Nepti at her London Zoo enclosure.
The discovery of a cub in the Bahau jungle exactly 65 years ago leads Alan Teh Leam Seng on a trail to discover man’s love-hate relationship with the tiger.
The Federated Malay States issued a series of stamps featuring a tiger leaping out from the bushes.
The Kemasek man-eater was killed after it was ensnared in a trap
In the past, most man-eaters were hunted and killed by the British expatriates.
Stories about tigers were a common feature in Malayan textbooks in the past.
Nepti was a hit with the air stewardesses at the airport before flying to London.

“GRRR....kerr...eooowww“ “Grrr....kerr...eooowww" The men in the Gurkha patrol stop dead in their tracks. No one dared to move even a muscle. They begin to wonder whether what they‘re hearing is an enemy signal warning them of an imminent ambush. Thankfully, their fear proves to be unfounded when the sounds persist. No communist terrorist would keep on calling out like that as it would be a dead giveaway!

Choosing to remain vigilant and constantly pepared for a communist attack, the captain signals to his best tracker to check out the source of the commotion while the rest of the troops seek cover behind a clump of tall trees. They‘d be ready to provide backup to their comrade should things start to go south.

Time slowed down as the men waited patiently. Then, they hear a familiar whistle which closely resembles the mating call of the Asian warbler. The waiting men heave a sigh of relief as that‘s their all clear signal. However, moments later, their relief turns to both shock and amazement when their friend turns up with a small creature with yellow and black stripes nestled in the safety of his arms. It‘s a live tiger cub!

Still mindful of bandit activity in the area, the men decide to return to their camp with their new companion as quickly as possible and ask questions later. One of the men used his handkerchief to cover the cub‘s head to soothe its nerves as well as keep it quiet. The soldiers are lucky — his action works like a charm.

Back at their camp in Bahau, the soldiers crowd around the baby tiger, listening intently to the tracker‘s tale. It seems that the female cub was found alongside her dead mother. The cub‘s saviour knew that at such a tender age and with so many predators lurking in the Malayan jungle, the defenceless cub wouldn‘t even survive the night let alone reach adulthood. Captivated by her friendly and playful nature, the men quickly called her Nepti, which means “The Silent One“ in Gurkhali language.

Several days later, the 7th Gurkha Rifles‘ Adjutant decided their Negri Sembilan military camp was no place for a wild animal and ordered his men to send Nepti to his friend who was the nearby Ladang Geddes rubber estate manager.

Nepti‘s journey

The manager‘s two daughters, Merilyn and Jane, immediately took a liking to the little one. Unfortunately, the cub only had a short taste of estate life as the manager and his wife soon discovered that a six-week-old tiger cub was too boisterous for their daughters.

The girls reluctantly sent Nepti back to the Gurkha lines which was then located close to the Bahau Railway Station. In a last ditch attempt before leaving the estate, the girls even suggested to their parents that Nepti could help protect them as rubber plantations were the number one target for communist terrorists back then. Sadly, their effort proved futile.

The Silent One spent the next few months roaming the tents, bounding out to welcome the soldiers whenever they returned from patrol and even nipping at guests‘ ankles. At first, she slept in a tent, tethered to the foot of a soldier‘s bed with a sturdy dog leash. Later, as she became more adapted to living with humans, Nepti got her own little basha, the British military slang for a shelter or sleeping area. Just before she left Malaya to live out her life in the London Zoo, Nepti was brought out to meet General Sir Gerald Templer during a Regimental Dinner in Seremban.

Tiger Terror

Visitors visiting the “Big Cats“ enclosure at Regent‘s Park Zoo back in the 1950s were sure to see a large metal plate on one of the cages which had the words “NEPTI — PANTHERA TIGRIS (TIGER), PRESENTED BY 7TH GURKHA RIFLES. 18TH AUGUST 1952“ printed on it.

Fate had it that the tracker who found Nepti was one of the few chosen to attend Queen Elizabeth II‘s Coronation in London in 1953. It was indeed a touching moment when he came face to face with Nepti again.

