A rather gruesome story caught my eye in the weekend papers. It concerned the smuggling of bear paws and tiger parts across the border from Russia into China, and an arrest that apparently only deserved the briefest of mentions in the local Russian paper, Amur Pravda. Poaching of wildlife has reached epidemic proportions along the Amur, at least it has since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the weird rampage of Russian-style capitalism that has replaced it. The far eastern province of Siberia, with its unique climate and unusual topography, has become a lawless frontier where desperate people have turned to desperate measures.
The Amur River has been etched into my consciousness since reading Andre Makine’s sparse and haunting novella, Once Upon the River Love. Although it is the world’s ninth longest river, and describes the boundary between the far eastern part of Russia and China, I certainly hadn’t thought much about it before. Since reading The Tiger a couple of weeks ago, I have thought of little else.
In The Tiger John Vaillant has written a piece of non-fiction that would give the likes of Lee Child a run for his money. It is an eco-thriller, but with writing so deft and a story so incredible (I use the word advisedly), I had to keep reminding myself that this isn’t a work of a particularly imaginative novelist, but in fact a particularly thorough account of precisely what happened in the furthest, almost coldest, corner of Russia just thirteen years ago. The article from the paper about the bear paws is a menacing reminder that things remain unchanged.
So to the story. It is 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 is 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 worshipped 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 absolutely enormous and range daily over vast territories of forest and mountain.
Beautifully written and deeply informative, The Tiger circles around three main characters: Vladimir Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger,Yuri Trush, the lead tracker and the tiger himself. It is an absolutely gripping tale of man and nature that leads inexorably to a final showdown in a clearing deep in the taiga.
This book is being released in the US and Australia virtually simultaneously. A movie version is being made by Brad Pitt’s production house. And here are three pretty impressive endorsements.
“This elegant work of narrative non-fiction has it all– beauty, intrigue, a primeval locale, fully realised characters, and a conflict that speaks to the state of our world. Obsessively well-researched and artfully written, The Tiger takes us on a journey to the raw edge of civilisation, to a world of vengeful cats and venal men, a world that, in Vaillant’s brilliant telling, is simultaneously haunting and enchanting.”
(Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder)
“The Tiger is the sort of book I very much like and rarely find. Humans are hard-wired to fear tigers, so this book will attract intense interest. In addition to tiger lore and scalding adventure, Vaillant shows us Russia’s far east and its inhabitants, their sometimes desperate lives interwoven with the economics of poaching and the politics of wildlife conservation. I was startled to learn about the zapovedniks and Russia’s primary place in global conservation. This is a book not only for adventure buffs, but for all of us interested in wildlife habitat preservation. ”
“…Suspenseful and majestically narrated … Vaillant has written a mighty elegy that leads readers into the lair of the tiger and into the heart of the Kremlin to explain how the Amur went from being worshipped to being poached. ”