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The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010)

by John Vaillant

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1,0796114,457 (4)125
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.… (more)
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In December of 1997, in the far East of Russia, a tiger is terrorizing a small village. The animal is not just killing people, he is devouring them, leaving only small pieces of clothing and just enough remains to identify a human. A chilling tale that unfolds like a fictional thriller. The author talked with the people who were terrified, the authorities who hunted the animal after the attacks, and somehow went into the mind of the Tiger to try and understand its motives.

There is no other word than beautiful, that I can think of, to describe the writing. It drew me in and made me feel as if I was in that forest.

All is quiet in this dormant, frozen world. It is so cold that spit will freeze before it lands; so cold that a tree, brittle as straw and unable to contain it's expanding sap, may spontaneously explode

[a:John Vaillant|50758|John Vaillant|https://images.gr-assets.com/authors/1374836831p2/50758.jpg] doesn't just tell the story of the attacks. He guides you through the unfortunate lives of the people who are barely surviving in this remote area of the world. He researches the reasons why this Tiger would come out of his natural habitat of the forest and not just attack humans, but lie in wait for them after ravaging their cottages or hunting blinds. In two instances the tiger pulled a mattress from the dwellings, then laid upon them as he waited for the owner to return.

The author studied the changing environment, caused by man and his greed to capitalize on the resources of the area. He also tells of the devastation that occurred to the small economy of this area when Perestroika took over, as the old Soviet Union fell.

A great read, recommended highly for non-fiction readers. ( )
  JBroda | Sep 24, 2021 |
This focuses on one particular tiger, but carries with it background and history of the tiger world and the importance of keeping tigers alive in their diminishing natural habitat. Factual, well composed and written. Humans need to put themselves in perspective with the natural life around us.
  David-Block | Aug 13, 2021 |
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

This is a book that can broaden your perspective of not only tigers, but also human proclivities and the paradoxes of evolving Russian life.

With exceptional skill the writer weaves a spellbinding account with the thread of hunter and hunted, alternating roles between Amur tiger and man throughout, the detail of the telling magnetic. It's a veritable adventure/thriller/horror book. That is only the binding of the book though. What I found equally immersing was the extensive augmenting material. Such being the relative effects of Russian history from Lenin through perestroika, China's benighted potions market, tiger history and interactions, constructive and aggravating human activities, individual histories and mindsets, topography of the Primorye region, indeed most anything relevant.

There are also a good many individuals involved, enough so that some I had to search back through the text to reacquaint myself with. A characters reference in the back matter, like I included in my own book, would have been helpful.

Any drawback to this remarkable literary achievement lies paradoxically with the extensive augmenting material. Readers along for only the joyride may find the book wearing, not understanding that like narrow-minded perspectives are at the root of humankind's problems.

As the story begins:
“When Trush and his men climbed down from the Kung [a military vehicle], they heard the crows’ raucous kvetching concentrated just west of the entrance road. Trush noted the way their dark bodies swirled and flickered above the trees and, even if he hadn’t been warned ahead of time, this would have told him all he needed to know: something big was dead, or dying, and it was being guarded.”

“The camera doesn’t waver as it pans across the pink and trampled snow, taking in the hind foot of a dog, a single glove, and then a bloodstained jacket cuff before halting at a patch of bare ground about a hundred yards into the forest. At this point the audio picks up a sudden, retching gasp. It is as if he has entered Grendel’s den.”

In investigating the first attack:
“Some in the village felt sure he had invited his own death by robbing the tiger of its kill. 'It became a bit of a joke,' said one local resident, 'that he brought that meat to his own funeral.' Regardless of their other feelings about tigers, the residents of Sobolonye had great respect for the tiger's intelligence and hunting prowess, and the idea that these powers might be directed against them—at random—was terrifying. This tiger’s presence had cast a pall over the village”

At another incident in a different setting:
“Whatever it was made the tiger change direction, and he stalked this new information with a single-minded intensity that would have been chilling to behold.
. . .
“What Alexander Pochepnya found is something no parent is equipped to see. Fifty yards into the snowy forest lay a heap of blood-blackened clothing in a circle of exposed earth. It looked more like a case of spontaneous combustion than an animal attack. There was nothing left but shredded cloth and empty boots.”

