It's December 1997, and a man-eating Siberian tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia's Far East. The tiger isn't just killing people, it's annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren't random. An absolutely gripping tale of man and nature that leads inexorably to a final showdown in a clearing deep in the taiga.
Enter Operation Tiger, an under-funded agency, who’s primary job is to protect the endangered tiger. It’s a small group, led by Yuri Trush, a skilled hunter and environmentalist. They are given the special and dangerous task of tracking down this rogue man-killer, before it strikes again.
This fascinating and intense story, is not only about this harrowing true-life incident, but also covers many other topical issues, like Russia’s dire economic situation and describes the hard-scrabble lives of these inhabitants of the Far East, mostly outcasts and ex-cons.
The book also delves into the complex relationship of this magnificent predator and man himself, which stretches back eons.
This is impeccably researched and exceptionally well-written. Narrative non-fiction at it’s very best.
Here the author sketches the tiger:
“…picture the grotesquely muscular head of a pit bull 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…”
I’ve always admired this wonderful animal but now my adoration and respect, has gone to a whole new level.
Here is a powerful narrative non-fiction about the struggle of these tigers, those who are trying to save them, and those who are hunting them. Author John Vaillant writes a suspenseful story of one tiger that has turned into a man-killer. The fear, cunning, and courage of both man and beast are palpable. Survival is edgy for the hunters, loggers, villagers and the very predator they seek.
The Siberian tigers have been “both sacred and a scourge” to the native inhabitants of this region. These tigers were believed to have supernatural attributes. Poachers killed these animals for their body parts to be exported and consumed by humans who wanted to share in this revered strength and power. This previously unknown aggressive behavior of illegal hunters toward the tigers resulted in terrible consequences in return. They are dealing with a cunning intelligence and targeted vengeance.
“To say that a tiger is an ‘outside’ animal is an understatement that is best appreciated when a tiger is inside. Cabins are small, of necessity, and the tiger filled this one the way a cat would a fish tank. Much to the tiger’s irritation, Grisha Tsibenko was not at home. In the course of searching for something – anything- made of meat, the tiger destroyed the place. When he got around to the mattress which smelled richly of Tsibenko … the tiger tore it apart and then lay down on its harrowed remains…the tiger had arrived at a more efficient method: building on his success with cabin stake-outs and with mattresses, he combined the two here in a way that also warmed him in the process… now it was only a matter of time.”
But this book is about more than one man and one tiger. It is a look at the evolution of powerful predators, tigers and humans. There are unresolved conflicts between men who are marginally surviving on the land, the greedy who abuse this need, and those that see the future of the earth’s environment. Read it for the science – or read it for the suspense. And watch out! It will grab you!
Recommended. 4.25 stars
The Amur Tiger is quite rightly revered and respected in this part of the world. This superior hunting machine is at the top of the food chain and is a perfect predator and well adapted to this environment. There seems to be some evidence that the Amur Tiger also appears well able to hold a grudge and to target and specifically hunt down a human that it feels has done it wrong.
The story begins with Yuri Trush and his men of the Inspection Tiger, a organization that’s full purpose is the preservation of both the Amur Tiger and it’s habitat. These men are not particularly popular with the locals as this is a poverty ridden area that relies heavily on both hunting for food and extra income. In December of 1997, the Tiger Organization is called to investigate the death of a local from a tiger attack. A few days later a second man is attacked, killed and eaten. These incidents launch the story of the subsequent hunt for a man-eater, which the author tells side by side with his well researched, convincing plea on the need for the conservation of these animals and their habitat.
Totally gripping this narrative non-fiction story is a great adventure tale as well as a well defined thumbnail sketch of the people, politics and environment of Russia’s far east .
The Siberian tigers are amazing creatures able to survive in the harshest climate. Unfortunately they have lost much of their traditional hunting area because of man. Sometimes the tigers become desperate too. Thus the conflict between man and beast arises. Will there be tigers in the wild 100 years from now? I hope so and Vaillant shows there have been some recent attempts at protection. Time will tell how effective these measures will be.
