THE TIGER by John Vaillant

Book Quote:

“Hunger and revenge are not desires that human beings usually experience at the same time, but these primordial drives appeared to merge in the mind and body of this tiger such that one evolved almost seamlessly into the other. The killing and consumption of Markov may have accidentally satisfied two unrelated impulses: the neutralizing of a threat and competitor and an easy meal. But tigers are quick studies and they are, in their way, analytical: there is no doubt that they absorb and remember relevant data and learn from their experiences, accidental or otherwise. If they produce successful results, the tiger will seek to re-recreate those circumstances as closely as possible. Humans, this tiger had discovered (or perhaps had always known), were as easy as dogs to locate and kill. If the wind was wrong and the tiger couldn’t smell them, he could still hear them, and that sound carried a compelling new message. Now, a person stepping outside to split a few sticks of kindling might as well be ringing a dinner bell.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (DEC 10, 2010)

John Vaillant, author of The Golden Spruce, has written another exciting, page-turning book. For those of you not familiar with The Golden Spruce, it is about a tree worshipped by the Haida Indians in British Columbia. A mutant golden color, this tree had religious and spiritual significance for the Haida people. A renegade man with super physical abilities decided, in his disturbed thinking, that this tree must come down. How the townspeople and Haida Indians dealt with this loss, along with the history of this man’s life, is the subject of this book. Mr. Vaillant also examines the socio-cultural, economic, and history of British Columbia as it pertains to the felling of this tree.

In The Tiger, Mr. Vaillant’s latest book, he tells the story of a rogue tiger in southeast Russia that, in 1997, turns to man-eating. He also relates the stories of the men the tiger kills and those who hunt the tiger down. In the background of the tiger adventure, is the story of the socio-cultural milieu of Russia before and following Perestroika. Because Primorye, the area in Russia where tigers are found, is so close to China and Korea, we get to learn a lot about the interactions of these countries and their roles in poaching, hunting, and conservation efforts.

The story is a compelling, adventurous page-turner. It starts off with a tiger who is hunting a man named Markov. Markov is one of a few hundred settlers in this very rural Taiga area whose central town is Sobolonye. Once a thriving settlement based on coal production, the coal production is now shut down. Most people resettled to other areas of Russia but a few, mostly hunters, end-of-the-roaders, poachers, and those who loved the land, remained. Markov is a bit of all of these. He is known for his large presence, sense of humor, and charisma. He lived in Sobolonye but kept a cabin deep in the Taiga where he hunted and poached. One day, as Markov and his dog were approaching his cabin, he was attacked by an Amur tiger and killed. He managed to get off one shot, injuring the tiger’s paw. The only parts of Markov left were a “hand without an arm and a head without a face.”

To give you a bit of background information, Primorye, the name for the Taiga area, gets to forty-five degrees below zero in the winter. “In Primorye, the seasons collide with equal intensity: winter can bring blizzards and paralyzing cold, and summers will retaliate with typhoons and monsoon rains; three quarters of the region’s rainfall occur during the summer. This tendency toward extremes allows for unlikely juxtapositions and may explain why there is no satisfactory name for the region’s peculiar ecosystem – one that happens to coincide with the northern limit of the tiger’s pan-hemispheric range.” The Amur tiger is the only one of its species that is able to exist in these arctic conditions. Thousands of species abound here, including the leopard, but the Amur tiger reigns supreme.

The Amur tiger is so big that some want to reclassify it as a completely different species than tiger. It also is able to thrive in areas and conditions that would kill most other tigers. Some Amur tigers grow to nine hundred pounds and are as long as sixteen feet. They are wanderers, looking for sustenance and food wherever it can be found. Because of its size, “Amur tigers must occupy far larger territories than other subspecies in order to meet their need for prey.”

It is not unusual for animal attacks to occur in Primorye. However, these attacks are usually impulsive, when for instance a hunter and a tiger accidentally cross paths. The difference with Markov’s killing is that the tiger was lying in wait for him at his cabin and when Markov returned, instead of running away which would have been the natural thing for the tiger to do, it attacked him. According to the legends of the indigenous people in the area, Markov must have done something to alienate this tiger. Even the Russian people had never heard of an attack like this and believed that Markov had done something specific to harm this tiger or its offspring. Because of the ferocity of the attack, and its conditions, the Inspection Tiger team was called in.

Russia has a special team of men called Inspection Tiger.  They are used to investigate, and if necessary, hunt rogue tigers that are man-eaters. A man named Trush is the head of the inspection team that was called to Primorye after Markov’s killing. He determined that the tiger had acted in an organized way and that this was not an impulse killing. It was the Inspection Tiger ’s duty to find this tiger and kill it. This is one angry and vindictive tiger.

During the course of their hunt, this particular tiger kills two more victims. In one instance it brutalizes the cabin of the victim, ruining all his possessions and dragging a mattress fifty feet in the snow to lie on and await the man’s return. The tiger lays on the torn mattress three days waiting for the man’s return. There is no chance for the man to even get a shot off. The tiger leaps in the air and tears the man to pieces. All that is left of him is his clothing. The town of Sobolonye is now in a state of terror and its residents are instructed not to leave their homes.

This book carefully details the hunt, the hunters and the victims. It reads like a novel with lots of thrilling adventure and wonderful characterizations. In some ways, it is reminiscent of Krakauer’s books. However, Vaillant does a lot with the surrounding issues that relate to the adventure at hand. We learn, for instance, that the Inspection Tiger  team is funded by conservation groups in the United States. We are told about the medicinal needs that China has for all parts of the tiger, thus encouraging poaching. They will pay $20,000 U.S. for one tiger. In an area where people live a subsistence lifestyle, this is a windfall. “The brandname Viagra is derived from vyaaghra, the Sanskrit word for tiger.” All in all, this is a book for the adventurer in all of us.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 70 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (August 24, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
EXTRAS: Excerpt

The New Yorker interview with John Vaillant

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More non-fiction:

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakaurer

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett



December 10, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Non-fiction, Russia

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