Tuesday, September 14, 2010


By Cynthia Grenier
The Washington Times
12:41 p.m., Friday, September 10, 2010

By John Vaillant
Knopf, $26.95 329 pages

''The Tiger" is a tale of the Wild East with all the power, energy and terror that once animated our own Wild West. The action takes place in Russia's southeastern province of Primorye by the East Sea/Japan Sea, not far from the Chinese border. People in the thickly forested, mountainous and sparsely populated region exist by logging, mining, fishing and hunting. They have to contend with pitiful wages, corrupt officialdom, thriving black markets and, most threatening of all, some of the world's largest cats - Amur tigers.

The Amur tiger is a rare and precious commodity and as dangerous to the people who are there trying to protect it as those who would profit from it. People in Russia and China will pay thousands of dollars for a tiger's skin. Tigers in that part of the world are like drugs, sold by the gram and by the kilo, and their value increases according to the refinement of product and seller. An important difference: Tigers can weigh up to 600 pounds. They've been hunting large prey, including mankind, for 2 million years and are endowed with an especially dangerous prodigious memory.

John Vaillant has compiled an extraordinary book, bringing vividly to life this rare and terrifying creature and the men who are setting their lives at stake every day in a barely civilized part of the world. This is a real-life adventure story that is rarely encountered: How many times do you read an on-the-scene account of a man having been eaten alive by a tiger?

Primorye, once considered part of Outer Manchuria, is home to 4 million people. Its capital, Vladivostok is a two-day journey to Beijing. Moscow, on the other hand, is a week-long, 5,800-mile haul on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Inspection Tiger, the organization with the mission of protecting the tiger - and people from the tiger - is in Vladivostok, whose bays stay frozen until April even though it lies farther south than the French Riviera. During hard winters, tigers prowl the outskirts of the city to hunt for dogs. In 1997, one tiger had to be shot after repeatedly charging cars by the airport.

Primorye is also the virtual meeting place of four distinct bioregions: plants and animals from the Siberian taiga, the steppes of Mongolia, the subtropics of the Koreas and Manchuria, and the boreal forests of the far north. One attempt by botanists to identify this region resulted in the likes of: Transbaikalian Province of the Circumboreal Region. The Amur that gives its name to the tigers that roam this region is the third longest river in Asia, and the longest undammed river in the world.

The area abounds in unclassifiable species, such as a bizarre tropical canid called a dhole that hunts humans and tigers as well as more conventional prey. This boreal jungle is unique, and the Amur tiger reigns supreme.

The Amur tiger is the only one of the six surviving subspecies habituated to Arctic conditions. In addition to having a larger skull than other subspecies, it carries more fat and a heavier coat, giving it a rugged, primitive burliness that is missing from its sleeker tropical cousins. Mr. Vaillant describes the beast this way:

"This is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator." Its fangs are the length of a man's finger; claws "a hybrid of a meat hook and a stiletto," fitted to a frame 9 feet or more from nose to tail, and 3 1/2 feet high at the shoulder. Its head can be as broad as a man's chest and shoulders, its paws comparable to pot lids. The cat is strong enough to drag a 1,000-pound carcass through the forest for up to 100 yards before devouring it.

Amur tigers eat everything from salmon and ducks to adult brown bears. Few wolves roam this region, largely because tigers eat them as well.

Mr. Vaillant has structured his book in roughly three parts mirroring the fates of three men who run afoul of the tiger. The first is Markov, a poacher who made the mistake of stealing boar meat killed by a tiger and who in turn is hunted down and eaten alive by the tiger.

Then there is Andrei Pochepnya, a quiet young man and friend of Markov, who went off into the taiga days after Markov's funeral. After a few days, when his family had had no word of him, a small search party set forth. They found a heap of blood-soaked clothing in a circle of exposed earth. Nothing lay there but shredded cloth and a pair of empty boots, nearby a watch and a crucifix. The remains, as one of the search party observed, were so small and few they could have fit into a shirt pocket.

The third and final part of Vaillant's book is devoted to Yuri Trush, who headed the team that hunted down and slew the man-eating tiger in an amazing encounter of man and beast. As Mr. Vaillant puts it, "It is still not clear whether it was a symptom of shock or an example of extraordinary sangfroid, but Trush's first impulse after standing and taking an inventory of himself was to get it on film."

