The Politics of Tiger Attacks

War and Peace in the Multispecies Ecumene

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This essay is about animals… sort of. But if you are one of those people who believe that animals are mere bêtes-machines, that they have too few neurons in their heads for anything interesting to be going on in there and that (therefore?) they are worthy of no moral consideration, you should read it anyway. You should read it because what it is really about is politics. 

The traditional approach to politics, which abstracts away from our embeddedness in the natural world, notably from our position in a multispecies animal ecumene, too often comes up short of its own explanatory aims. If you did not believe this before, over just the past year we have seen bats and mink, perhaps pangolins as well, playing a direct causal role in the rapid, radical reshaping of human society. In the decades before the covid pandemic we saw cattle, pigs, and apes playing a similar role. We are not alone, and we simply must stop trying to understand human society as if we were. 

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According to the most reliable study available, an estimated 370,000 people throughout Asia were killed by tigers between 1800 and 2009. This is a large number, averaging out to around 1,770 people per year. The real number is likely much larger still, as the scholarly study that produced this estimate relied only on “standard literature searches” and, more surprisingly, only on texts written in English. During this same 209-year period, the Caspian tiger was hunted to extinction, having previously roamed throughout Afghanistan and Iran and as far to the west as Armenia and Anatolia. At the same time the surviving subspecies of Panthera tigris tigris were eliminated from the Korean peninsula, from all but a few pockets of China, the Russian Far East, India and Southeast Asia. Within these remaining enclaves, tigers continue to kill people. All known victims in the past years have been villagers in remote rural regions, and in almost all cases they were attacked from behind while bending over, as for example at the edge of a body of water, taking on the appearance, from the perspective of the tiger, of some sort of ground-dwelling pig. Walking upright appears to be a fairly effective tiger repellent.

I find in the face of such facts that I have to revise a certain line of argument I have been supporting for some years. I have sometimes speculated, in writing both scholarly and free-form, on the relationship between human ascendancy over other animal species in prehistory and the rise of warfare between human groups. I have been and remain troubled when theorists speculate, in a Rousseauian vein, about the purported non-violent nature of early human groups, arguing that war in the proper sense is a consequence of the emergence of modern states. What has troubled me about this is that it completely neglects a very significant portion of the acts of violence committed by human beings both in prehistory and history: namely, those that target other species. And if you think this is an over-extension of the notion of “violence”, that shedding the blood of animals is a categorically different sort of act than shedding the blood of humans, it will help to recall that in the Politics Aristotle identified hunting as “a form of war”. Having however defined human beings as “the political animal”, and having deemed the threat of incursions by other megafauna upon the polis to be minimal, the Philosopher represents violent human-wildlife encounters as a war in which, notwithstanding ongoing skirmishes, our species already emerged victorious long ago. 

There were still lions (Panthera leo) in Greece in classical antiquity (and perhaps also in the Italian and Iberian peninsulas). But cities were generally well protected against invaders human and non-human, and hunting excursions out of the cities were unnecessary for the maintenance of urban life, as in Greece political animals in the proper sense (i.e., humans) were fed on the meat of other animals (e.g., cows, goats, and evidently plenty of dogs too) raised in the vicinity of the polis, whose political nature was akin to that of “natural slaves”: beings that are in the polis, but only because coerced into being there. But Aristotle’s presumption that the war had already been won might suitably be understood as an expression of wishful thinking, as well as of the emerging anti-rural prejudice that would run like a shining thread through the subsequent history of western philosophy: who cares —the thinking initiated by Aristotle instructs us— what fierce beast pounces upon the back of a forest-dweller as she bends at the riverside for a drink of water? In any case she has spent her life outside the polis, which is to say she is not a political animal… which is to say she is not truly human. 

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