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The roar, which never vanished

Sultan Mussakhan

The image of tigers and lions hunting their prey is solid in our memories due to their distinctive representation in the culture of modern-day humans. They are charismatic and murderous. They are indeed hypostasis for what we call as good and evil. So far, history says that they were understood as more evil than the good, which led to their total extinction in Central Asia in XX century, still echoing their majestic influence on people until today.

This article mainly focuses on the role of tigers in the new cultural dynamics of modern Kazakhs as their role never vanished and with a further deeper understanding of them generating the new ideas of what is good, to begin with. This article will also combine one of their unique habitats – the shores of Lake Balkhash – as they can have a common destiny: to extinct or to rehabilitate.

The history and formation of the modern landscape of Lake Balkhash can be traced back to the Early Pleistocene with evidence of the first colonization by Homo erectus. Epoch after epoch the people habiting the shores and lakesides by Balkhash were replaced and ended up by the rooting of Homo sapiens sapiens – or modern-day humans – generating pastoralist communities with their unique vertical migrations from deserts to alpine mountains as we can still observe today [1]. The Late Pleistocene was the period when large felines as lions and tigers started to vastly expand in Central Asia including the shores of Lake Balkhash.  As it follows, it is not a big surprise that the charismatic felines of Central Asia were in close interaction with many human species creating a nexus for the further firm image of them as beautiful, powerful, but dangerous beings. If the archaeological and paleontological evidence is scarce on felines’ representation and their influence on first humans, we have plenty of evidence of how felines had their specific place in Bronze Age cultures as Andronovo people. We believe that these are the people who learned how to work with bronze, were the first nomads to colonize the whole of Central Asia, and had trading patterns with the adjacent other cultures. Besides, they were the first ones who depicted the large felines in petroglyphs. Today, we can map almost 170 different petroglyphs of different periods in Kazakhstan (Bronze age, Iron Age, and Turkic period) with various images of large felines and 30 petroglyphs are identified as lions (Panthera leo persica) and 18 as tigers (Panthera tigris) (see fig. 1 and 2) [2].

Figure 1. A tiger petroglyph at Eshkiolmes, Kazakhstan. Belongs to the Iron age [2].

Figure 2. Tiger petroglyph Southern Balkhash region and the Khantau mountains, the Bronze Age, researched by A.G. Medoev [3]

Lake Balkhash and deltas of various rivers enriching its waters were the natural habitats for the Caspian tiger or how we like to call it today as the Turanian tiger. Its Latin name comes as Panthera tigris virgata what also means in Kazakh as “zholbarys” – the striped feline. Even though the extinction of the last known tiger is recent, there is an attempt to reintroduce the closely related tiger subspecies Panthera tigris altaica from the Russian Far East to the shores of Lake Balkhash by WWF [4].

At first glance, a person who has never seen the Turanian tigers would believe that this is another ambitious yet indoctrinated project where the human takes over nature with an indulgent hand of help, albeit the best gaze would be to look at it as we are asking sorry that we brought so much pain to Lake Balkhash and disastrously treated it. So, who are those tigers and what would they bring to us?

Once they inhabited from Turkey to Northwestern China, and their geographical range included almost all of the Central Asian countries. However, with the sedentarization and colonial attitude of the Russian Empire and further with the Soviet Union, not only aboriginal people were endangered, but the flora and fauna too, disturbing the intimate co-existence and ecosystem. The tugay woodlands were reshaped as well as the riversides to grow various cultures of valuable plants. With the loss of natural habitat, the preys of tigers were endangered or completely extinct too, rapidly declining in their population. Previously flourishing tigers almost along all major rivers in Central Asia, went extinct until the 1950s due to systematic poisoning and haunting. Yet, the Ili river- the largest river enriching the waters of Lake Balkhash – was one of three predominant places that could support a dense population of Caspian tigers is under intense human colonization and threat [5]. The situation has several related current events with the Yellowstone National Park in the United States, where the landscape was damaged due to the lack of large predators and the solution was to introduce wolves into the ecosystem [6].