Trush said, "I got my video camera and filmed where the tiger was. I filmed it all." Brad Pitt has bought the movie rights to "The Tiger," but with all due respect to Mr. Pitt, there's no way the movie will match Mr. Vaillant's book.

Cynthia Grenier is a Washington writer and critic.

Book review- 'The Tiger': John Vaillant's mesmerizing tale of a man-eating tiger, vengeance and survival

By by Steve Weinberg
Special to The Seattle Times
August 28, 2010

In the middle of a brutal Siberian winter 13 years ago, a rare breed of tiger killed two men, in attacks about a week apart, near a remote Russian village not far from the Chinese border.

Normally, such an occurrence would attract little attention in the English-speaking Western world. But the deaths received attention because of multiple factors: First, tigers seldom kill humans. Second, the specific breed of tiger involved is so rare it is a protected species, because its extinction is a real worry. Third, the men deputized to stop the carnage experienced something so rare as to defy belief.

If ever the maxim "truth is stranger than fiction" applies, it applies to the saga told in "The Tiger" by Canadian author John Vaillant, author of 2005's "The Golden Spruce."

Not so incidentally, if ever a nonfiction author has used the techniques of fiction any better to recount a real-life narrative, it is difficult to imagine who that author would be. For readers who enjoy literary nonfiction, think of Vaillant as a younger version of John McPhee, but on steroids.

The reporting is awesomely detailed, as in McPhee's narratives for The New Yorker magazine and in his books. The phrasing is precise, much like McPhee's. McPhee's writing, however, does not call attention to itself, at least not attention in the sense of flamboyant. Vaillant's writing is flamboyant, but almost never in a show-offy kind of way. The word "lyrical" comes close.

Vaillant builds the story around five characters, three of them human, one of them an animal and one the vast natural world: Markov, the first villager killed by the tiger; Pochepaya, the second villager killed by the tiger; Trush, whose job entails protecting the endangered tiger species from poachers while simultaneously capturing the rare renegade tiger; the tiger itself, a predator perhaps at least 9 feet long and weighing at least 500 pounds; plus the region of the Russian Far East known as Primorye, about the size of Washington state.

Throughout the narrative, Vaillant explores the central question of why the tiger attacked Markov. Vaillant comes dangerously close to anthropomorphizing the tiger, as he marshals evidence that the tiger was seeking revenge. Revenge for what? Markov, a talented hunter-gatherer practicing subsistence living, might have stolen meat from one of the tiger's animal kills.

Before Markov died, mauled by the tiger, he shot a rifle round that wounded the magnificent animal. Because of the wound, the tiger could no longer kill other animals with efficiency, so focused instead on a second vulnerable human — Pochepaya by name, who unwisely left the village on what he intended as a day trip, leaving despite warnings that a human-eating tiger might be lurking.

Trush is the most fully developed character, almost certainly because he is still alive. Vaillant, after all, could not interview Markov and Pochepaya. A mix of a conservationist with a badge and an apprehender of felonious poachers, Trush is a man's man with a thoughtful streak. He comes across as a hero of sorts, heightened by the details of what occurs when Trush himself is attacked by the tiger being tracked.

The balance of nature is at stake, a precarious balance perhaps more vital than a human life or a tiger's life.

In the Epilogue, as Vaillant wrestles with what his narrative means, he mentions that humans "have found themselves in charge of the tiger's fate. This is not a burden anyone consciously chose, but it is ours nonetheless. It is an extraordinary power for one species to wield over another, and it represents a test of sorts. The results will be in shortly."

Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books.

Copyright © 2010 The Seattle Times Company


Author appearance
John Vaillant

The author of "The Tiger" will discuss his book at these area locations: at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or http://www.elliottbaybook.com/). Vaillant will also read at 7 p.m. Sept. 23 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or http://www.thirdplacebooks.com/).

The True Story Of A Man-Eating Tiger's 'Vengeance'

September 14, 2010

In the late 20th century, the Amur tiger was nearly hunted to the brink of extinction -- at one point, there were just 30 animals left in the wild. Above, an Amur tiger sits in the snow at a wildlife rehabilitation center.

John Vaillant's The Tiger is part natural history, part Russian history and part thriller; it tells a gripping and gory story of what it's like to stalk — and be stalked by — the largest species of cat still walking the Earth.

