Ministers from several countries gathered Sunday in St. Petersburg at the invitation of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to begin a five-day meeting with the goal of protecting tigers. Only a little more than 3,000 are estimated to be living outside captivity.
Mr. Putin is so fond of the animals that he was given a cub for his 56th birthday.
But it is perhaps no accident that Mr. Putin has chosen to make an endangered feline the subject of the conference rather than a threatened canine — the wolf, for example, or the wild dog.
Throughout history, prominent men have identified with the majesty, power and machismo of large cats.
“Leaders especially like to think of themselves as having the virtues of large cats,” said Stephen R. Kellert, a professor emeritus and senior research scholar at Yale University who studies human-animal relationships. “They like the image of the stand-alone, solitary yet fearsome hunter.”
The heads of the military junta in Myanmar, a country not known for its concern about human rights, recently created the largest tiger preserve in the world. In Africa, some Maasai warriors who once killed lions as a rite of manhood work in lion guardian programs.
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The connection between leaders and large cats in particular has a long history. In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh was often represented as a sphinx — part lion, part human. In Europe and the Middle East, lions came to be associated with royalty — partly due to their fierceness and partly because the mane made them look the part — and they appear on official symbols for more than a dozen countries, from the coat of arms of England to the Lion of Judah in Jerusalem.
In Asia, tigers have similarly been aligned with royalty, so much so that the Chinese character for king is thought to resemble the markings on the tiger’s forehead.
Dr. Kellert said that humans often like to think of themselves as big cats, even though they really are more akin in their social habits to sheep.
“We are both a herd animal and predator, but the herd tendency runs deep,” he said. “But we like to think we are like tigers: independent, self-sufficient and predatory.”