plight of the world's wild tigers and (in the magazine's long tradition) the fight to save them. The article opens with an incredibly enheartening sight: a trip-wire camera's midnight shot of a tiger walking by in the forests of northern Sumatra, a magnificent creature caught for one instant in the middle of its invisible life. But then the very next image is discouraging: four hopeless little felons apprehended outside Chandrapur trying to sell a tiger skin (pretty discouraging too the shot in this article of a terrified puppy being used as live bait in a tiger-trap). I lived for a while in Chandrapur many years ago, and I saw tiger-articles - pelts, claws, teeth, tails - in the bazaar all the time ... it was immediately saddening to know it still goes on, even in today's far more eco-conscious atmosphere.

Sill, at least Alexander's prose is an unmixed joy. Her article bogs in statistics or exposition, and her narrative is always sharp with awe:
Consider the tiger, how he is formed. With claws up to four inches long and retractable, like a domestic cat's, and carnassial teeth that shatter bone. While able to achieve bursts above 35 miles an hour, the tiger is built for strength, not sustained speed. Short, powerful legs propel his trademark lethal lunge and fabled leaps. Recently, a tiger was captured on video jumping - flying - from flat ground to 13 feet in the air to attack a ranger riding an elephant. The eye of the tiger is backlit by a membrane that reflects light through the retina, the secret of his famous night vision and glowing night eyes. The roar of the tiger - Aaaaauuuuunnnn! - can carry more than a mile.

The perfect accompaniment to the article: a pull-out poster with a beautiful Fernando Baptista illustration of a lion on one side and a gallery of incredible Vincent Musi photos of the world's big cats on the other.

Of course it will come as little surprise to any of you that I find these animals extra disturbing - pretty tough for a confirmed dog-person not to find the idea of a 600-pound cat with linoleum-knives for claws disturbing. But the article left me tensely hoping there's a future for these magnificent animals. National Geographic does that to you: it broadens your reactions to everything in the world.


JC said...

" National Geographic does that to you: it broadens your reactions to everything in the world." As does Stevereads!

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