Nov 27, 2011

The Tiger

a True Story of Vengeance and Survival

by John Vaillant

This is another book I picked up just because it was on the library shelf. For some reason the zoology/natural history sections in my nearby public library are woefully small (either that, or all the good books are usually checked out!) so whenever I'm there I simply glance over the two meager shelves, ticking off the ones I've read already, and bring home whatever is new.

The Tiger was a book I'd never heard of, and turned out to be an excellent, compelling read. It's a detailed piece of narrative nonfiction, centered on one brief incident in the Russian Far East, where a man-eating tiger was hunted down by a band of men picked specially for the job. Although the events beginning with the tiger's first kill and ending with the hunt span only a few weeks, the author takes readers back eons and across a broad sweep of countries in exploring humans' relationships with big cats in order to further understand the motives both of the tiger and the men who injured it. Because it becomes quite clear that this tiger was not a man-hunter until he got shot at by someone. For years beyond counting men had lived in the taiga alongside tigers, and rarely been harmed. They respected, in some cases even worshiped, the magnificent cats, and kept their distance. But this tiger had been injured by a man, and apparently took umbrage. After hunting down and killing one man, he went on to deliberately hunt for others (it seems, because his injuries made it difficult for him to kill normal game). It was tricky business to dispatch the tiger, not only because the animal is so dangerous, so silent and unseen, so powerful and capable of thinking (ample proof is given). But also because of the difficult time people have living in this remote wilderness. Most people in the area where the tiger rampaged lived in desperate poverty, and many of them turned to poaching tigers for a profit (selling the bodies across the boarder to China, where they are used in traditional medicine). Teams of men were stationed in the forest to thwart poaching and protect the tigers; it was these very men who were called upon to help hunt down the rouge man-eater.

Vaillant spends a lot of time in his book going into the details of each man's life; both the first and second victims of the tiger, and the leader of the group that hunted him down. He also delves into the tangled history of the area, painting a very clear picture of what affected the men's morale and drove some to such measures as to kill a tiger. At times I felt like the narrative was sidetracking; but whether I found myself reading about Bushmen living alongside lions or speculations on early man's hunting/scavenging roles, it all tied back into the main story of the tiger. I learned so much about tigers, and about Russia, and it was all intriguing. Helped immensely by the fact that it's also very well-written, with clear, descriptive language and beautiful prose. I appreciate that in a non-fiction book. Some of them can be very dry. Although this one is hefty, and took me some time to get through, it was a wonderful read.

Rating: 4/5 ........329 pages, 2010

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