A few months ago I was perusing the blogs and checking everything out and I came across The Boston Bibliophile's mention of this book. Though I had seen it mentioned before, I wasn't all that interested in it and had decided to pass it up. But something overtook me when I was reading Marie's thoughts on it. Her enthusiasm was so great that I immediately went over to the publisher's site to check it out. From that point on, I was hooked and knew that I had to read it. I can't put my finger on what it was about this book that so intrigued me, but whatever it was, it was hard to ignore. When my copy arrived and I settled down to read it, the people in my house were constantly being bombarded with tiger lore and myth until finally they politely told me to go away and be quiet. This book was such an interesting piece of non-fiction that I had trouble tearing myself away from it, and as such it was one of my best reads of the year.
Everyone is familiar with tigers. But do you really know just what makes a tiger such a lethal killing machine? Is it the claws that are described as having a double edge as sharp as a surgical scalpel, or the fact that its claw is needle sharp at the tip and closely resemble the talons of a velociraptor? Or is it the fact that its fangs are the size of a human index finger and are backed up by rows of slicing teeth? Perhaps it's the fact that when a tiger attacks it uses its tail as a stabilizing device, making its aim truer and its balance steady. Now imagine all this wrapped around five hundred pounds of muscle and turned against a human with a measly hunting rifle filled with buckshot. Factor in that this particular tiger was not merely angry but infuriated with Vladimir Markov. Even in the in the most optimistic outcome, Markov never had a chance. As Trush and his men begin to canvas the area, they discover that Markov may have engaged in some serious breaches of etiquette toward this tiger and that his infractions may have been the last straw that finally pushed the tiger into the realm of insanity. Furthermore, the tiger was not willing to stop at the death and consumption of Markov and decided to go around systematically destroying not only his property but menacing any others whom he had contact with. This was a serious tiger with a serious grudge.
As Vaillant relates his tale, he also fills in the gaps regarding the area and its inhabitants, showing his readers just why the people of the Primorye can't stay out of the forests despite the danger. Though communism is over and perestroika reigns, most Russians are finding it more difficult to survive amidst these changes than ever before. Money is almost valueless and some workers aren't being paid at all. The people of the Primorye are surviving by living in tight-knit communities where hunting and gathering are the only real ways to survive. Because of this economic climate, poaching is a highly lucrative occupation, with tigers being number one on the poachers' lists. It seems that there are not only lingering political tensions between Russia and China, but that China has an insatiable appetite for Russia's resources. This creates a situation in which Russia is exporting all its valuable resources to China in return for sub-par imports. The Chinese value tigers above all else, for their myths and lore tell them that the tiger is a spiritually powerful animal, and that by ingesting its body, they too will become more virile, strong, and dangerous. When the price for a whole tiger is upwards of $50,000, you can begin to see why your average hunter would risk the animal's fury.
Within these stories are housed the legends, lore and myths of tiger-kind. Vaillant explains how one can be "tiger-tainted" and how certain tribes believe that tigers share a generational memory of enemies. Some believe that if you respect the tiger and never interfere in its life, it will leave you to your own devices and never attack. Still others believe that tigers have been known to share its kills with humans but to take this meat will leave you forever indebted to this frightening creature. Some Chinese myths claim that even devils and demons are afraid of the tiger. Men's attitudes towards this remarkable creature vary greatly, from those who abandon a village if a tiger is seen wandering in it to those who have been confronted with a tiger only to punch it in the nose, but it's clear that the tiger is a supreme force to be reckoned with and not an animal to be taken lightly.
The blending of the animal and sociopolitical information in this book was really a wonder to behold. Just when one section seemed to be ramping up, Vaillant would switch over to the other, creating a constantly heady balance of human structure and tiger structure that I found delectable. In no way do I think that my review of this book does it justice. It's consuming and scary, deft and involving, and it's also meticulously researched. Not only are there eyewitness accounts of all the events, but there are some stunning photographs that will put the fear of God into you regarding the tiger and its attack. All of these elements are wound seamlessly around each other and they're not only relevant but somehow mystifying and hypnotizing. Vailllant succeeds brilliantly in weaving together all the aspects of this story and creates a tale that is not only carefully crafted but terrifyingly suspenseful and riveting.
