Can a tiger hold a vendetta against a person? This is a central question in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant. The book holds a haunting tale you won’t soon forget. It’s based on true events that transpired in Russia’s Far East in the late 1990s. The truth of the events portrayed in this book will stalk your conscience until you are forced to confront several revelations: that animals like tigers may possess an intelligence which allows for pre-meditated action, that animals like tigers may have emotions and act upon them, that tigers may have the emotive and cognitive capacities to possess grudges and enact vendettas, and that most humans who don’t live with wild tigers tend to downplay and discredit these possibilities.
The story Vaillant tells in this book is based upon a series of events that took place in the far eastern Soviet taiga, which is a type of habitat that transitions between tundra and temperate forests. The bulk of the book takes place in Primorye Territory, a maritime province which harbors one of the last reservoirs of wild Siberian tigers. The opening scenes begin in December 1997 on the sliver of Russia’s eastern coast that lies between China and the Sea of Japan. A man had just been attacked and partially eaten by a tiger, about 60 miles from the logging town of Luchegorsk.
But it wasn’t just any man, and very soon the tiger’s act of killing and consuming this man takes on a chilling revelation: the tiger knew this man. The tiger, in fact, was carrying a bullet that the victim had shot into it just weeks before. Did the tiger remember that this particular hunter had shot it? Did the tiger seek out revenge?
After being shot in the leg by the hunter, an investigative team that later tracked it determined that it was trying, but failing, to hunt natural prey. The tiger’s pounce was off. The injured tiger then returned to the hunter’s cabin and ransacked its exterior. The large cat chewed on every item that smelled of the man, defecated near the cabin, and seemingly lay in wait for hours for the man’s return home. When he finally came, the tiger attacked him and fed from his corpse. Then the tiger began stalking and killing other humans.
This book dissects the events leading up to the first attack, the role of tiger poaching to feed Asian appetites for tiger bones and tissues, and the efforts of a small governmental unit called Inspection Tiger which is tasked with protecting the last wild tigers, despite steep odds. Vaillant also explores the attitude of local forest dwellers toward tigers, and the beliefs they hold about them. For example, it is widely believed by the people of Primorye that once you wrong a tiger and it has its sights set on you, you are a dead man walking because the tiger will find a way to kill you. On the other hand, if you respect the tiger and keep your distance from it and do not wrong it, it will leave you peacefully alone.
The book does a magnificent job of weaving both tiger ecology and mythology into a narrative that seeks to dissect why this particular tiger killed this particular man. Though it’s clear that Vaillant is enthralled with the subject, he remains objective and presents only facts and different people’s perspectives of events so that the reader can draw their own conclusions. It’s a device that serves his topic well and infuses his writing with credibility and authority.
While I read this book several months ago when this blog was on hiatus, several features stand out in my recollection of the story. First, Vaillant goes to great lengths to re-create specific scenes exactly as they transpired. This is truly narrative reporting at its finest. The result is that many scenes read cinematically, as if you are a watching a movie instead of reading a book. Significant details and dialogue are preserved within a finely structured narrative which weaves acutal events with intense and in-depth explanatory context. Vaillant also examines each scene from multiple perspectives which gives the book a rare depth. Second, Vaillant describes masterfully the landscape in which this story takes place. I’ve never been to Russia, but after reading this book I feel I know intimately Primorye Territory and its people. His descriptions of the forest, the tiger’s habitat, and the human settelements within it are so detailed that he transports you there in a wink. Third, he investigates tirelessly what the tiger’s possible motives were in stalking and killing this particular hunter. By leaving no question unasked and no lead untested, Vaillant paints a powerful picture of a tiger bent on vengeance and survival in Russia’s Far East.
I highly reccommend this book. You won’t regret picking it up, and probably won’t be able to put it down.