Tigers - why they need our help

I love tigers - they are probably my favourite animals. I love their colours, the graceful yet powerful way that they move, the way they look at you - there always seems to be so much going on inside their heads, like they know exactly what you are thinking.

Tigers have long been used to symbolise power and strength. Images of tigers have been discovered which date as far back as 1700 BC - four thousand years ago! They have been used as executioners, entertainers, gladiators and as status symbols for monarchs. Tigers have long been thought to hold some mystical, supernatural powers and feature in many eastern religions and cultures - the shang people of China believed tigers were messengers between the human and spirit worlds and placed their images on tombs to ward off evil spirits. In the Hindu religion, the god Shiva the destroyer rides a tiger and wears a tiger skin. Followers of Buddah ride tigers to show their supernatural abilities to overcome evil. Shrines and temples were built by the forest dwellers of India in which to worship tigers whilst Islam followers in Sumatra believe that tigers punish sinners on behalf of Allah.

Tigers were also regarded as the most prestigious trophy for local maharajas, visiting dignitaries and trigger-happy 'sportsmen' who flocked to India from all over the world in the hopes of bagging this magnificent creature. An ancient belief determined that it was auspicious for a ruler to tally at least 109 tiger kills - one who would have been considered very 'lucky' would have been the Maharaja of Surguja who supposedly hunted 1150 tigers in his lifetime. Tiger body parts are believed by many to have extraordinary healing powers with many unfounded beliefs - an eyeball is a supposed cure for epilepsy for example, whilst the whiskers are supposed to relieve toothache. Other beliefs are that their bones, when crushed, have healing properties and that they even have an effect as an aphrodisiac. Unfortunately, it is these very beliefs that pose such a threat to this animal's future existence as although trade in tiger parts is illegal, poaching is widespread and a single adult tiger can fetch up to $20,000 on the black market.

Today, the greatest threat is from us - as their habitat shrinks fast with timber resources being exploited on a vast scale which in turn forces them to move into areas in search of food where they are then more easily destroyed. Decimated by extensive poaching, deforestation and the conversion of natural forest to agricultural land, the tiger population has plummeted from over 40,000 in Asia alone last century to below 2,000 worldwide in this.

These are truly magnificent creatures yet due to naivety, cruelty and greed their numbers are now so depeleted that they desperately need help if they are to have any future at all. Several sub-species of tiger are already extinct and we will lose more if things don't change. There are various international trusts and charities helping to raise funds to aid research, education and help prevent poaching and many offer opportunities to adopt or otherwise help tigers.

Illegal killing and trading continues despite tigers being protected by law in virtually every country they inhabit - and despite the international trade in them being banned under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

In addition, the tiger is threatened by loss of its habitat and a shortage of natural prey, as well as by another by-product of illegal hunting - tourist souvenirs.

Tiger sleeping. ©Denise Swanson

Photographing tigers

I have never had the opportunity to photograph tigers in the wild but I hope that one day I may be able to do so. There are some tiger images in my galleries that have been taken at wildlife sanctuaries and zoos however and I will donate a percentage of any sales of those images directly to helping tigers. If any tiger charities would like to use any of those images, or would like any pictures taken - please contact me as I would be very happy to help.

In October 2004, I took part in the WWF Walk for Wildlife to raise money for tigers. The walk I chose was at Chester Zoo where several trails had been set up - it was an exhausting day but it was great fun. I raised over GBP100, got to see the tigers and to take some photographs of them.

Pictures I took years ago of baby tigers were used extensively in advertising. They were babies of around 3 months old when I photographed them in 1999. My job at that time was Marketing Director for a software company in the healthcare sector, in which capacity I initiated an advertising campaign using images of tigers to convey power and strength. Tiger images were hard to come by and expensive to license however, so when my boss read that a wildlife sanctuary on Dartmoor were raising several baby tigers, knowing I was a keen photographer he sent me off to pay a visit and take as many pictures as I could. Little did he realise then, what that would lead to!

I leapt at the chance of course and set off with my Canon Powershot G1 digital camera - these are just some of the tigers I photographed that day. Several of the hundred or so images I came back with were used extensively by the company in advertising, brochures, leaflets, on websites, software splash screens and on exhibition stands for several years.

As a way of giving something back and thanking the tigers for those images, a donation was made to the Save The Tiger Foundation for each sale we subsequently made. We also adopted a Bengal tiger, Mannu Pothi in Nepal and one customer even said they chose our product because they liked tigers and were pleased that we were trying to help them! When the company was subsequently sold, one of my tiger images was used effectively to convey the merging of two brands.

Something else happened on Dartmoor that day however - the experience of the day I spent there taking those images was just so amazing, it made me realise that work and a career is not everything and that nature photography was what I really wanted to do. A bit late in the day to find out and of course, I had no time to pursue it as my job was a demanding one.

Two years later however, a life-changing experience due to a serious medical condition I didn't even know I had, made worse by stress and working long hours, required that I change my career and my lifestyle. This was the wake-up call I needed and it made me appreciate that life really is too short and that we need to make the most of it - every single day. After an extended period of recovery, I found I had the time, the opportunity and the desire to pursue nature photography more seriously.

Funny, life - isn't it?