I'm sure you can tell by now that I loved this book, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if you have to read only one non-fiction book this year, this is the one to read. Not only was it a beautiful piece of non-fiction, it had the added bonus of being incredibly creepy and unpredictable. What Vaillant does in this multi-layered and suspenseful tale will not only regale the most critical reader, it will also make you think about the tiger in a completely different way. Not only can these animals be cunning and unpredictable, Vaillant shows us that they can be incredibly smart and gentle when optimal conditions arise. A wonderful book full to the brim with excitement and information. Highly recommended and not to be missed.
The Primorye region of the Soviet Union is like an anomaly, existing at the confluence of arboreal forest and subarctic environments. It’s at the intersection of four distinct bio-regions. It’s home to a huge variety of species not found elsewhere: sturgeon the size of alligators, It pushes the limits of the four and attempts to classify the area by biologists have resulted in “marble-mouthed results.” Here’s Vaillant’s description: “Here, timber wolves and reindeer share terrain with spoonbills and poisonous snakes, and twenty-pound Eurasian vultures will compete for carrion with saber-beaked jungle crows. Birch, spruce, oak, and fir can grow in the same valley as wild kiwis, giant lotus, and sixty-foot lilacs, while pine trees bearing edible nuts may be hung with wild grapes and magnolia vines. These, in turn, feed and shelter herds of wild boar and families of musk deer whose four-inch fangs give them the appearance of evolutionary outtakes. Nowhere else can a wolverine, brown bear, or moose drink from the same river as a leopard, in a watershed that also hosts cork trees, bamboo, and solitary yews that predate the Orthodox Church. In the midst of this, Himalayan black bears build haphazard platforms in wild cherry trees that seem too fragile for the task, opium poppies nod in the sun, and ginseng keeps its secret in dappled shade…. It is over this surreal menagerie that the Amur tiger reigns supreme.”
Many of the “quintessential” cultural objects associated with North American Indians originated in this area and made their way across the Bering Strait to the Americas: the birchbark canoe, tepee, totem poles, bows and arrows, dog sled and kayak-style paddles.
Lots of interesting material here beside the land itself and the hunt for a hungry tiger who has begun eating humans. It’s an area that is closer to Australia than Moscow, very close to the Sino-Russian border, how perestroika has affected the poor residents,
The tiger, having been injured by a poacher, is no longer able to hunt and takes revenge (tigers are imbued with supernatural qualities by the locals,) in the area in far south eastern Russia around Sobolonye, described by Vaillant as “the last settlement at the end of a road that, when not buried in snow, can go from choking dust to sucking mud in the space of an hour... The place has the feel of a North American mining town circa 1925, only with fewer straight lines." Yuri Trush’s job is to track and kill the tiger. Politically, the area is isolated and forgotten. One postman described it as anarchic. Poachers seek to make a living off Chinese desire for tiger skins and testicles.
Valiant mixes in evolutionary theory with the story. To make it out of Africa early humans had to develop the brain power and skill to survive when faced with such a formidable foe. Ghosts of our ancestors abilities haunt and inform our responses. Richard Koss, a psychologist created a virtual savanna devoid of anything but thorn bushes, a boulder, and a rocky crevasse. He presented this to several American preschoolers and then introduced a lion into the virtual world and asked the children what they would do. One in six picked the boulder -- these would not have survived against the lion. The remaining 80% picked the thorn bush or crevasse.
The NYTimes reviewer compared this book to Moby Dick, “alternating a gripping chase narrative with dense explanations of the culture and ecology surrounding that chase. “Jaws” fans will recognize the dramatic strategy of keeping the beast offstage as much as possible to allow terror to fill in the blanks, as well as a certain lurid detail at the book’s end, which I won’t reveal.” High praise in my book.
I feel sorry for those who complained that the story dragged and there was not enough action in the tiger hunt. This is a wonderfully detailed examination of a culture and the effects of political and cultural changes on a people isolated from the rest of the world and what extreme poverty forces people to do to survive. It’s also the story of evolutionary competition between two apex predators. Non-fiction at its best.
