Fate can be a bitch, but, as Zaitsev, Dvornik, and Onofrecuk had discovered, it can also be a tiger.
“There are two categories of people when it comes to extreme situations,” said the leopard specialist Vasily Solkin. “One gets scared first and then starts thinking; the other starts thinking first and gets scared after the fact. Only the latter survive in the taiga.”
It is only in the past two hundred years—out of two million—that humans have seriously contested the tiger’s claim to the forest and all it contains. As adaptable as tigers are, they have not evolved to accommodate this latest change in their environment, and this lack of flexibility, when combined with armed, entitled humans and domestic animals, is a recipe for disaster.
John Vaillant’s ‘The Tiger’ is a story of multiple extremes clashing together into something bizarre, almost otherworldly confluence of events that reads like a thriller of tragedies. A conflict between multiple men and a tiger amidst one of the remotest places in the world – the Primorye, also known as Primorsky Krai – the easternmost area of the Taiga.
The entire premise sounds absurd. Primorye is the world’s absurdest place, an ‘arboreal jungle’ as Vaillant calls it, where the concoction of sea streams, pressure regions and other factors have given rise to a weather pattern and ecosystem that does not exist anywhere, and should not exist to begin with, and along with it has brought in flora and fauna endemic to this region. It is an island that belongs to another era. Ussuri Boars and Leopards coexist with Black Bears and Roe Deer. The Eurasian Lynx prowls alongside almost three hundred and fifty species of birds, all endemic to this region, all the while the geography changes from swampy ocean-sides to tropical forests to snowy mountain valleys. Amidst this unreal piece of pie roams one of the largest carnivores in the world – the Amur (Siberian) Tiger.
Vaillant narrates a story that took place here in the late 1990s when a seemingly unheard of event happens – a tiger kills a man. The man in question, Markov, was a known poacher and Taiga-native in the truest sense, living vicariously amidst and off the tundra. He, like his peers – is in the truest sense a scavenger – and like most in his territory, his decisions are also dictated by money and hunger. His death breaks the seal of an unsaid commitment between the world of humans and the world of tigers – an oath of mutual respect that both parties have adhered to since the beginning of their co-existence in the Primorye.
The one certainty in tiger tracks is: follow them long enough and you will eventually arrive at a tiger, unless the tiger arrives at you first.
While investigating, the paltry team of rangers and trackers put together by Yuri Trush, the head of the local squad of an anti-poaching unit known as Inspection Tiger, an organization created by the Russian government to combat the black-market trafficking of tigers and tiger parts, soon encounter scenes that are unlike anything else they have seen. An animal, hellbent on revenge, at the point of starving itself and injuring itself while exacting it on the person involved – looks surreal, almost out of the lores that depict the tiger as a magical creature, an entity not of our realms but beyond it.
The Tiger, or Amba as it is called by local Udege and Nanai people, is a creature of reverence and an existence in the top of the food chain. Lores are there that depict it as a force that is not to be dealt with head-on, but rather experienced from afar, offered to, and never stolen from. Trush’s team first tries to understand the tiger’s motive for killing Markov, and conflicting stories emerge; some say Markov killed a cub, and the mother took revenge on him thus; some suggest that Markov was actually trying to kill and poach the tiger – in post-Perestroika Russia, illegal poaching with the Chinese have boomed to astronomical levels – and only ended up being killed himself; a last thought was that Markov had stolen from the tiger, a deed deemed more dangerous than anything else in this world of primal rules and regulations.
Their investigation runs into walls again and again, and the tiger’s unpredictable behavior does not help. We get glimpses of the rage boiling inside a tiger when it is exploited with; this tiger tracks down Markov’s smell to things he had barely passed by. A timber camp is attacked and stuff that had little to no importance to any animal are mauled and destroyed, even at the cost of (later found out) injury. This viciousness startles everyone, even Vaillant, who tries, like Trush and the elders of the region – to find a reasoning behind such errant behavior.
Things take a dark turn when the tiger kills another person, a young person who was forced to go to the Taiga to check on his traps during the curfew imposed due to the tiger. The stories unfurl, the Tundra bares its fangs and then out comes the apex predator, confronting another, newer specimen, armed with rifles and snowmobiles, their history suddenly clashing again after years of silent coexistence. And after finishing the book, I came away sad – the tiger wasn’t the villain anymore. It was a supernatural being, a primal entity reduced to memories of teeth and skin and nails and bones by zeal of humans who were protecting their own kin.
Yet, the tiger had won – even after it was dead, killed by Yuri Trush and his motely crew, a mini-catastrophe later – in proving that it was still at the top of the food chain. The others were at its mercy, even in death. Trush returned to the snowy abyss with a heavy conscience of putting a wounded animal down; and fully knowing the reason for its rage, something that even he could not dismiss. A sanctity had been lost, and everyone paid dearly. This is their story. A story of anger and sadness, shaped in bullets and bites of revenge.
Additional Reading : 1 2
Vaillant, John. The Tiger (Vintage Departures) . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.