Questions as to why Nepti wasn‘t released back into its natural habitat did come up but the tracker explained that there were reservations regarding that option. The soldiers feared that owing to Nepti living in close proximity to them, the animal would constantly have human scent in its nostrils and would most likely have lost its fear of man. If released into the jungle, there was a possibility she could become a man-eater and suffer a terrible fate in the hands of hunters.

Unlike today, Malayan tigers were plentiful until the middle of the 20th century. News of tigers terrorising villages were very common. These big cats killed primarily domestic animals but occasionally some became man-eaters.

I remember reading Arthur Locke‘s book, The Tigers of Trengganu, which mentions that most attacks on humans were made by a tigress protecting young cubs. Attached to the Malayan Civil Service in Kemaman from 1949 to 1951, Locke noted that most victims were rubber tappers.

He offered the example of the Kemasek man-eater, which began its reign of terror on Sept 12, 1949. On that fateful day, a couple at Teluk Batu had set out before dawn to tap rubber trees. As always, the duo split up and began attending to their task. Although separated, they adopted the practice of communicating with each other by shouting loudly at regular intervals. The idea was that if one of them failed to provide a reply, the other would stop work and proceed to investigate the silence.

Just as the first few rays of the sun were beginning to appear over the horizon, the Chinese tapper suddenly ceased calling to his wife. According to Locke, she went in his direction to investigate. Instead of her husband, she found blood and tiger paw marks or pugs and immediately raised the alarm. The search party found the unconscious man in the nearby bushes and rushed him to the nearest hospital where he subsequently recovered.

The Teluk Batu tapper was very lucky as most victims, alive after the attack, usually succumb to their wounds within a short time if help doesn‘t arrive quickly enough. The dirt and decomposing matter on the under part of the tiger‘s claws are full of harmful microorganisms. These microbes cause the wounds to turn septic very quickly especially in the tropical heat.

The Kemasek man-eater‘s 12 subsequent victims were not as fortunate as its first. A total of seven Chinese and five Malay men and women, all of whom were rubber tappers, died in the hands of this ruthless killing machine.

Of beauty and strength

I cringe to think about the fear in the hearts of the people living in that area during a time when they also had to contend with the communist insurgency. Most would not have dared to venture outside alone after dark during that time.

Locke was subsequently asked to kill the tiger after it claimed its final victim, a Malay man living in Tumpat, Kelantan. Efforts to use buffalo as bait failed and organising a tiger hunt was out of the question due to constant reports of communist terrorists lurking in the nearby forested area.

Finally, Locke resorted to building four rather expensive traps. His investment paid off when the killer was ensnared a few days later. Locke, who was the British Administrative Officer for the east coast then, killed the marauder with a single shot. Despite the success, people living within the area remained fearful and unconvinced. The tiger is, after all, the most powerful and feared jungle creature in Malaya.

The beauty and strength of the Malayan tiger made it the obvious candidate when the Federated Malay States decided to produce their own set of stamps in 1900. The-then Resident-General, Sir Frank Swettenham vetted the design and made several major changes before finally giving his provisional approval for one that depicted a magnificent leaping tiger on September 19, 1900.

The Crown Agents in London printed the stamps in a series of values and colours, conforming to the rules of the Universal Postal Union at that time. These “tiger“ stamps were put on sale at post offices located in the four states forming the Federation — Pahang, Perak, Selangor and Negri Sembilan.

Looking at how beautiful the Malayan tiger looks on the stamps, my heart is filled with sadness as I think about how human encroachment and habitat destruction have driven these magnificent creatures to a point of when they have no choice but to resort to taking human lives. If only man can learn to coexist peacefully with all the other living things in this world, I‘m certain the slayings would prove unnecessary.

Unlike her cousins in the wild, Nepti didn‘t have much of a say in the pattern of her life. Her happy days with the Gurkha soldiers and the family at Ladang Geddes estate were short lived. She was fated to spend the rest of her natural life behind steel bars and concrete in London. Sadly, Nepti died of a ruptured liver on the April 8, 1959. She was just eight-years-old at that time.