Last week I finished painting a Malayan tiger I’d met in Houston in May 2015. While painting, I didn’t know the tiger’s name or age or gender. I only knew that two of the more than twenty times I came to visit, the tiger would be awake, sitting up in the grass, surveying their world – across a wide water-free moat from where I stood. On those few visits, the tiger made note of me, met my gaze and held it. This is the being I painted. When the portrait was finished, I emailed the zoo to ask the tiger’s name.
This is Pandu. He was a 16-year-old Malayan tiger nicknamed “The Professor.” He died three months after I met him, a year before his painting was finished. Altho Malayan tigers often live 20-26 years in captivity, Pandu apparently had medical issues for several years, receiving stem cell therapy and arthroscopic surgery. He became lethargic, uninterested in food, and expressed pain. He was “peacefully euthanized” in August 2015, which was a sad sad day for the zoo.
Isn’t he still alive, though, in my painting? He was a living tiger meeting my gaze when I painted him.
Meeting my subjects has changed my portraits. I am not painting fictional animals. For the moment, perhaps no other painting brings this home quite like Pandu. They live and die and fight and love. In some cases, they carry the weight of their species on their shoulders. Meeting all my subjects is also turning me into their advocate.
There are 250 to 300 Malayan tigers left in the wild, in the jungles of the Malay peninsula. I was there decades ago, but along the coast with no thought of the tigers behind my back. The jungles of southeast Asia are being burned down so palm oil trees can be planted. IF YOU CARE ABOUT ENDANGERED SPECIES, READ YOUR LABELS AND DO NOT BUY ANYTHING WITH PALM OIL. Palm oil is killing tigers, orangutans, and the last of the Sumatran rhino. It’s also killing people. Just today the “New York Times” has a story that suggests the jungle fires and smoke from last year in Indonesia where 10,000 square miles were burned for palm oil, created a fine particulate haze that cut short the lives of 100,000 people. They blame multi-national palm oil and paper companies mainly, and the smaller plantations that sell to them. Apparently on the worst days of the fire, greenhouse gas emissions from the fire exceeded those from the entire US.
As Peter, Paul and Mary sang, “When will we learn? When will we ever learn?”
On the terrible road to extinction, the last stop before “Extinct” is “Extinct in the Wild.” Yet, as I am learning, for “Extinct in the Wild” to be a place from which a species can recover, a large enough gene pool needs to exist in the non-wild population. There are 50+ Malayan tigers in captivity, but they come from only 11 “founders,” too small a genetic sample for species survival. Perhaps something in his genetic history caused Pandu’s medical problems. I do not know.
Pandu’s companion, Satu, a 14-year-old female now has a new companion, a 3-year-old male weighing in at 280 pounds named Berani. I will meet him in just a couple weeks.