The Tiger

John Vaillant

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Gripping storytelling mixed with Russian history. I especially liked the background on the Russian Far East - I hadn't studied anything about the region before. The descriptions in the book were also fantastic (during the climax of the story I found myself holding my breath through the whole thing!).


It is hard to express how far over the horizon this region lies in relation to Russia's political, cultural, and economic centers, but a nickname can offer insight to a place just as it can to a person. Many Siberians refer to western Russia as the Metairie - the mainland. Which is similar to the way Alaskans think of the lower 48.

When Russians wax eloquent about their homeland, they will often invoke Mother Russia. But Mother Russia is not a nation and she is certainly not the leadership. She is the land. The deep Russian bond to the Earth, specifically the soil transcends all other affiliations with the exception, perhaps, of family.

A number of these cases have been documented by the famous tiger hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett. It would be impossible to accurately tally the Tigers collective impact on humans through history but one scholar estimated that tigers have killed approximately a million Asians over the last 400 years. The majority of these deaths occurred in India but heavy losses were suffered across East Asia.

If you don't touch her, she won't touch me. Such was the stability of human-tiger relations in the Panchalaza that the possibility of a person getting attacked, much less eaten, by a tiger was literally laughable. Like getting hit by a meteorite. But an analogy to cars may be more useful. Everyone knows they are deadly and that people can get killed by them, and yet most people have reconciled themselves to this danger in a way that allows them to live in daily harmony.

"First we would appoint someone, let's say me, to be the tiger. Then we would take all the furniture out of the room, cover the windows with mats, and turn out the lights. The other club members would be the hunters and they would sit in the middle of the room facing outward, armed with revolvers. Thus arranged, they would shoot in any direction where they heard the tiger, that is, me.Obviously, I'd taken my shoes off and emptied my pockets of anything that might jingle. I would be running along the walls in my socks trying to step as soft as I could, like a tiger. But one time the role proved too much for me. I stumbled and got a bullet in my arm. I was lucky it wasn't my heart." I couldn't believe my ears. "Listen," I said, "this is not a game.It's murder! To cover the windows, turn out the lights and shoot at a human being? You could have been killed." "Well not exactly as you can see I'm still alive. Anyhow we saw it differently. It was amusing, in its way. Of course with the lamps lit, death was a real possibility. But in the dark the tiger could become The Tiger.

When a domestic animal goes wild, a sheep killing dog for example, it is referred to as feral. But there is no name for what happens when a wild animal goes in the other direction and becomes dangerously familiar with the world of domesticated creatures. What should one call it when a tiger starts eating people and shit, and injures itself demolishing man-made things? Is it rage? A loss of baring? Or simply adaptation to a new order? Perhaps, some things are best left unnamed.In any case, this tiger was now linked to the world of men in a way no animal should ever be. In the metabolic sense, at least, contaminated by both the bullets and the blood of his enemy, he had become something that doesn't exist in the West.

There are, scattered around the hinterlands of Asia and increasingly elsewhere, a small fraternity of people who have been attacked by tigers and lived. Its members find their way in through various means. Greed, desperation, curiosity, bad timing and in a handful of cases dazzling stupidity or madness. There is no association that advocates for them as there is for so many other niche populations of afflicted people. And there is no journal that reviews their cases or disseminates information on their behalf. Mostly, they stay at home. Often in shacks and cabins a long way from paved roads. If they leave, it is usually with difficulty and sometimes in great pain. Very rarely is there anyone in their immediate vicinity who fully appreciates what happened to them out there. And in this way, the lives of tiger attacks survivors resemble those of retired astronauts or opera divas. Each, in their own way, has stared alone into the abyss.

The sunshine was so brilliant. The snow so pristine. The sky so depth-less. The stillness of the forest so profound that speech or motion of any kind felt like an intrusion. Here even the softest sounds carried an echo and the search parties presence, announced by the irksome eight-fold squeaking of their boots, seemed out of place. An affront to the exalted silence all around them.

Even though the people hunting him had access to air and ground support, lethal weapons,radios, maps, and centuries of accumulated hunting experience, they were forced to proceed on the tiger's terms. This wasn't the fault of the hunters, it was because effective predators excel at engineering situations that skew the odds in their favor. And this is what the tiger had managed to do, even though he was injured and most likely in unfamiliar territory.

The first impact of a tiger attack does not come from the tiger itself, but from the roar. Which, in addition to being loud like a jet, has an eerie capacity to fill the space around it leaving one unsure where to look. From close range,the experience is overwhelming and has the effect of separating you from yourself. Of scrambling the very neurology that is supposed to save you at times like this.

Current estimates indicate a total wild population of around 3,200 and falling. Making the situation more upsetting, especially for conservationists, is the fact that this cascading trend could be reversed tomorrow. Left alone, with enough cover and pray, there are two things tigers do exceptionally well: adapt and breed. In nature,versatility equals viability. And in this, tigers rival human beings. Until around 1940, tigers could be found almost anywhere on the Asian continent, from Hong Kong to Iran, and from Bali to Sakhalin Island.

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