Four reasons why the comparison of economic tigers with real tigers fails.
[This is a 10 minute-read]
We all have read or heard the phrase ‘economic tiger’ before. This phrase – or ‘a tiger economy’ – is used when the economy of a country undergoes rapid economic growth, usually accompanied by an increase in the standard of living.
Tigers are iconic animals, even mythical. But is it logical to make the comparison of rapidly growing economies with real tigers? This article will show you why it is not. On the contrary, in the future you probably won’t use the name ‘economic tiger’ ever again.
Historical view on ‘economic tigers’
The phrase ‘economic tiger’ was first used when four upcoming Asian economies (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) became important on the world stage. Their ‘nickname’ (Four Asian Tigers) was purely symbolic, mainly because tigers are important in Asian symbolism.
Promising economies, like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines are – not surprisingly – being called Tiger Cub economies.
It didn’t stop with Asia however. Tigers have a lot of names (like the Bengal tiger, the Siberian tiger and the Caspian tiger) so other upcoming economies were called tigers too: in the 1980s some cities in Turkey were called the Anatolian Tigers, The United Arab Emirates were called the Gulf Tigers (1990s), the Celtic Tiger resembled the economy of the Republic of Ireland (1995–2000) and the Baltic tigers, of course stood for the Baltic states (2000s).
In Latin America they used a nephew of the tiger. The fast-growing, emerging economies of Mexico, Chile, Peru & Colombia were called Pacific pumas. Chile in particular was called the Jaguar of the Pacific Rim.
And of course, in Africa they introduced the term Lion economy. This was in particularly for South Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Botswana, Egypt, Mauritius, and Tunisia.
However, economic tigers are not always delivering. The Philippines, Sri Lanka and Myanmar were the next East Asian Tiger Economies in the 1960s. These countries were growing fast, but domestic problems turned out to be showstoppers. The Hebrew tiger, as Israel was called, also had a rapid economic growth (1990s, again in the 2000s and 2010s) but all growth periods were followed with recessions.
"In some Asian cultures tigers are considered as God, Jesus, Allah and Buddha.
Myths around real tigers
Of course, the tiger is the king of the jungle (for Asians that is, Africans think that ‘their’ lion is the one that possesses the throne). Winning a fight bare handed with a tiger is impossible. Tigers will always win as their jaws, their strength and their paws with the sharpest nails are deadlier than the biggest punch of a human ever will be.
Because of the incredible power of tigers, they were the biggest enemies of humans in Asia, as they only lived (and still live) in that continent. With the absence of ways of communicating, all kinds of myths about tigers were created. There is evidence that 6000 years ago the tiger was already worshipped in Asian cultures. So it will come as no surprise that in some Asian cultures tigers are considered as God, Jesus, Allah and Buddha all together.
The tiger became not only a god to be worshipped but also a god to be consumed. Some people really started believing that consuming something of a tiger will make you richer, more powerful, healthier (curing all diseases possible) or even invincible.
People in China and other Asian countries still believe the myths. The most used example of course is that eating the balls of the tiger will make a man more capable between the sheets. This myth is also being used in business, amongst others, by Viagra, the (in)famous blue pills that treat impotency. For those of you that don’t know: Viagra means tiger in the Sanskrit language.
False comparison with real tigers
Although, in line with myths and symbols, the comparison of promising tigers with real tigers is just false, there are (at least) four reasons to come to this conclusion.
Upcoming economies are often assessed on four main areas. How open is the economy, like is it depending on trade or not. How is the exposure towards resources, like is it depending on other countries or not (i.e. oil). How is the financial balance of the country, like can its internal finances grow by taxes or interest rates – or does it need other countries for financing the expected growth? And last but not least, what’s the attitude towards the products of the country, inside and outside the country? Are markets positive or not?
If we compare these four areas with tigers, we see on all areas exactly the opposite.
Let’s take the four areas in chronological order and start with trade first.
Number one: Dependency on trade
Where ‘economic tigers’ need as much trade as they can get to grow, the real tiger gets extinct because of it. In the last 100 years tiger numbers have dropped from more than 100,000 to less than 4,000. And not without reason.
