The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
by John Vaillant
Reviewed by John G. Rodwan Jr.
Amur tigers do not usually eat people, but in late 1997 one in the Russian Far East started doing exactly that. In The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, John Vaillant tells a cross-species true-crime story in which the perpetrators of violence, both human and non-human, are also victims of desperate circumstances.
Vladimir Markov, a struggling beekeeper, is compelled by poverty into illegal hunting of tigers. Shooting a tiger -- perhaps because it attacked his dogs, perhaps to meet demand for such cats' meat across the border in China -- transforms the two-legged predator into prey, who the tiger follows and annihilates with deliberate ferocity. Soon after consuming Markov, the tiger devours a young hunter, Andrei Pochepnya, and also nearly kills Yuri Trush, a tracker with Inspection Tiger, an outfit tasked with combating crimes involving tigers, which usually means disarming poachers but which now means pursuing an atypically vengeful killer cat.
Luck as much as experience and preparedness saved the agent in an especially dramatic climactic episode. "It was men who were responsible for the aggression of this animal," said Trush, "and the incident with Markov was a sort of quintessence of all these cases."
In order to contextualize events, Vaillant surveys the unique ecosystem of Primorye Territory, a logging, mining, fishing and hunting area between China and the Sea of Japan.
He details the awesome strength and devastating destructive capability of the Amur subspecies (also known as Siberian), the only tigers able to survive arctic conditions. Equipped with exceptionally sharp four-inch claws on paws the size of kitchen pot lids, such creatures can weigh 500 pounds. As Vaillant puts it, "this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator."
He explains the economic conditions that prompt poaching of endangered species, specifically the collapse of the Soviet Union and what ensued from Perestroika, what Vaillant declares "the biggest, fastest, and most egregiously unjust reallocation of wealth and resources in the history of the world." He also outlines historical and contemporary efforts to protect the animals (but none to help the struggling people).
Vaillant is a contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Outside and National Geographic, and The Tiger at times reads like a puffed-up magazine piece. He pads it with supernatural speculation and excursions into theories of behavioral ecology and anthropology. He tacks on accounts of other, unrelated tiger attacks. He also makes highly dubious analogies, comparing villagers viewing the dead cat to visitors to Lenin's tomb and, more troubling, likening the depletion of Asia's tiger population to the Nazi's decimation of Jews in Europe.
Despite some missteps, Vaillant crafts a fact-filled environmental police procedural -- part nonfiction thriller, part call to conservationist action. Already the subject of a documentary, the events reconstructed in The Tiger, according to its publisher, are now poised to get the full Hollywood treatment.