The Tiger by John Vaillant

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
Pub. Date: August 24, 2010
Source: Library
Summary: It’s December 1997, and a man-eating tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. The tiger isn’t just killing people, it’s annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren’t random: the tiger is apparently engaged in a vendetta. Injured, starving, and extremely dangerous, the tiger must be found before it strikes again.

As he re-creates these extraordinary events, John Vaillant gives us an unforgettable portrait of this spectacularly beautiful and mysterious region. We meet the native tribes who for centuries have worshiped and lived alongside tigers, even sharing their kills with them. We witness the arrival of Russian settlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, soldiers and hunters who greatly diminished the tiger populations. And we come to know their descendants, who, crushed by poverty, have turned to poaching and further upset the natural balance of the region.

This ancient, tenuous relationship between man and predator is at the very heart of this remarkable book. Throughout we encounter surprising theories of how humans and tigers may have evolved to coexist, how we may have developed as scavengers rather than hunters, and how early Homo sapiens may have fit seamlessly into the tiger’s ecosystem. Above all, we come to understand the endangered Siberian tiger, a highly intelligent super-predator that can grow to ten feet long, weigh more than six hundred pounds, and range daily over vast territories of forest and mountain.
Genre: Non-fiction, Nature, History, AMAZING
Recommended for: Everyone. Seriously.

“…when thunder rolls, lions will roar back. What other creature, besides the lion, the tiger, and the whale, can answer Creation in its own language?”

– Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Tribe of Tiger

The Tiger came to me by way of a happy (oh, so, so very happy) accident. I had originally wanted to read Vaillant’s newest novel, The Jaguar’s Children, a book which – at the time – I knew very little about apart from it being the book to read this year. At the border, a man’s truck (containing human cargo) breaks down and as the hours turn into days, it becomes evident that the group sent to find a mechanic won’t be returning. The Jaguar’s Children is pitched as a ‘gripping survival story’ and, judging from his work in The Tiger, I’m wondering if it might not have at least some ties to reality. Unfortunately, at the time my library hadn’t yet received a copy of this novel (they since have and it’s currently in transit from another library in our system – soon to be in my grabby hands), but this one was listed and available.

I’m a big fan of non-fiction and the way The Tiger was described with words like vengeance and annihilation made it sound like more of a true crime tale than anything else. Lately Matt and I have been watching a LOT of Nat Geo Wild and nature documentaries on Netflix (going on a bit of a tangent here, check out PBS’s Nature series – full episodes are available online! Leave it to Beavers was absolutely fascinating; until watching this I had NO idea how vitals beavers are to ecosystems. This episode alone is worth a watch but, seriously, make a weekend of it. Snow Monkeys, Honey Badgers, eels, plant behavior, I know I sound like a complete nerd, but I’m geeking out in the best way possible. These episodes – and other documentaries – opened my eyes to just how amazing our world is!) and it’s this new found passion-slash-obsession for wildlife that sealed the deal. I put in a request for The Tiger and in the best possible outcome, fell madly in love.

Looking back, I really shouldn’t have been all that surprised: John Vaillant is a best-selling, award-winning journalist-turned-writer. His first work, The Golden Spruce, went on my TBR list before I was even finished reading The Tiger. Sadly, that’s one my library doesn’t have, but I’m ordering a copy because after just one book, Vaillant has become an auto-buy author. THAT is how much I loved this book and if The Golden Spruce is anything like it (which I suspect will be the case – its subtitle is A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed) I know I’m in good hands.

It’s usually around the four-paragraph mark that I begin wrapping up my reviews. Here, however, I’ve barely begun! Do you follow a strict pattern, an outline you use when discussing books? I’ve found that, while I make an attempt, the book itself takes the lead. Jacqueline Woodson’s brown girl dreaming, for example, subconsciously had me defaulting to short, direct sentences in response to the novel’s verse format. The Tiger is so much more than just a tiger hunt, so it only makes sense to me to take my good old time and discuss beaver documentaries while in the process. Really, though, The Tiger is one part true crime (with the tiger as the Big Bad), one part anthropological study, one part thriller, and a whole lotta character exploration. Only, in this case, the characters are real people. Although I’m gushing like a fool, I want to warn you: if you want a book about a hunt for a killer tiger, this is not the book for you. No, I’m not kidding. The actual time spent on tracking down, locating, and finally killing the animal can be summed up in 30 pages. Instead, Vaillant takes you on an incredible journey – over land and through history – and at times it’s hard to forget I’m reading non-fiction.

