Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Tiger: a riveting tale of the hunter and the hunted

The Tiger, A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
By John Vaillant
Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf and Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2010)

Most people encounter tigers by viewing them in a cage at a zoo, reading about them in a book, or researching them online. Imagine the fear of not only sharing the forests with these powerful predators, but knowing that you are being stalked by one – with nowhere to hide.

That’s the scenario that Vladimir Markov found himself in back in 1997, in a remote corner of southeastern Russia near the Chinese border. Markov, an ex-Russian serviceman and paratrooper, lived and worked in Primorye Territory. He was a hunter and beekeeper and did other odd jobs to survive in that inhospitable part of the world.

Primorye Territory is believed to be the last stronghold of the Siberian tiger, and one of these beasts had targeted Markov, carefully stalking him and viciously killing him. The horror of the attack sent shockwaves throughout Primorye Territory and beyond, and then about a week later, the same tiger attacked and killed another man.

The story surrounding these deadly attacks forms the basis of John Vaillant’s excellent The Tiger, A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. With exhaustive research, a meticulous eye for detail and a true storyteller’s skill at producing suspense, Vaillant recounts the period leading up to these attacks and cites plausible theories as why the two victims may have been targeted. The story proceeds almost like a police procedural, gathering evidence and building suspense as the story unfolds. In describing the tiger’s capacity for exacting revenge, Vaillant writes:
The Amur tiger’s territoriality and capacity for sustained vengeance, for lack of a better work, are the stuff of both legend and fact. What is amazing – and also terrifying about tigers – is their facility for what can only be described as abstract thinking. Very quickly, a tiger can assimilate new information – evidence, if you will – ascribe it to a source, and even a motive, and react accordingly. 
The second part of the book describes a search party that was hastily assembled and charged with locating and killing the tiger, led by Yuri Trush, the head of a group known as Inspection Tiger Unit. Trush and his team persuade the authorities that this tiger needs to be tracked and killed to avoid further attacks. But hunting this tiger in the mountainous and forested regions of Primoyre will prove no easy feat, and a kind of cat-and-mouse game ensues.

Vaillant’s story doesn’t always follow a linear progression, and the story is much richer for it. He digresses periodically, tracing the history of tigers across Europe throughout the centuries, discussing the reasons why these wild beasts have been driven to extinction, and examining the complex relationship that has existed between man and tiger, from 10,000 B.C. to the present. Vaillant describes the landscape of the taiga (forest) in great detail, the courageous efforts by Trush and his team to find the elusive, man-eating tiger, and brings to life the many personalities who were directly impacted by these tragic events.

For  centuries, tigers have fascinated people all over the world. Their incredible physical powers and ferocity, their keen intelligence and cunning, and their incredible mystique and beauty continue to produce a sense of awe. In reading The Tiger, your fascination will deepen, and you will gain a new-found respect for the world’s most feared predator.

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