Monday, October 18, 2010

The Tiger

A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

We tend to associate tigers with jungle settings, but the Siberian subspecies lives in the subarctic and has no difficulty surviving minus 40 degree temperatures. It's the largest big cat in the world, but unlike its Bengal cousin does not have a reputation as a man-eater. Yet in 1997 a male killed and devoured two men in Primorski Krai, a region in the Russian Far East.

John Vaillant's book recounts these events, and the subsequent tracking down and killing of the tiger. It's a sensational topic, but the author's handling of it is sensitive and wide-ranging. His portrait of life in Primorski Krai, and of the ghastly effects of perestroika, is empathetic without being sentimental.

Particularly moving is his sketch of the first man to be killed. He was poacher, yes, but he was also a person who had not been ground under by the harsh realities of life in post-Soviet Russia. Whether or not he was a victim of bad luck, or caused his own demise by interferring with the tiger in some way, perhaps by pilfering some of its kill, remains unknown.

What is astonishing is the vindictive manner in which the tiger acted, seeking out this man's cabin, vandalizing everything he had touched, and then waiting for his return. There can be no question that the tiger was targetting him.

Vaillant's approach to this extraordinary tale is similar to that of Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm. Indeed, Siberian tigers are so fierce and implacable they seem like a force of nature. Vaillant likens an attack to having a piano dropped on you from a two-storey window. The difference is that tigers act with intent. They are endowed with ferocious cunning, a hypnotic gaze, an earth-shaking roar, and an almost supernatural ability to move invisibly through the forest.

As of December 2009, only 400 remain in the Russian Far East. Some of the proceeds of this book go toward their protection.

Go HERE to watch the author speaking about The Tiger. He won a G-G for a previous book, The Golden Spruce.