Conservation and Society

: 2005  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 231--233

Social History in Tigerland

K Ullas Karanth 
 Centre for Wildlife Studies 823, 13th Cross Road, Jayanagar, 7th Block (West) Bangalore, Karnataka-560 082, India

Correspondence Address:
K Ullas Karanth
Centre for Wildlife Studies 823, 13th Cross Road, Jayanagar, 7th Block (West) Bangalore, Karnataka-560 082

How to cite this article:
Karanth K U. Social History in Tigerland.Conservat Soc 2005;3:231-233

How to cite this URL:
Karanth K U. Social History in Tigerland. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2005 [cited 2022 Sep 26 ];3:231-233
Available from:

Full Text

Peter Boomgaard, Frontiers of Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600-1950. Yale Agrarian Studies Series, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2002, 316 pp., $ 42.50. ISBN: 0300085397

The study of history was enriched when its practitioners began examining their subject within a broader context of economic, technological and environmental changes. Yet, a single mammal species-Homo sapiens-continues to occupy the centre-stage in most of what we call history, pushing the once-dominant wild nature virtually off-stage. Recently, a few historians have begun to examine how wild animal species have influenced human societies through time. Biologists-who usually have no time to reflect on history-should benefit greatly from such historical studies, such as those exemplified by the works of Mahesh Rangarajan and Divya Chavda in the Indian subcontinent. Dutch scholar Peter Boomgaard's monumental study "Tigers and people in the Malay world", spanning the years 1600-1950, is an addition to this growing corpus of wildlife-centric social science. As a scientist who studies wild tigers from an ecological perspective, I found Boomgaard's account- richly sourced to archival Dutch, Portuguese, English and Asian material very absorbing. The rare photographs and illustrations are a bonus.

The "Malay world" described in this book, spans the tiger's historical range in Indonesia and Malaysia. Biologists know that tigers evolved over a million years ago as top predators of large hoofed-animals. Modern genetic tracking tells us that humans moved into this region about 50,000 years ago, adding a new item to the tigers traditional menu of ungulates and apes. Thereafter-within the blink of a tiger's eyes in an evolutionary time scale-humans transformed themselves from primitive hunter-gatherers to slash-and-burn cultivators and then to settled farmers. Within a few centuries the Malay social world moved through animist, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic cultures, eventually becoming a part of the Dutch colonial empire.

Unlike the deciduous forests of the Indian subcontinent or Indochina, which are ecologically optimal habitats for tigers, the prey-scarce rainforests of the Malay world (with the exception of eastern Java), are inherently low-density tiger habitats. As Malay societies pushed back the rainforest frontier through expanding agriculture, stock grazing, fires and timbering, they triggered a cascading wave of violent conflicts with tigers. Although such human impacts did create secondary forests beneficial to tigers and provide a new source of livestock prey for the big cat, overall, the loss of habitat and prey base, combined with escalating conflicts virtually extirpated the cat within just three centuries. Tigers were wiped out from Bali and Java, and barely hang on now in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.

The book covers varied material starting with a 'popular-biological' overview of tigers and other big cats in the Malay world. The review of tiger biology is somewhat anthropocentric and tends to draw sustenance from accounts (and tall tales) of old hunter naturalist types than on studies of tigers from a scientific perspective. The speculations on tiger densities (pages 25, 50 and 213) are examples of this approach.

However, it is Boomgaard's description of the forms in which human-tiger relationships manifested themselves in the Malay world that forms the core of the book. These chapters cover human-tiger conflicts, man-eating tigers and bounty hunting of tigers. The author has delved deeply into archival materials and other accounts of travelers, hunters, naturalists and administrators of Portuguese, Dutch, British and American origin. The statistics of numbers of people killed by tigers and the numbers of tigers killed by humans, graphically illustrates the massive scale of the conflict between big cats and the human intruders into its habitat.

There is a well-documented analysis of Dutch bounty-hunting schemes for tigers that gets into the minutiae of regional variations among such operations in Java, Bali and the Malay Peninsula. Thereafter, Boomgaard carefully details the tiger hunting practices in Java, Sumatra and Bali. He draws comparisons of Malay hunting practices with their contemporary-Shikar in the Indian empire, and traces the role of guns and steel in speeding up the tiger's extirpation.

The somewhat weird anthropology behind the "tiger rituals" in Javanese royal courts, in which hundreds of tigers were slaughtered, is described and reasonably explained as a social mechanism that evolved to eradicate the big cat which stood in the way of advancing agriculture and human welfare. Boomgaard also clinically analyses why Malay ancestor worship and cultural attitudes towards tigers did not prevent the widespread killing of tigers. The author's explanation about the typically Asian combination of fear and reverence for "elders" that characterise Malay "ancestor-worship" of tigers seems entirely plausible.

These historical accounts are followed by the concluding chapters wherein the author tries to synthesise his understanding of the biology of the tiger with the historical events that he meticulously documents. The strongest parts of the book are its descriptions of human-tiger conflict, the scale and dynamics of bountyhunting, methods employed in tiger hunting and the tiger rituals of Javanese courts. Boomgaard factually documents how increasing penetration of tiger habitats by humans led to increasing levels of conflict, clearly demonstrating that social policies aimed at eradicating tigers emerged in different socio-historical contexts, all the way through Javanese court rituals, Muslim tiger charmers and the Dutch encouragement of bounty hunters. For those present-day conservationists who would like to believe that farming, livestock husbandry and viable tiger populations should coexist peacefully these chapters provide massive evidence to the contrary.

Boomgaard is less convincing in his ecological speculations - such as the linkages between "tiger densities" (based on tiger numbers attributed to various 'experts') and the social changes he documents, and, with his proposed three "models" of tiger extinction. There is no doubt, however, that overall, his work is a major contribution to advancing conservation knowledge in Asia.