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Author Archive: "John Vaillant"

Fight to the End

Thanks for checking out the Powell's Blog this week. Today's my last day as the guest blogger, and I thought I'd finish up (surprise, surprise) with an episode from The Tiger. Some of the weirdest encounters we had in the Russian Far East had nothing to do with tigers or poachers or dubious dumplings. My translator and I spent a lot of time in transit between interviews, and some bizarre conversations were had: one fellow asked why we'd come all this way — didn't we have tigers in Canada? Another explained that global warming was caused by rockets blowing holes in the ozone layer; a third claimed that the former Soviet Union had covered 75% of the world's land area.

Because so much of life in the Far East is governed by a kind of whimsical rigidity — a combination of leftover Soviet bureaucracy and free market chaos — sometimes even simple interactions left us feeling as if we'd wandered into an insane asylum. To this day, the Russian Far East is a place where ...

The Magic Key

In order to write any sort of in-depth book, you're going to have to do a substantial amount of research and legwork, and then distill it all in quiet seclusion, kind of like a bootlegger. In the case of The Tiger, most of this research and legwork took place in the Far East. Getting visas to China and Russia isn't all that hard, but once you get there, you are going to have to communicate with armed men interested in personal details , and you'll need to find the bathroom. In my case, I also needed to have frank conversations with people who'd had life-and-death encounters with tigers, some of whom were also breaking the law on a regular basis. The catch is that traveling in the Far East is like suddenly coming down with a wicked case of dyslexia. Nothing makes sense anymore and your alphabet is useless. English, despite its international popularity, has yet to catch on tiger country, even in academic circles.

So I needed a translator. Good translators are ...

Flying Tigress

One of the most important teachers I had regarding tiger behavor was an amazing video clip of an attack by a Bengal tigress in northeast India's Kaziranga National Park. In this clip, wardens on elephants can be seen trying to shoot the tigress with a tranquilizer gun until, finally, she gets fed up. What is significant about the tigress's response to this harassment is her mode of attack: when a cat is hunting for food, it typically attacks from behind, using the element of surprise. But when a tiger is attacking an adversary — driving off a competitor or fighting an enemy — it usually approaches head-on, as this tigress does (and as The Tiger did). One of many things that really impressed me about this video was how the tigress emerges from the long grass like a shark swimming up out of the depths — and then erupts — flying over the top of the elephant — jumping "as high as it needs to."

You can watch it here.

By stopping the motion of the ...

As Silent As the Moon

One of the things that drew me to the story that became The Tiger was the way in which a solitary wild animal was able to make a modern community, equipped with cars, TVs, telephones, and firearms, revert to a Stone Age mindset almost overnight. If we're familiar with tiger attacks at all it's likely because we've read stories about man-eaters in India — serial attacks on seemingly helpless villagers living in very primitive circumstances. The Russian village of Sobolonye, profiled in The Tiger, is much more familiar to the Western reader; the inhabitants (and the victims) are Caucasians with both feet firmly planted in the industrialized world. Furthermore, the vast majority of the men and many of the women who live there are experienced hunters. And yet, in the space of one week at the turn of the millennium, this tiger was able to strip away the fragile veneer of civilization and human superiority and replace it with a kind of ancient, elemental terror . This was possible because, as one Chinese saying puts it, "The tiger's progress is as silent as the moon's." When I was in the Far East, I was told repeatedly that if a tiger has targeted you, you will never see it coming. Should you have the misfortune to witness an attack like those experienced around Sobolonye, it has a way of undoing your confidence in the known world. Things you've taken for granted become unsteady, menacing, and magical — in a bad way. Children know this feeling well, but most adults have worked hard to forget it.

I wanted to understand more fully what this experience is like and, in order to do so, I had to learn a lot about how tigers operate. In the zoo, you can get a feel for a tiger's mass and "heavy grace," but zoo tigers tend to move very slowly, if at all. It's hard in that context to get a sense of how invisible — and how fast — tigers can be when they're sufficiently motivated. After the Siberian tiger attacks at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas day, 2007, a noted tiger expert was asked how high a tiger can jump. His answer, "As high as it needs to," touches on an essential truth about tigers.

Enter “The Tiger”


Powell's has been kind enough to hand me the mike this week. The occasion for this indulgence is The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, which came out a few days ago. It's a relief, really, because the suspense has been killing me. This was a three-and-a-half year trip: from the realization in Banff, Alberta, that, holy cow, this story is completely out of hand, I have to write it, to Beijing, Vladivostok, and into Primorye, the Siberian tiger's last stronghold. And, finally, to this moment: all of us here together, packed into this little blog.

The Tiger is set in Russia, in the dead of winter, during the chaotic aftermath of perestroika. Near Russia's far eastern border with China, a Siberian tiger is hunting, and a man is hunting, too. The man is a poacher, desperately poor, and he shoots the tiger and wounds it. The injured tiger remembers this man, follows him home, trashes his stuff, and kills his dogs. Then it lies down by the poacher's door and waits. But that is only the beginning; things get weirder and scarier from there. As the inspector who was sent in to investigate this case said to me, "There are many people who don't believe this actually happened. They think it's some phantasm of my imagination. But it was real. There are the facts."

A lot of people have asked me how I came across this story, and it was thanks to the Banff Mountain Festival where I saw a documentary called Conflict Tiger. I didn't know much about the film going in — something about poachers and Siberian tigers — but I was hooked from the opening shot: a wide-angle panorama of snowbound forest paired with this shrill, skirling soundtrack. About 15 minutes later I felt — and this is precisely what I felt — a bolt of recognition to the forehead: sudden, exhilarating and terrifying all at once. Thematically speaking, I had visited this country before in my first book, The Golden Spruce. But that true story of humans and nature in collision didn't have a tiger in it. The film lasted an hour, and I was riveted to my chair, squirming as quietly as I could. As soon as I got home, I called the director, Sasha Snow (his real name), and liked him immediately. We work in different media, on different continents, but it was clear that we were tuned to the same frequency. He encouraged me to go to Russia myself. Since then, we have become friends, to the point that he is now making a documentary of The Golden Spruce.

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