The demand for tigers was always high ever since the Western world started its dominance. One aspect was that ‘explorers’ wanted to show the home front trophies. What better trophy to display dominance than showing a caged tiger – the king of the jungle? At first tigers only were shown in private zoos, but ‘open’ zoos and circuses appeared quite fast. That was the start of a global exploitation of tigers.
But not only the European countries and America had a demand for tigers.
China used to have respect for tigers until Mao Zedong took over. Under his spell almost all tigers in China disappeared. There were two reasons for this. One is that the tiger obstructed progress in agricultural growth as part of his ‘great leap forward’ so hunters got permission (and bonuses) to shoot tigers. Reason number two is that Mao not only had a red book for his ‘great leap forward’ but also for the well being of the Chinese people, despite of all the cruelty he brought. He knew there were not enough doctors to help people to remain fit to help with the economic growth. So he ordered that all ailments and diseases were documented in another red book – but not only that. All solutions, medical or not and proven or not, were also documented. It didn’t matter whether the solution worked or not because the placebo effect already helped more than the absence of a doctor could.
It is no surprise that ‘medications’ from iconic animals were an important part of the offered solutions. The appearance of that other red book also introduced the term ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ or TCM. Curing diseases with pills, lotions and wine made of wild animals became an institution within China. From that moment on wild, iconic animals in China were outlawed and disappeared quickly in China. Tigers were the number one targets, because of all the myth around it. But they disappeared not only in China; in all neighbouring countries the same thing happened.
"Tigers were the
A growing demand for real tigers means that the disappearing of tigers in the wild accelerates. In other words, the demand for tigers means extinction. Quite the opposite of what economic tigers need.
Number two: Dependency on resources
If countries are too dependent on other countries it is considered a risk. The more economic tigers can grow with their own resources, the bigger the chance of trust and growth. Real tigers however are dependent more and more on other countries. Because of the growing human population and the threats from China, the habitat of tigers have gotten smaller and smaller. Compared with 100 years ago tigers now only live on 93% of their original habitat.
The leading countries in the world have acknowledged the loss of biodiversity more and more, so the focus on saving threatened species has grown as well. The United Nations came up with an international treaty (CITES) to prevent species to go extinct. All countries involved (almost all in the world) discuss the status and the necessary actions every one or two years on a major ‘wildlife trade’ convention (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna) and they commit to the agreements made. But (there is always a but) not all countries are equally reliable. China for instance is not. China wants to legalize tiger farming to meet the growing domestic demand for tigers, which fuels the pressure on tigers in the wild, according to all tiger experts in the world.
The same goes for habitat. Tigers live in areas that are wanted for palm oil production, housing or mining. If it were up to the countries where these tigers live, they would have been gone already as they simply block the way of economic progress.
Tigers still exist because of the dependence of other countries, which makes the comparison with economic tigers false again.
Number three: Financial balance
Growing countries that can finance growth by themselves are trust worthier than countries that can only grow by lending money from other countries. The growing of the tiger population however is only depending on money from other countries, with just a few exceptions.
Let’s take a look at some examples. There are a couple of countries where tiger numbers are rising. India is doing well and the Indian government is investing a lot of money in tiger conservation. Nepal as well, just like Bhutan and Russia. All four countries however are financially supported by (mostly) UK or USA based NGOs, often funded by zoos. But besides financial help there is also a lot of managerial help and knowledge to tackle the threats of poaching, encroachment and deforestation.
Other examples will only prove what is written above. Tigers already have disappeared from 20 (!) countries since 1900, with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia recently added to that list. The rest of the countries where tigers live (Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Myanmar, Indonesia (Sumatra) are showing that they can’t grow tiger numbers themselves, as the numbers of tigers in these countries are getting smaller – even by the hour.
So while ‘economic tigers’ are valued because they are able to finance their own growth, real tigers really need others for their existence – even more for growing their numbers.
Number four: Markets want the products
The last reason why the comparison of economic tigers and real tigers is false is the appetite. Are the products wanted or not? If growing economies have products that are in demand (inside or outside the country), chances are that growth can be expected.
Growing demand for tigers however, as shown before, only leads to acceleration towards extinction. We have seen already this with the Caspian, Java and Bali tiger species: they are all extinct.