The most bio-diverse region in all of Russia lies on a chunk of land sandwiched between China and the Pacific Ocean. There, in Russia's Far East, subarctic animals — such as caribou and wolves — mingle with tigers and other species of the subtropics. It was very nearly a perfect habitat for the tigers — until humans showed up.

The tigers that populate this region are commonly referred to as Siberian tigers, but they are more accurately known as the Amur tiger. "Imagine a creature that has the agility and appetite of the cat and the mass of an industrial refrigerator," Vaillant tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "The Amur tiger can weigh over 500 pounds and can be more than 10 feet long nose to tail."

These majestic tigers can jump as far as 25 feet — vertically, they can jump over a basketball hoop. Vaillant cites a famous tiger biologist who, when asked how high a tiger can jump, responded: "As high as it needs to."

At the center of the story is Vladimir Markov, a poacher who met a grisly end in the winter of 1997 after he shot and wounded a tiger, and then stole part of the tiger's kill.

The injured tiger hunted Markov down in a way that appears to be chillingly premeditated. The tiger staked out Markov's cabin, systematically destroyed anything that had Markov's scent on it, and then waited by the front door for Markov to come home.

"This wasn't an impulsive response," Vaillant says. "The tiger was able to hold this idea over a period of time." The animal waited for 12 to 48 hours before attacking.

When Markov finally appeared, the tiger killed him, dragged him into the bush and ate him. "The eating may have been secondary," Vaillant explains. "I think he killed him because he had a bone to pick."

The other central character in The Tiger is Yuri Trush, the head of the local squad of an anti-poaching unit known as Inspection Tiger, an organization created by the Russian government to combat the black-market trafficking of tigers and tiger parts.

Trush was "a guy well-suited to work in tiger country," Vaillant says. Physically imposing and a skilled fighter, Trush was a larger-than-life figure, and a "real warrior."

For most of his time with Inspection Tiger, Trush's job involved setting up sting operations and catching poachers. But Markov's death — which is followed later by the death of a second man — meant that Trush ended up having to hunt the same animal he had worked to protect.

Trush needed to anticipate what the tiger's next move would be, and then get there before the tiger did, Vaillant explains. "Trush was charged not just with protecting tigers, but now with saving human lives."

Vaillant's retelling is a life-and-death, moment-by-moment chase — and at times, it can be hard to remember whether you're rooting for the tiger or the humans.

"The tiger is just trying to be a tiger," Vaillant says.

"What's so fascinating to me about that region is that there are human beings and tigers hunting for the same prey in the same territory — and they don't have conflicts." But if you make the mistake of attacking a tiger, you will regret it, he says.

Markov certainly learned that the hard way. Vaillant says the tiger's response was "logical" and "understandable," but in the case of the revenge it exacted on Markov, it was anything but typical. In writing the book, Vaillant interviewed people of all ages from families who had lived in the Russian Far East for generations.

"In living memory, there was no record of an incident like this, of a tiger hunting a human being," he says. "This was a highly unusual circumstance, completely driven by human behavior. If the tiger hadn't been shot, there would be no story."

Related- Listen to an interview with John Vaillant:


NATURE- 'The Tiger,' by John Vaillant

By John McMurtrie, San Francisco Chronicle Book Editor
August 29, 2010

Should you wish to set off on an expedition to view the Siberian tiger, you might first study its physical attributes.

"Picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull," writes John Vaillant, "and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons on a velociraptor. Now, imagine the vehicle for all of this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder. ... Able to swim for miles and kill an animal many times its size, the tiger also possesses the brute strength to drag an awkward, thousand-pound carcass through the forest for fifty or a hundred yards before consuming it."

Still want to go on that expedition?

Wise choice. Probably best not to travel all the way to the Russian Far East to take in this splendid creature. But by all means read Vaillant's magnificent book about the animal: "The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival" offers readers a shiver-inducing portrait of a predator that has been revered - and feared - like no other animal.

Yes, readers learn a lot of fascinating details about the beautiful and ferocious Panthera tigris in "The Tiger." (For example: It is, as Vaillant writes, "literally tattooed: If you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin.") But the book is more a profound examination of the myriad factors that threaten the animal's continued existence in the wild. And it's a largely sympathetic portrayal of impoverished people who have turned to poaching, out of desperation, to get by in a forbidding land that has suffered at the hands of Perestroika (also known as "Katastroika"), which, as Vaillant writes, "opened the door to a run on Russia's natural resources."