To understand and appreciate:
“It is only in the past two hundred years—out of two million—that humans have seriously contested the tiger’s claim to the forest and all it contains. As adaptable as tigers are, they have not evolved to accommodate this latest change in their environment, and this lack of flexibility, when combined with armed, entitled humans and domestic animals, is a recipe for disaster.”

Along with what drives much of the illegal trade in tiger-based supplements. The brandname Viagra is derived from vyaaghra, the Sanskrit word for tiger. Hormones control our thinking.

It isn't surprising that the reflections pertaining to the tiger's umwelt herein are in general accordance with those expressed in the book "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" by Frans de Waal, even those in the book "The Elephant Whisperer" by Lawrence Anthony, and no doubt others. We are all cut from the same cloth, and the ‘all too human’ behavior of man is ‘all too animal.’

“In hunting societies, such as the Udeghe, the !Kung, the Haida, or the Sioux, animals were not merely food, they were seen as blood relatives, spiritual companions, hunting guides, and sources of power and connection to the surrounding world. The boundaries between the umwelten of humans and animals were, of necessity, much less rigidly defined.”

The augmenting material is every bit as interesting. For example there is this about Russia's far Eastern wilderness known as the Taiga:
“Primorye’s bizarre assemblage of flora and fauna leaves one with the impression that Noah’s ark had only recently made landfall, and that, rather than dispersing to their proper places around the globe, many of its passengers had simply decided to stay, including some we never knew existed. Within this waterbound envelope live unclassifiable species like the raccoon dog, as well as a bizarre tropical canid called a dhole that hunts in packs, and has been reputed to attack humans and tigers, along with more traditional prey. Here, too, can be found red-legged ibis, paradise flycatchers, and parrotlike reed sutoras, along with five species of eagle, nine species of bat, and more than forty kinds of fern. In the spring, improbable moths and butterflies like the Artemis Emperor, the Exclusive Underwing, and the as-yet unstudied Pseudopsychic hatch out to spangle and iridesce by the roadsides. In the dead of winter, giant ladybugs with reverse color schemes cruise the walls of village kitchens like animated wallpaper. This Boreal Jungle (for lack of a better term) is unique on earth, and it nurtures the greatest biodiversity of any place in Russia, the largest country in the world. It is over this surreal menagerie that the Amur tiger reigns supreme.”

“Of the six surviving subspecies of tiger, the Amur is the only one habituated to arctic conditions. In addition to having a larger skull than other subspecies, it carries more fat and a heavier coat, and these give it a rugged, primitive burliness that is missing from its sleeker tropical cousins. The thickly maned head can be as broad as a man’s chest and shoulders, and winter paw prints are described using hats and pot lids for comparison.”

“... there is no creature in the taiga that is off limits to the tiger; it alone can mete out death at will. Amur tigers have been known to eat everything from salmon and ducks to adult brown bears [Kamchatka brown bears twelve to fourteen hundred pounds, larger than Alaskan Kodiak bears]. There are few wolves in Primorye, not because the environment doesn’t suit them, but because the tigers eat them, too. The Amur tiger, it could be said, takes a Stalinist approach to competition. It is also an extraordinarily versatile predator, able to survive in temperatures ranging from fifty below zero Fahrenheit to one hundred above, and to turn virtually any environment to its advantage.”

“Within every major ecosystem nature has produced, she has evolved a singularly formidable predator to rule over it. In Primorye, the Amur tiger is the latest, most exquisitely lethal manifestation of this creative impulse.”

“By regularly bringing down large prey like elk, moose, boar, and deer, the tiger feeds countless smaller animals, birds, and insects, not to mention the soil. Every such event sends another pulse of lifeblood through the body of the forest."

Regarding Russian history in understanding human impact, you will see the conflicts and contradictions of heavy handed human ecosystem destruction hand in hand with conservation measures. A battle in itself with our blind weedy species weighing ever more on one end of the teeter-totter.

