Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Tiger - John Vaillant

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance And Survival
John Vaillant
Knopf Publishing
Copyright: August 2010
978-0307268938

The Amazon.com product description:
It’s December 1997, and a man-eating 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: the tiger is apparently engaged in a vendetta. Injured, starving, and extremely dangerous, the tiger must be found before it strikes again.

As he re-creates these extraordinary events, John Vaillant gives us an unforgettable portrait of this spectacularly beautiful and mysterious region. We meet the native tribes who for centuries have worshipped and lived alongside tigers, even sharing their kills with them. We witness the arrival of Russian settlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, soldiers and hunters who greatly diminished the tiger populations. And we come to know their descendants, who, crushed by poverty, have turned to poaching and further upset the natural balance of the region.

This ancient, tenuous relationship between man and predator is at the very heart of this remarkable book. Throughout we encounter surprising theories of how humans and tigers may have evolved to coexist, how we may have developed as scavengers rather than hunters, and how early Homo sapiens may have fit seamlessly into the tiger’s ecosystem. Above all, we come to understand the endangered Siberian tiger, a highly intelligent super-predator that can grow to ten feet long, weigh more than six hundred pounds, and range daily over vast territories of forest and mountain.

Beautifully written and deeply informative, The Tiger circles around three main characters: Vladimir Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger; Yuri Trush, the lead tracker; and the tiger himself. It is an absolutely gripping tale of man and nature that leads inexorably to a final showdown in a clearing deep in the taiga. 
What a read! That's the first thing that came to mind when I finished this book, which is an incredible mix of modern day thriller with the story of the man-killing tiger, and also the history of the region and the tigers living there. There was not a dull moment, and as I read The Tiger, I kept thinking of others I know who would love the book too. I found this to be the kind of book that demands sharing.

That it's a good book is not just my opinion, but is also borne out by the fact that The Tiger was the winner of the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction this year. Quite the achievement!

Although John Vaillant presents a lot of information throughout the book, it's not dry at all. Everything - both historical and present is very easy to picture, with vivid and exciting description. I felt like I was getting an understanding of the landscape and the ways of life in that part of the world - one I knew very little about before. The way people live there, it's easy to see why poaching is such an accepted way of life - there's almost no other way to survive!

And the people! What a cast of characters - and all of them real. From Markov to Trush, the author has done a great job of putting their stories together, sometimes without even talking to them, as with the victims of the tiger. The tiger is a character too, one that can't talk with words, but certainly dominates the story. The question is, "why?". That is what will keep you reading - finding out why this tiger is acting the way it is.

There's so much research that's gone into this book: the landscape within which the Amur Tiger lives, anthropology, modern survivor's stories, the Russian culture of today and of the past centuries and so much more too. That's part of what makes the book so impressive.

Is there going to be room for the Amur tiger in the future? I for one am hoping that there will be a way to keep the tiger alive in sufficient numbers for a healthy species without sacrificing human safety and interests. Perhaps if the pervasive corruption and the forces behind so much of the poaching were to be blunted, if not removed altogether, it might help at the very least.

If you haven't read this book, you really should. I'd have to call John Vaillant's The Tiger: A True Story Of Vengeance And Survival a five star read.
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