A taste of ‘The Tiger’
John Vaillant pens riveting nonfiction account

by Joe Foster

You tracked him here, to this clearing. He’s hurt and hungry, and you’ve seen what so very little is left of those who have come across him before. The clearing is small, maybe 30 yards across, and the rumble of his growl, the deep throbbing pulse of it, is loud enough to vibrate the marrow in your bones. The tiger is there, all 600 pounds of rage and fire, somewhere. Somehow you can’t see him but you know he is watching you, from somewhere close, ready to charge…

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant is easily one of the most intense nonfiction books I’ve read. Every time I think of this book I think of this small clearing in the woods and the utter terror of being there. That’s not a quote that I started out with there, but an image that has stayed with me since reading this book, an image and a feeling that pops up at unexpected times. This book really got under my skin.

There’s a little corner of Siberia, Primorye, tucked away there just dangling next to China, just north of North Korea, abutting the Sea of Japan. A dizzying mixture of landscapes seem to collide in this corner of the world, and the forests and steppes are teeming with most of the world’s Siberian tigers along with bears, panthers and wild boar and a smattering of hard-ass men and women. Vaillant describes the area in detail and the landscape becomes almost as fascinating a story as the hunt for a vengeful, man-eating Siberian tiger that haunted the residents of this land back in December of 1997.

For centuries, man and tiger have lived in relative harmony in this area, with the human element understanding that if you don’t mess with the tiger it won’t mess with you. Apparently, though, if you do mess with the tiger it won’t forget any time soon, and this is where this story becomes truly terrifying. A desperate man – a hunter and occasional poacher – took some meat from a tiger kill. This crime of opportunity, this act of desperation, set this man and everyone he shared that meat with on a deadly collision course with a vengeful and relentless master predator. The tiger tracked down and utterly destroyed any person that came in contact with this meat.

This was the hardest part of the story for me to wrap my head around: that this animal had the intelligence, patience and pride necessary to so single-mindedly punish those who had crossed this line, however unwittingly. Hollywood has made billions portraying just this sort of behavior, that mob boss mentality that makes no allowances for mercy. These men were not just killed, and not just eaten, but devoured and scattered with a ferocious brooding rage that speaks of this tiger’s ability to hold a very serious grudge. Couple this with the sheer power and lethality of a Siberian tiger, and you have the makings of nightmares.

I was surprised to learn that Russia may very well lead the world in its conservation efforts. This isn’t quite what I think of when I think of Russia. Much of my knowledge of this country comes from “Rocky IV,” “Spies Like Us,” and, of course, my requisite book-dorkian Russian literature phase. Rather than a Russian Imperialist sacking of all the natural resources available, we’re shown how hard the Russian government fights the rampant poaching that serves China’s apparent insatiable appetite for aphrodisiacs, ill-gotten lumber and skin rugs. Fascinating battles, natural, personal and political, are being fought in this most remote of places.

I really can’t say enough about this book. Vaillant’s The Tiger is definitely one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read. You’ll put it down and lay there in the dark, feeling as powerless as you truly are, knowing that it’s only through luck and thumbs (and maybe some smarts) that we don’t live in constant fear of being eaten by fanged things in the dark. Well, I didn’t until I read this one and realized that I probably should worry. Take this home: Don’t eat the tiger’s meat and everything will be OK. •



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