- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2010

THE TIGER: A TRUE STORY OF VENGEANCE AND SURVIVAL
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.


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