"The Tiger" revisits events that took place in 1997 in Primorye, a remote territory roughly the size of Washington state that, in Vaillant's words, "combines the backwoods claustrophobia of Appalachia with the frontier roughness of the Yukon." (Its capital, Vladivostok, is closer to Australia than Moscow.)

Primorye also has one of the most unusual ecosystems on Earth: "winter can bring blizzards and paralyzing cold, and summer will retaliate with typhoons and monsoon rains. ... Here, timber wolves and reindeer share terrain with spoonbills and poisonous snakes, and twenty-five-pound Eurasian vultures will compete for carrion with saber-beaked jungle crows."

It's in this not-so-inviting region that a Siberian tiger (more formally known as the Amur tiger) goes on a rampage, killing men in what appear to be premeditated attacks. Tigers, of course, have killed countless humans throughout history, but, as Vaillant shows, they will more or less leave people alone if they themselves are left alone.

The tiger at the heart of Vaillant's book tracked his victims "with a kind of calculated audacity" and waited for them before striking. One man isn't just dispatched; Vaillant writes, in an image that is hard to shake, that his remains "were so small and so few they could have fit in a shirt pocket." This prompts one of the author's many insightful and eloquent asides: "[I]f the body journeys through the viscera of an animal - if its substance and essence become that animal - what happens to the soul?"

The reaction from the man investigating the case, by contrast, displays a Russian appreciation for understatement and black humor: "The tiger undressed him quite well."

That line is from Yuri Trush, who is more or less the hero of "The Tiger." He's a likable tough guy with heart, a former weightlifting champion who heads the regional unit of Inspection Tiger, which goes after poachers. "In many ways," writes Vaillant, "Inspection Tiger's mandate resembles that of detectives on a narcotics detail, and so does the risk: the money is big, and the players are often desperate and dangerous individuals. Tigers are similar to drugs in that they are sold by the gram and the kilo, and their value increases according to the refinement of both product and seller."

Trush protects tigers, but, in the end, he must, in an unfortunate irony, hunt down the animal that has killed men. The final pages of Vaillant's book are suspenseful, but also deeply sad. The tiger has clearly lashed out in anger against humans - humans who are encroaching on its land and shooting at it - and one can't help but feel that its fate symbolizes the fate of its breed (to say nothing of that of other endangered animals). The tiger's numbers are dwindling (fewer than 400 may live in the Russian Far East), and its land is being stripped away.

"If the tiger is permitted to go extinct in the wild," writes Vaillant, "it would be the largest carnivore to do so since the American lion (Panthera leo atrox) died out at the end of the Pleistocene, approximately ten thousand years ago."

What becomes of the tiger, as Vaillant concludes, rests entirely in our hands. But will we do the right thing?

E-mail John McMurtrie at jmcmurtrie@sfchronicle.com; go to www.twitter.com/McMurtrieSF.(C) San Francisco Chronicle 2010

The Exchange: John Vaillant on the Siberian Tiger

Posted by Ian Crouch
The New Yorker
September 3, 2010

The Amur, or Siberian, tiger is a startling creature. Not just in terms of its remarkable size, strength, and speed, but perhaps especially because of the seeming incongruity of where it lives: in the cold, unforgiving hinterlands of northern Asia, far from the grasslands or swamps favored by its cousins to the south. The idea of a blaze of orange coming at you across a white expanse of snow is almost too otherworldly and terrifying to imagine.

In “The Tiger,” out last week from Knopf, John Vaillant confronts us with that very scenario, revisiting a deadly, mysterious tiger attack in 1997 that shocked the residents of Primorye Territory, in Russia’s Far East. The book is at once a riveting adventure story and a wider study about how lax regulations, crippling economic hardship, and greed that crosses borders have led to a situation wherein tigers and humans pose a greater risk to one another than ever before.

This week, I exchanged e-mails with Vaillant about his new book.

The Amur tiger sounds like such an incredible animal. What surprised and fascinated you most about it as a subject?

Besides its size and beauty, I was most struck by this tiger’s stoic durability. That an animal we so strongly associate with the jungle, heat, and lounging around could thrive in an environment as cold and hostile as the Russian Far East impressed me—moved me, really. The tiger I came to know in the book was able not only to function, but to adapt and refine its methods, alone, in minus-forty temperatures with serious wounds. This animal possessed an almost supernatural determination to live that changed the way I look at the life force.

