It will come as no shock that I’m interested in big cats. Having received a degree in political science, there are elements of and history which also capture my imagination. The Tiger: A True Story of vengeance and Survival, by John Vailant, combines these two elements in a true story of history, biology, and murder. It is a story of surviving in a cruel terrain, whose inhabitants (both man and animal) rise to the challenge of simply living.
In 1997, Vladimir Markov, a poacher, shoots at an Amur tiger, wounding it, and steals the meat it just killed for itself. The tiger, upset by this, destroys Markov’s camp, then hunts and kills the poacher. Yuri Trush, a anti-poaching conservationist with Inspection Tiger, leads the investigation into Markov’s death, and the subsequent events. Over the course of the book, this murder-mystery is investigated, the motives of the killer explored, and some level of justice ultimately resolved.
“In short, the gauntlet of trials and initiations a male tiger must endure is long, arduous, and deadly, and the survivors are truly formidable specimens”
However, the murder-mystery serves as a framing device for larger themes. The region this takes place in, where Russia, China, and North Korea meet, is some of the harshest areas occupied by living creatures. The people who live there are tough, with the journey across Russia simply taking its toll. They eek out an existence through trapping and foraging, and have an almost mystic connection to the tigers that live there. The informal rules of the inhabitants seem to be observed both by man and cat.
Most of the people portrayed in the book were born under communism, and came of age just before perestroika brought fundamental changes to the society. While those of us living the the West may have seen it as a completely positive development (as it dramatically reduced the threat of a global nuclear war), it had significant impacts on the people living in Russia. These impacts are seen in the book, as well as the creatures living in the region. The book afforded a view into the history of Russia that I wouldn’t have gotten in school (unless I took an explicit “history of Russia” class).
“As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it, ‘The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace.’ But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator.”
But it is more than just a murder-mystery and history, it also looks at the amazing Amur tiger, and the relationship it (and other predators) have with man. The descriptions of these amazing creatures, both their physical presence and their intelligence, were absolutely amazing to me. They seem to be able to carry an ability for abstract thinking that I didn’t realize they had. The book looks at how these creatures hunt their prey, and how humans went from being hunted by cats, to being their worst enemy.
The intersection of human evolution, the tiger’s predatory instinct, and the realities brought about by history, are what make this book compelling to me. The confrontation that serves as a framing device for the book, Markov’s killing, is truly a demonstration of the complex system we live in on this planet. All in all, this was an interesting book, and I’m sure I’ve annoyed everyone around me talking about it. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in tiger conservation.