Tigers are extremely symbolic in Chinese art and culture (one of my areas of expertise) and I have come across information on how some scholars believe ancient Asian societies were based on animal cults. "The Manchus, Udeghe, Nanai, and Orochi, all of whom are Tungusic peoples long habituated to living with tigers, knew their place; they were animists who held tigers in the highest regard" (p. 141) will be my starting point…together with several recommended books from Vaillant's excellent list of 'tiger classics'.
But the larger tale is one of context: a relic habitat in a remote area, and the native people and Russian newcomers who struggle to survive in very tough economic times. Discussions of anthropology, ethology, human evolution and prehistory, Sino-Russian relations (past and present), environmental protection (or degradation), and more, made this one of the most fascinating listens I've tuned in to for some time.
I quite enjoyed learning about village life and the various people involved with care of animals in the wilds of Siberia. the book "reads long" - it is well-written and smooth but requires thought as you progress, and I found myself putting it down by times to digest.
Still, recommended highly for a view into a part of the world few of us will see.
Mr. Vaillant excels at showcasing the true danger to the natural world. Tigers are known throughout history for being ferocious, extremely dangerous, and absolutely lethal. Yet, humans have always held a fascination for that which most terrifies us. Tigers are no exception. For generations, tigers have been hunted to the brink of extinction because of fear and the desire to prove one's manhood as much as the black market needs. Tiger populations have been decimated over the past several decades, proving that as fearsome as these animals are, humans are the more lethal of the two.
One cannot read The Tiger and not walk away with a better appreciation for tigers and, more importantly, for the need to protect these magnificent animals. As dangerous as they are, their impact on the food chain cannot be denied, and our world would be a poorer place without them. Much of what afflicts the tiger in the story is a result of direct contact with humans, and a reader is not hard-pressed to imagine how different the story might have ended had the tiger been ignored by all humans from the very first. Mr. Vaillant does not hide a tiger’s potential for lethal conduct but showcases how important they are to the taiga and how humans for hundreds of thousands of years have been able to live side-by-side with them in spite of the danger. If anything, The Tiger ends on a note of hope, as the tiger’s ability to adapt and survive has been proven over the years, and with a little help from humans, can recover and continue to grace this Earth.
Extremely well-written, The Tiger will attract readers of multiple genres. While The Tiger is nonfiction, the descriptions and pacing reads more like a suspense novel. Mr. Vaillant takes his time introducing each character and setting the scene to build tension for the final showdown between tiger and man. It is a thrilling glimpse into a world that is foreign and remote to all but a select, hardy few and well worth the read for the chance to better understand these gorgeous animals.
The other reviews will tell you the basic storyline, but for me it was John Vaillant's writing that really was the key thing. For everyone I've told about this book (and there are many to match my enthusiasm), I've said that at time John's writing was like a combination of Hemingway and Conrad. There passages where you literally have to remember to breath.
That being said, the other great strength is the pacing and spacing of the book. If John had written only about the events concerning the tiger and main characters, the book would likely be 1/4 to 1/3 its length. It's all the other background, mysticism/old religion, anthropology, psychology, and other information current and historical that he provides that makes it so enjoyable. It will definitely be a book on my list to gift this Christmas.
I found myself trying to slug through it, so I decided to stop reading it.
I know there is an audience for it, but it just wasn't for me.
When I said the book is about a “man-eating” tiger, this is no exaggeration. In one case, a victim’s remains fit in a Dopp kit. This is one mean tiger. But the author paints a picture in which it’s easy to feel sympathy for the animal, imputing that the tiger is interested in revenge against specific individuals for acts they committed – violations of unwritten rules for human-animal interactions in the wilds of Siberia. When I think about the simple logistics of “getting the story,” I can only admire the author. What perseverance it must have taken to stick with a story that takes place in such a wilderness.
I recently watched the documentary Happy People, about life on the taiga. But after reading this story, I can’t imagine why people would stay in such a godforsaken place. Russia + terrible climate. Ugh!