How did you create such a compelling narrative from a story wherein several of the key players—the dead hunter Markov, the tiger—are shadowy, absent figures, their fate often unknown?

I used the same methods I used to write my first book, “The Golden Spruce” (which first appeared as an article in The New Yorker), in which the two principal characters were also absent or dead. Virtually everyone leaves a trail behind them in the form of tracks, objects, relationships, official documents, and the memories of others. These bits and pieces are preserved in their environment, though they may be scattered across it like shards. The writer’s job is to find them, sort them, and assemble them in such a way that offers the reader a coherent collage of that character. In the case of “The Tiger,” my job was made easier because the inspectors who investigated the attacks described in the book treated the evidence forensically, almost as one would a murder. As a result, I had video footage, photos, maps, and interview transcripts that fortified my own research.

You write a lot about man’s place in the hunter/prey dynamic. In the modern, developed world, what have we forgotten about this longstanding connection?

What we’ve forgotten is the notion of enlightened coexistence. Prior to the advent of agriculture and the settlement that goes with it, humans—of necessity—maintained a much more considered, and considerate, attitude toward animals and their environment. For many human inhabitants of Russia’s Bikin River Valley, the tiger is still seen as a fellow hunter—a colleague of sorts—whom one may encounter at any time, and whom one must respect accordingly. Prior to the attacks described in this book, which were incited by the poacher, Vladimir Markov, man-eating was virtually unknown in the Bikin valley, a large area with a vigorous tiger population. I met hunters there who know the tigers in their area by their faces, who are familiar with their age, gender, and disposition—just as we are familiar with neighborhood dogs. In most cases, these tigers are seen as more of a nuisance than a mortal threat.

Nowadays, nature is a place most of us visit, suppress, exploit, or avoid, rather than inhabit. This illusion of controlled remove encourages a lethal disconnect—to the point that it takes a major hurricane, oil spill, or tiger attack to remind us that we are actually connected, that everything is “personal.”

You balance the need for conservation and protection of the tiger with the natural fear and distrust that the human population has about these creatures. Is it likely that people can be made to see the tiger as something to be respected, or even to be grateful about?

It is absolutely within the realm of possibility, in part because there is an established precedent: among the native population of Primorye, tiger attacks—recalled, recorded, or mythic—are exceptionally rare, despite the fact that these peoples have always shared space and game with tigers. The reasons for this lack of incident are caution and common sense on the part of humans, and the fact that tigers are taught by their mothers to pursue four-legged prey, not people. If the ecosystem is intact, and understood by its inhabitants, the possibility of conflict is dramatically reduced.

The chief causes of the current breakdown in this historical d├ętente are:

•The radical depletion of the prey base due to poaching, which leads to increased competition for game.

•The loss of habitat due to logging, which leads to more chance encounters between poachers and tigers.

•And—above all—the commodification of tigers for the illegal-wildlife trade, which leads to extinction.

Is there hope looking forward for groups like Inspection Tiger, the task force charged with protecting tigers from illegal hunting? And what conclusions have you drawn about the future that the tigers face in eastern Russia, and across Asia more generally?

I could not have written “The Tiger” if there was no hope. The Russians have already saved the Amur tiger from extinction, not once but twice: first in the nineteen-forties, when they became the first country in the world to declare the tiger a protected species, and again in the nineteen-nineties, when poaching surged dramatically and Inspection Tiger was created to combat it. These inspection teams, whose courage and determination are detailed in the book, are a powerful deterrent to poachers and traffickers. While funding cuts and political instability have weakened this agency in recent years, other groups and agencies, with the help of foreign funding, have stepped in to fill the gap.

Tiger conservation is a complex issue exacerbated by poverty, corruption, deeply held cultural beliefs, and political instability. Today, the world’s wild tiger population is roughly three thousand animals—a shadow of its former self. More than ten per cent of these survivors live in Russia. Now, in this “Year of the Tiger,” the top priority is law and order in the forest and along porous international borders. Russia’s previous successes protecting tigers in the Far East are proof that this can be achieved again, in Russia and elsewhere.

If you’re interested in learning more about groups dedicated to protecting tigers, Vaillant shared the names of these three organizations: Wildlife Alliance, 21st Century Tiger, and Panthera.




And for more about the disappearance of tigers in Asia, read Caroline Alexander’s “Tigerland,” from the April 21, 2008, issue of the magazine.


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