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A Big Cat Turned Me Against Traditional Eastern Medicine

I visit India hoping to see a tiger in the wild, and I learn why the species is near extinction.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Dec 8th 2015


I am an unabashed travel nut. I’m also an animal lover, so it should surprise nobody that, in my mind, the best trip is an international wildlife safari. Some of my most vivid memories have occurred while whale watching, African bush driving, and great-white-shark-cage diving. In 2011, I set my sights high. I aimed to see a tiger in the wild.

Many people have seen tigers in zoos. The big cats readily survive and reproduce in captivity, to the point that overpopulation is a problem among the big cats in captivity.

Tigers in the wild are a different story. They are as critically endangered as a species can get because of habitat destruction and poaching. I flew to Mumbai in November 2011 with plans to see a tiger at the Ranthambore National Park.

The trip was an adventure (India always is). As for seeing a wild tiger, I failed epically. My troubles started in the United States when I attempted to book a tiger safari using my credit card. The bank declined the charges and promptly canceled my card, thinking that someone in Rajasthan had started a spending spree.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

The trip went poorly in other ways. Did you know that to ride the trains in India, one must make reservations well in advance? I did not, so I wound up on buses, often having to bribe attendants to keep my bag from being “lost.” Have you heard of Kingfisher Airlines? Probably not, because it went out of business in early 2012. A warning sign came in November 2011 when the airline canceled almost all its flights — including the one that was to get me home from India. I left several days early — and my tiger safari was scheduled for the end of the trip.

The net result: I saw one tiger. In a zoo. In Mumbai. I also didn’t see the Taj Mahal. And I flew home on KLM with my metaphorical tail between my legs, vowing that I would rather hang from my thumbs than go back to India.

But there was still the matter of the wild tiger. I really wanted to see one. And I also don’t like ending trips in failure. In January 2015 I screwed up my resolve and went back. This time I was better prepared. I paid a company in London to arrange my train tickets. I bought two half-day tiger safaris using a bank wire transfer. I went through the unpleasant process of getting a tourist visa. I landed in Delhi and got sick after my first meal. The first night of the trip was spent praying at the porcelain altar. I was off to a good start.

Fortunately, some cipro and ondansetron put me right, and I set off across India by train (not bus), having a blast in Dehli, Agra, Varanasi, Darjeeling, and Kolkata. I left Kolkata and after a 20-hour train ride and a three-hour, harrowing car ride, I wound up at Kanha, in central India. Kanha is home to the eponymous national park, which is one of the best places in India (and therefore on Earth) to see a tiger in the wild.

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Even after getting to the middle of nowhere, seeing a wild tiger is not easy. One must rise well before dawn; the air will be freezing cold. One then climbs into an open (as in, a tiger could jump right in if she wanted to) vehicle to get in line outside the national park with everyone else who wants to see a tiger. There are plenty of people, but it’s a big park.

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After the tickets (and, I imagine, bribes) have been cleared, the gates open and the safari begins.

My guide told me repeatedly and emphatically that we would be going on wildlife safaris. We would see beautiful jungle areas. We were likely to see peacocks, deer, and monkeys. If we were lucky we would see a jackal. Oh, and a tiger? That would be like a second dessert after a big meal. It would be nice, but don’t count on it.

We promptly entered a beautiful wild jungle. As for the animals mentioned, we had no difficulty seeing peacocks:

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We also saw deer:

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We saw monkeys:

07-Monkeys

We even got lucky and saw a jackal:

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We spent the whole day driving, searching, and waiting. Monkeys stole our lunch. And when it came to tigers, we struck out. The closest we came was a footprint. It was fresh, but the tiger who made it was nowhere to be seen.

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I tried to console myself at the park headquarters, where I learned about the history of the area and the history of the tiger. Of course, habitat destruction is the leading reason the species is on the brink of extinction. Now in India core tiger areas are protected. But there is another problem. The main threat that tigers in India now face is poaching. In the Kanha National Park headquarters I found a display that laid it all out with sickening clarity.

Tigers face the threat of extinction not because people want tiger-skin rugs, and not because tigers prey on livestock, and not because people need tiger territory for agriculture. The greatest threat to the survival of tigers in India is traditional eastern medicine, which fictitiously holds that tiger bones can treat rheumatism, arthritis, paralysis, and leprosy.

As a practitioner of western medicine, I readily accept that western medicine has a less than perfect history and a less than perfect present. There were the Nazi doctors and the Tuskegee experiments. Big pharmaceutical companies often put profits ahead of patients, and this industry has been known to rely more on its own profit than moral compasses.

But at least practitioners of western medicine generally base their practices on evidence. We try to do things that are demonstrated to work. When we learn that, for instance, hand washing prevents disease or that bleeding to balance yellow and black biles is ineffective, we change our ways (usually in a generation, after the older, set-in-their-ways practitioners die off).

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I accept that eastern medicine has provided certain treatments, medicines, and philosophies that have advanced human well being. But eastern medicine also involves a bunch of BS. Rhino horns do not help impotence (although Viagra, produced by western medicine, does). Bear bile does not cure hemorrhoids. And tiger bones sure as hell do not treat rheumatism.

Some practitioners of traditional eastern medicine in the United States bill themselves as natural, organic alternatives to the evils of big pharma and greedy corporate hospitals. But they need to answer for the near-extinction of the species that suffer at the hands of their Asian colleagues’ superstitious “medical” practices.

I returned to my lodge dejected. Another trip to India was ending, and I had not seen a wild tiger. My train to Mumbai was the following afternoon. Before I could return would the last tiger in Kanha be killed so that some imbecile with rheumatism could experience the placebo effect?

My guide approached as I downed a beer in the restaurant. Would I be interested in a morning safari before my long car ride to the train station?

On the Internet I had read that safaris could not be arranged for foreigners on such short notice, and that cash was not accepted as payment. I did not think twice — I handed over the money and I did not ask any questions.

The next morning involved an early rise and a great deal more freezing, driving, searching, and waiting. In the end, we parked near a tiger’s lair. We had spent much of the previous day there without success, so I did not get my hopes up. The hours passed. Just as I was about to succumb to my boredom and nod off, the guide pointed and hissed a word I will never forget: “Tigarrh!”

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There she was.

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As I basked in the presence of the most magnificently beautiful cat I have ever beheld, my thoughts turned to eastern medicine. Will its practitioners drive tigers to extinction?

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