Since well before the Kung’s engine noise first penetrated the forest, a conversation of sorts has been unfolding in this lonesome hollow. It is not in a language like Russian or Chinese, but it is a language nonetheless, and it is older than the forest. The crows speak it; the dog speaks it; the tiger speaks it, and so do the men – some more fluently than others.

Before we can get to know the man-eating tiger, John Vaillant wants us to know the land and he does a phenomenal job at describing this wilderness so far removed from anything I’ve ever known. At times, the landscape seems almost magical, as though this is a fantasy novel I’m reading instead. Other times The Tiger feels post-apocalyptic and it’s a wonder anyone – man OR animal – can survive.

The Chinese knew this country as the shuhai, or “forest sea.” It may have been marvelous to contemplate from the deck of a ship, but on the ground, it took a savage toll on humans and animals alike. When you weren’t battling arctic cold, or worrying about tigers, there were insects on a scale that is hard to imagine.

Those insects Vaillant mentions? Their numbers are so great and their bite so effective they were actually once used as a means of punishment and, in some instances, death. A person would be bound to a tree and left to the insect kingdom. Sir Henry Evan Murchison James, a member of the Royal Geographical Society (and therefore no stranger to bugs) once stated, “If there be a time when life is not worth living, I would say it was summer in the forests of Manchuria.”

Wild boar, musk deer with 4-inch fangs. Lilacs that grow to reach six feet, giant lotus. The raccoon dog, a tropical wild dog called a Dhole that hunts in packs, red-legged ibis. Paradise flycatchers, five different species of eagle, nine species of bat, and over forty kinds of fern. A species of giant ladybugs with a reverse color scheme.

Primorye’s bizarre assemblage of flora and fauna leaves one with the impression that Noah’s ark had only recently made landfall, and that, rather than dispersing to their proper places around the globe, many of its passengers had simply decided to stay, including some we never knew existed.

Vaillant prose positively shines in The Tiger. He has a way with words and phrases and it’s mind-blowing that this is non-fiction – I keep having to remind myself that these events actually happened, that this is a land I can physically go to. And if this is how he treats non-fiction, I absolutely cannot wait to see what his fiction game holds. New favorite author, perhaps?

Interspersed throughout the novel, in-between tales of the land and its storied history (along with the people who once lived and still inhabit it), Vaillant introduces the star of the show: the tiger. In the winter of 1997 a man, a poacher, was brutally attacked and ultimately eaten. While it’s not completely unheard of, it was more than a little strange: for centuries tigers and humans have lived together. Many people are of the ‘I don’t both you, you don’t bother me’ mentality, maintaining peace with the creatures and even sharing meat. A hunter might set aside part of a large kill for the tiger, an offering almost. Some native tribes revere these beasts to the point of worship and with Vaillant’s description, I can totally see why:

To properly appreciate such an animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger back up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons on a velociraptor. Now, imagine the vehicle for all of this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder. Finally, emblazon this beast with a primordial calligraphy: black brushstrokes on a field of russet and cream, and wonder at our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature. (The tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin.) Able to swim for miles and kill an animal many times its size, the tiger also possesses the brute strength to drag an awkward, thousand-pound carcass through the forest for fifty or a hundred yards before consuming it.

It therefore comes as no surprise that an animal whose paws are so dexterous it can catch a fly and release it completely unharmed could also brutally rip a man apart and leave virtually nothing behind. There were rumors and suspicions as to what made the tiger go after this man with such blind rage. One theory is that Markov killed one of the tiger’s cubs and with an almost human-like amount of planning that went into its revenge, I can easily see this being the case.

Another side note: PBS also featured an episode on the Siberian tiger and it’s definitely worth a look. Filmed in Russia, this episode really puts into perspective just what The Tiger is all about: the landscape, these massive animals, the weather.