“The Great Patriotic War had scarcely concluded before the USSR began rebuilding and retooling for the Cold War. While Soviet engineers and scientists perfected the now ubiquitous AK-47 and tested the country’s first nuclear weapons, the general population reeled from the catastrophic synergy generated by six years of war and the seemingly endless nightmare of Stalin’s psychotic reign. During the two decades prior to Markov’s birth, the Soviet Union lost approximately 35 million citizens—more than one fifth of its population—to manufactured famines, political repression, genocide, and war. Millions more were imprisoned, exiled, or forced to relocate, en masse, across vast distances. With the possible exception of China under Mao Zedong, it is hard to imagine how the fabric of a country could have been more thoroughly shredded from within and without.”

“There is a famous quote: “You can’t understand Russia with your mind,” and the zapovednik is a case in point. In spite of the contemptuous attitude the Soviets had toward nature, they also allowed for some of the most stringent conservation practices in the world. A zapovednik is a wildlife refuge into which no one but guards and scientists are allowed—period. The only exceptions are guests—typically fellow scientists—with written permission from the zapovednik’s director. There are scores of these reserves scattered across Russia, ranging in size from more than sixteen thousand square miles down to a dozen square miles.”

With such a wealth of information in this book, the reader will also come across such as:
Hunting for prime specimens of a species can also morphologically, at a minimum, affect a species in reducing the gene pool. An example is the anthropogenic selection the moose of eastern North America went through. Sport hunters wanting bull moose with the largest antlers, such were systematically removed from the gene pool while the smaller-antlered bulls were left to pass on their more modest genes, year after year.

In the end I found this a sorrowful story, our narrow minded weedy species at loggerheads with a magnificent specimen of Nature's life-fueled-by-life closed loop continuum of physical life. Not all of us of course, but those that through greed and/or ignorance of the Amur tiger's keystone role in balancing fundamental biodiversity caused this individual's transformation to a man-eater. But, yet all of us in expanding our deadly role of crowding out the biodiversity that is essential to our own existence. Seen in the larger picture of all creatures affecting and changing their habitat which spurs ongoing evolution in adapting new physical life forms this incident may be minor, but telling of the ever accelerating pace of our own undoing. ( )
  LGCullens | Jun 1, 2021 |
The Tiger is a work of creative nonfiction that is too ambitious by half. Valiant would like to use two tiger attacks in the 90s as a microcosm of the Russian Far East, man’s relationship to nature, and globalization and conservation as a whole. This concept was always a tall order, but this particular example is poorly chosen for two reasons.

One struggle is the lack of content about the tiger attacks themselves. Neither had any eyewitnesses so Vailant is left to describe the evidence left behind and speculate based on other tiger attacks which had survivors. This gives Vailant ample opportunity to detour into a whole host of historical and ecological topics to fill in his speculation. Some of these are quite interesting but ultimately the ratio of hard facts about the tiger attacks to background information is way too skewed towards the latter. Whole chapters go by that advance the main “thread” barely at all. None of this would be a problem by itself but the whole book reads this way — stringing the reader along with crumbs of information and padding out the gaps with filler that ranges from vitally important to utter speculation.

This takes us to the second problem: the core hook of the book is never actually demonstrated! It’s framed as a telling of a real world murder committed by tiger, but Vailant does little to back up that assertion. Having now completed the whole story, it is not at all clear to me that the tiger wasn’t just angry or hungry, and that its victims were essentially random. Vailant establishes that the tiger *might* have targeted the first victim and...that’s it! Everything after that point is speculation and hand-waving.

It’s too bad. The hook of a murderous tiger is a great one. Alas, it seems to only exist in the realm of fiction for now. ( )
  lobotomy42 | Mar 29, 2021 |
Pretty decent dive into post war Russia and the psyche of the people there. He's comprehensive in his research of the topics of Russia an tigers. Don't mess with an Amur tiger ( )
  bsmashers | Aug 1, 2020 |
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"In the taiga there are no witnesses"
- V. K. Arseniev, Dersu the Trapper
"no easy bargain
Would be made in that place by any man"
- Beowulf
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Hanging in the trees, as if caught there, is a sickle of a moon.
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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.

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