There is one specific historical artwork by Said Atabekov “Way to Rome”, which is highly related to the extinction of Caspian tigers. The artwork represents a Kazakh-style carpet with a soldier’s hat on it (see fig. 3). Interestingly, both the style of the carpet and tiger have vanished for the modern days. The work symbolizes the homicidal policies towards the ethnicities of Central Asia. Probably, this is the only carpet left with the recent tiger representation in Kazakh traditional arts. Both Kazakhs and tigers shared a common destiny in the past.

Figure 3. Said Atabekov, from the series of work “Way to Rome” (the last carpet with a portrait of the Turanian tiger). 2020, 70х105 cm.

With the new project on the reintroduction of Caspian tigers to the Ili-Balkhash reservoir, it is another attempt to restore what was severely damaged in recent times. It is a hope to restore the actual ecosystem and give another chance for ourselves to co-exist and co-evolve. What is the value of reintroduction?

There is a known species Panthera tigris altaica that is believed to be almost genetically identical to and descendants of Caspian tigers. As they are considered as the zenith of the food chain, the proper work on livestock management should be done. Thereby, the restoration of the ecosystem should be prepared from the lower ecological niches for reintroduction. So far, the Ili River delta can support almost 100-150 Amur tiger individuals and the first introduction will count up to 25 individuals [4]. There is a chance that the river delta would become a further National Park supporting the local socio-economic development as long as giving another hope that there will be more dialogue on human activity on Lake Balkhash and communication with Xinjiang (China) where the river takes place. This project can be classified as transboundary because yet it increases the interaction between the Asian countries and probably will be another bridge of cooperation.

The introduction of the tiger is a part of decolonial optics too. It shows how the ecosystem depends on all components of the biodiversity including the dangerous predators and the sensitive ecosystem should be treated with more care. This optics bends towards the development of more ecocentric ideas, I believe. We also cannot defy that charismatic feline will be a bridge to personify Lake Balkhash and the Ili River delta with its gorgeous gaze and roar. Yet the appearance of tigers can become another appeal to save the waters of Lake Balkhash and the environment nearby. As we know, the tiger is a part of the national identity of both Turkic and Asian ethnicities. Once the endangered Kazakh people like the tiger itself could probably reflect their destiny to understand how close and co-existential they were as part of the fragile ecosystem teaching its lessons that there could be always a chance to survive, to flourish, and to respect where you live in. The introduction of the tiger and its value to the ecosystem, to the people, and the identity of Kazakhs can be only hypothesized and imagined, but it is another platform to synthesize, rethink, and re-evaluate what we are today. Personally, I think that biology and ecology narratives have to be decolonized by opening a wide window to the co-existence among all living species and the reintroduction of tigers is one step closer.

References (apa style):

[1] Deom, J. M., Aubekerov, B., Sala, R., & Nigmatova, S. (2012). Quaternary evolution of the human habitats in the Ili-Balkhash region from paleolithic to modern times. Toward a sustainable society in Central Asia: An historical perspective on the future, 49-58.
[2] Schnitzler, A., & Hermann, L. (2019). Chronological distribution of the tiger Panthera tigris and the Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica in their common range in Asia. Mammal Review, 49(4), 340-353.
[5] Chestin, I. E., Paltsyn, M. Y., Pereladova, O. B., Iegorova, L. V., & Gibbs, J. P. (2017). Tiger re-establishment potential to former Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) range in Central Asia. Biological Conservation, 205, 42-51.
[6] Smith, D. W., Peterson, R. O., & Houston, D. B. (2003). Yellowstone after wolves. BioScience, 53(4), 330-340.
Sultan Mussakhan is a Ph.D candidate in Biological Science at Brock University ( Canada) as well as member of Art Collider.
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