The Tiger is a book I clearly could ramble about for days. It’s SO much more than a story about a hunt for a man-eating tiger. Vaillant pauses yet again to bring some psychology to the table (if you walk away from the book without having learned something, you’re a liar). He talks about some incredibly interesting studies that were done on children and the age when we learned to “anticipate behavior of game and avoid predators.” Richard Coss, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis created a virtual savanna landscape complete with a thorn tree, boulder, and rock crevice. In his study, he presented this landscape to a group of American preschool children then introduced a lion. Asking where they would go to find safety, only 1/6 picked the boulder. With no prior knowledge of lions (or what knowledge they had most likely coming in the form of cartoons), over 80% of these children understood the risk the lion posed. Coss summed it up by saying, “The small percentage who chose the boulder would not have escaped the lion, and to this day, despite millions of years of natural selection, there remains that small percentage of humans who make fatal choices.”

Another study Vaillant describes was done by UCLA anthropologist Clark Barrett. In Barrett’s study, he took two groups of children ranging from ages 3-5. One group was comprised of German preschoolers, the other from the Shuhar tribe from the Amazon basin. Two completely different backgrounds and completely different experiences with animals. Barrett showed the children a toy lion and toy zebra and asked ‘when the lion sees the zebra, what does the lion want to do?’ 75% of the 3-year-olds answered with some form of kill/bite/chase. With the 4- and 5-year-olds, an astounding 100% answered with the same. Barrett than asked ‘when the lion catches the zebra, what will happen?’ This time, 100% of the Shuhar 3-year-olds replied by saying the lion with hurt/kill/eat the zebra while 2/3 of the German children responded with the same. Every single 4- and 5-year-old knew what would happen. Regardless of the culture, learning, or living conditions, Barrett found these children fully understand the rules of predatory behavior without having seen live lions before and knowing nothing about Africa.

The Tiger is a book that completely took me by surprise – going into it I expected an interesting story, but I had no idea just what I was getting myself into. Scientific and anthropological studies, history and ecology lessons with gorgeous prose to boot, this book seriously has it all and in the two short weeks it’s been in my life I haven’t shut up about it. I’ve rambled at length to my parents and siblings – poor Matt has to live with me! He’s been listening to me talk about this book non-stop! It actually reached the point where he would ask for updates (did they catch it yet?) I’ve talked about this book to my coworkers. I’ve mentioned it to complete strangers. No joke: anyone I’ve come across has now heard all about this book. I was absolutely terrified to write this review – nothing I say could possible do it justice and I’ve been sitting on my thoughts for weeks now. I’ve taken more notes and jotted down more quotes from this book than I ever have for a novel I’ve received for review! The Tiger is one of those books you just want to throw at someone, practically forcing it on them. John Vaillant has found a new fan with this book and I wholeheartedly look forward to diving into his other books!

(more) Notable Quotes

Nowhere else can a wolverine, brown bear, or moose drink from the same river as a leopard, in a watershed that also hosts cork trees, bamboo, and solitary yews that predate the Orthodox Church. In the midst of this, Himalayan black bears build haphazard platforms in wild cherry trees that seem too fragile for the task, opium poppies nod in the sun, and ginseng keeps its secret in dappled shade.

This Boreal Jungle (for the lack of better term) is unique on earth, and it nurtures the greatest biodiversity of any place in Russia, the largest country in the world. It is over this surreal menagerie that the Amus tiger reigns supreme.

There are, scattered around the hinterlands of Asia and – increasingly – elsewhere, a small fraternity of people who have been attacked by tigers and lives. Its members find their ways in through various means: greed, desperation, curiosity, bad timing, and, in a handful of cases, dazzling stupidity or madness. There is no association that advocates for them as there is for so many other niche populations of afflicted people, and there is no journal that reviews their cases or disseminates information on their behalf. Mostly, they stay at home, often in shacks and cabins a long way from paved roads. If they leave, it is usually with difficulty and something in great pain. Very rarely is there anyone in their immediate vicinity who fully appreciates what happened to them out there and, in this way, the lives of tiger attack survivors resemble those of retired astronauts or opera divas: each in their own way has stared alone into the abyss.

“..there is no creature in the taiga that is off limits to the tiger; it alone can mete out death at will. Amur tigers have been known to eat everything from salmon and ducks to adult brown bears. There are few wolves in Primorye, not because the environment doesn’t suit them, but because the tigers eat them, too. The Amur tiger, is could be said, takes a Stalinist approach to competition. It is also an extraordinarily versatile predator, able to survive in temperatures ranging from fifty below zero Fahrenheit to one hundred above, and to turn virtually any environment to its advantage.”

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