THE YEAR OF THE TIGER: RESPECTED OR FEARED?
In Singapore, age-old beliefs are alive and kicking, like the one of the Chinese calendar with its 12 animals that may have a great influence on our lives each year, whose cycles repeats every 12 years. The Year of the Tiger is nothing if controversial: on one hand, it is celebrated in Singapore by the opening of a new attraction; on the other, it is feared to such an extent that many Singaporeans exercise caution when planning to start a family this year.
Gene Mutation at Its Best
Tiger (Panthera Tigris)
Subfamily: Large felines
Subspecies: Amur, Bengal, Indochinese, Malaysian, Sumatran, South China tigers
The Bali, Javan and Caspian tigers became extinct in the 19th century.
To mark the Year of the Tiger, the Singapore Zoo launched a new educational attraction: visitors will get the opportunity to see a caged white tiger being trained from as close as 1.5 metres. Ten-year-old Omar, which weighs 140 kg, and his two other siblings, Winnie and Jippie, came to the Singapore Zoo from Taman Safari, Indonesia, in 2001, as part of an animal exchange programme. The magnificent trio is a rare subspecies of the Bengal tigers, white tigers that draw millions of tourists every year.
White tigers are often mistaken for albinos, which have pink eyes and no stripes. Omar, Winnie and Jippie have blue eyes, a pink nose and creamy white fur covered with chocolate-brown stripes. Their unusual appearance is a result of a gene
mutation – a permanent change in the gene controlling coat coloration. The change can be passed on from one generation to another. However, two such genes are needed, which is why inbreeding, a procedure allowing the effect of recessive genes to show up, has been used for breeding white tigers in captivity.
In 1951, during a big hunt in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, beaters drove a tigress with four cubs towards the hunters. One of the cubs was white. He was caught and raised in captivity to be later crossed with a tigress with normal orange-coloured fur. She bore four cubs of normal colour only, so the father tiger was crossed again with one of his daughters, which had a litter of three cubs, two of which had blue eyes and dark-striped white fur.
Thus, all of the 130 white tigers today that are kept in the world’s zoos are descendants of one male found in the Indian jungle.
In the wild, Bengal white tigers are found exclusively in South Asia, notably in India. Although Bengal tigers make up 60 per cent of the world’s wild tiger population, individuals with white coats are indeed very rare. Only one white tiger exists for every 10,000 normal orange-coloured tigers.
The majestic tiger is a symbol of strength and power. Yet today, their survival hangs in the balance as rapid deforestation has resulted in the destruction of their habitat and depletion of their prey. The killing of tigers for their body parts is another reason for their population decline.
Tiger Baby Phobia
Singaporeans are highly superstitious and, this year, Singapore is unlikely to experience an increase in its population from natural causes. Local statisticians observe that each time a Year of the Tiger hits the 12-year animal-based Chinese calendar, fewer babies are born in Singapore.
The explanation for this phenomenon lies in a traditional Chinese belief that Tiger children are temperamental, rebellious and unpredictable, especially if they are girls. Cautious Singaporeans choose to foresee a problem rather than fix it in the future. Therefore, some couples consulted geomants (feng shui masters) as early as 2008 to ask for an auspicious date on which to conceive, so that their child would not be born in 2010. Some births were induced two weeks earlier at the beginning of this year in order not to coincide with the advent of the Year of Tiger, which fell on 14 February this year.
However, many see a bright side to the current situation: birthing rooms and maternity wards will be less crowded in 2010, and it’ll be much easier to enroll children born this year in a prestigious school in 2017 due to less competition. Superstition-driven behaviour may seem irrational for the modern and urban population of Singapore, but old habits obviously die hard.