Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A King Dethroned by Michael Siward

Mike Siward is a full time banker and a part-time photographer.  He and his wife have been living in Hong Kong since 2006 when they moved there from Chicago due to Mike's job.  Since that time Mike has been travelling extensively throughout the globe and his passion for photography has quickly transformed it from a mere hobby to commissioned work. In 2009, he became a Getty Images and Reuters contributing photographer with work ranging from photojournalism and current events  to travel and wildlife.  The two areas of photography which fascinate him the most are wildlife and portraiture.

Work credits include:
South China Morning Post, Time Out Hong Kong, Bloomberg, Lifestyle Asia, Reuters, The Economist, Aware magazine, Asia Money, The Standard


A King Dethroned

“Just one last shot! I almost got it” - I screamed out in desperation to a Chinese minibus driver (who although I’m pretty sure couldn’t understand me, was turning bright red and swearing in Mandarin).

“Mike, don’t be stupid!” – was the last thing I heard as my wife and fellow passengers dragged me back through the open window.

As the guide slammed the glass window shut, this cub’s mom leaped right up against it, leaving condensation from the warm breath and scratch marks from the heavy paws.

This was a perfect example how easy it is for photographers to occasionally lose themselves in a moment while being completely oblivious to the action around them.  As I was shooting pictures of this curious young tiger cub, I was actually being hunted by his mom (who crawled underneath the bus window)!  The fellow passengers who pulled me inside at the very least saved my camera gear and most likely my arm.

Welcome to the real Jurassic Park!

Near the northernmost part of China, on a southern border with Russia’s Siberia, lies a city which every winter gets its five minutes of fame in the international headlines.  The Reason: Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival.   Ever since I began living in Asia, Harbin has always been near the top of my list of “must see” destinations.   There are several reasons for this. First, I always wanted to have a first-hand look at those magnificent ice castles glowing brightly with colorful neon lights embedded within. Second, having Russian ancestry I was always curious to see a Chinese city which was once under Russian rule and still owes much of its culture, architecture and diet to those influences.  Lastly, I needed a good excuse and really cold weather (which often goes down to -40 C below at night) to use my North Face Gore-Tex extreme weather gear which has been gathering dust in my closet.

Attending the Snow & Ice festival and touring the city of Harbin is indeed an incredible experience.  The impressive achievements of human creativity & cheap manual labor not to mention the sheer magnitude of these creations is truly a sight to behold.   However, not far away from all this beauty and monuments to the advancement of human civilization lies an institution which displays humanity’s darkest side.

One of the city’s top attractions for locals as well as tourists is the Harbin Siberian Tiger Preserve.  This “wildlife refuge”, which sits on nearly 360 acres of land, sells itself as a conservation institution preserving the endangered species.   This indeed sounds commendable as there are less than 450 of these animals left in the wild.   However, just after a few minutes…you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach that things are not as they may seem.   At the first glance, the park seems like an incredible achievement.   They boast about their successful breeding program which produced more than 500 tigers held in captivity in Harbin.  However, when asked if any efforts are made to re-introduce the species into the wild or sharing the animals with other preservation areas around the world; a silent blank stare comes across the face of the guide.   To be fair, an animal bred in captivity probably does not have the necessary skills to survive in the wild, but being bred in the Harbin preserve is a bit different.   After a being on the tour for some time one begins to get a feeling that this in nothing more than a farm used for entertainment of locals and tourists and later (when animals get “sick” or die) for harvesting tiger body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Once they are old enough to leave their mothers, cubs are segregated into areas according to their age groups.   This tends to avoid hostility among the instinctively solitary animals.   These areas are separated by electric fencing and multiple gates though which the vehicles drive through while the drivers ensure that no animals follow.

“Do we have to keep riding the brakes?”  - I yelled out not able to contain my frustration.  Every time I was getting ready to snap a shot, the driver would suddenly hit the gas only to break a moment later.

“We have to keep moving” – explained the guide translating for the driver.  “The animals think we’re just a buffet on wheels and have learned to attack the tires, we almost lost a few trainers here last month.”

Leaving the last tiger area our minibus drives through another set of electric gates.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw something which took my brain a few long seconds to interpret…

“Aren’t those lions?” - I asked in bewilderment.

“YES!  They sure are!” – exclaimed the excited tour guide.  “Although in Chinese culture we consider the Tiger to be the king of the beasts in Western culture you consider the king to be the Lion, so we decided we needed to bring them here as well.”

“But it’s -35 C outside!  These animals are from Africa, can’t you see they’re shivering in the snow?!”

“Don’t worry sir, most of them were born here” - she said “they are used to the weather” – the confident ignorance in her tone send shivers through my spine.

The misery seen on the faces of the animals cannot be adequately described in words nor fairly represented by a picture.   The real reason the lions were brought here would be revealed shortly and it was even more disturbing than originally imagined.

“A few years ago we got an idea of trying to cross-breed lions and tigers to try to create the ultimate king of beasts – The Liger” –explained the guide as the minibus pulled into an area where lions and tigers of mating age could be seen sitting side by side.

 They were indeed successful in crossbreeding the two cat species. However, the sterile offspring which is larger in size than either a Lion or a Tiger, is doomed to spend its days in a small cage.   This is perhaps one of the more depressing sites of this place.  The cages which contain these sad creatures are barely big enough to hold them.   They have to be kept separate from either Lions or Tigers as they will be killed off as the animals instinctively destroy such genetic anomalies.

After finishing the guided mini-bus tour the visitors are invited to re-enter the park through the main entrance and observe the animals from elevated walkways.   However, prior to entering,  all are presented with a menu of live animals which can be fed to the tigers.   These range from small game like chickens and ducks (which start at around 40RMB or $6USD to larger animals like goats, cows and even oxen which can cost up to 1,500RMB or $220USD).  It is not unusual to see the local families all taking part in the “feeding” festivities.   I watched one father proudly purchasing a chicken for his 8 yr old son and demonstrating to him the proper way to throw the doomed animal into the tiger den (in order to give the tigers the greatest challenge to obtain their meal).     The voracity with which these tigers go after these skinny birds makes one really appreciate their malnourished state.

In 2010, it was reported that several Siberian tigers died across China’s parks from starvation.    Sadly, this animal cruelty based entertainment industry is not unique to Harbin; it strives throughout China and other parts of South East Asia.    From bear boxing to staging of shows where animals fight each other until death is very much a common practice.    Much of this stems from lack of education and pure ignorance on the part of the public.    It is only by bringing awareness and education that hopefully one day we can eradicate this ugliness from our society.

1 comment:

Victoria said...


Thank you for this. You've done a wonderful job relating a heart-breaking story. I couldn't begin to imagine the disgust you must have felt.

I have a very good friend who for many years volunteered at a local exotic animal rescue. The stories of each of these animals' previous lives were terrifying, lightened only by the fact that they were all finally being treated healthfully and respectfully.

P.S. I'm glad someone had the tenacity to close that window!

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."