As I lay my head on the chest of a sleeping tiger, I realized how vulnerable the powerful creatures really are. By 2025, the largest cat species will live only in sanctuaries and zoos. Even then, the 10 original tiger species will shrink to three or four.
A hunter killed the last Bali tiger on that Indonesian island in 1937. Someone shot and killed the last of the Javanese tigers, an old female, in 1971. The last Caspian tiger vanished soon thereafter.
Roughly 150 wild tigers still roam parts of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, but hunters are after them too, mainly to supply a market for bogus "cures"—$170 in Taiwan for the eyes that have no effect on epilepsy; $1450 per pound of powdered humerus bone in South Korea for a "medicine" that does nothing to treat ulcers.
This knowledge moved my husband and me to visit Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Home to more than 50 Indochinese tigers, the compound keeps the big cats so healthy and happy that they produce cubs every few months. The $15 entry fee we each paid allowed us to watch the tigers wrestle playfully with each other and toss around their sturdy toys.
And, under the careful watch of staff, I got to pet the big cats and lay my head on one as it slept through the heat of the day (that's me in the photo). I pray that the feel of that tiger's striped fur rising and falling as its large lungs took in the humid air will be a part of my sensory memory for as long as I continue to breathe.