THE MAD SUGAR POP KULTCHUR RUSH OF ALL THINGS NATURAL GONE FERAL OR WERE-* seeking revenge on humankind for past, present or future injustices manifests itself realistically in John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. The book, in great detail, recounts the December 1997 fatal attacks and eventual killing of a “vengeful” Amur (or Siberian) tiger in the Primorye Territory in Russia’s Far East.
It’s a harrowing tale on numerous fronts: from the point of view of the region’s post-perestroika destitute manual laborers and loggers, of the various families trying to make ends meet at the unforgiving taiga’s edge, of the underfunded governmental organizations and individuals trying to help them while “managing” the tigers, and of the Amur tigers themselves, largely endangered and preyed upon by feckless poachers looking to cash in across the nearby Chinese border.
Vaillant, the Vancouver, BC, author who previously penned the heart-wrenching, deservedly much-admired Golden Spruce, imbues The Tiger with a fierce, fiery energy and dramatic narrative flow that reads novel-like at times, while at others like a top-drawer fact-driven piece from Smithsonian, Nat Geo or The New Yorker. The interweaved fates of the human characters and the shock-and-awe-inspiring tigers drive the book, delivering its timely message of “We’re all in this together.” Vaillant writes:
Panthera tigris and Homo sapiens are actually very much alike, and we are drawn to many of the same things, if for slightly different reasons. Both of us demand large territories; both of us have prodigious appetites for meat; both of us require control over our living space and are prepared to defend it, and both of us have an enormous sense of entitlement to the resources around us. If a tiger can poach on another’s territory, it probably will, and so, of course, will we. A key difference, however, is that tigers take only what they need.
Instead of beating us over the head with this message, Vaillant lets it slowly develop while allowing the story to unfold, its many larger-than-life characters sharing tales of the taiga and its inhabitants, the tigers, Russia both past and present, and much more that draws a portrait of a fragile enclave on the chill edge of a teetering world.
“If there is enough land, cover, water, and game to support a keystone species like [the tiger],” Vaillant writes, “it implies that all the creatures beneath it are present and accounted for, and that the ecosystem is intact. In this sense, the tiger represents an enormous canary in the biological coal mine.” Vaillant goes on to report that, as of December 2009, fewer than 400 tigers may remain in the Russian Far East (more than 75,000 were reported to having lived in Asia last century; this number has since dipped some 95 percent).
Yes, The Tiger is a real-life bloodcurdling thriller about an Amur tiger seemingly bent on revenge, relentlessly going after a poacher who’d crossed his path and foolishly invited his wrath (like a fearsome Udeghe tale featuring the mythical tiger-like monster/malevolent spirit Amba)—in that, it’s a pretty unputdownable read. It’s also a cautionary tale about the dangers of our Anthropocene age, as Vaillant has it, “characterized by increasingly dense concentrations of human beings living in permanent settlements on a landscape that has been progressively altered and degraded in order to support our steadily growing population”—in that, too, it’s a pretty unputdownable, and eminently compelling, read.
*Yes, indeed, I’m talking vampires, werewolves, piranhas and zombies—sure, why not include our dear departed loved ones who, instead of silently nurturing the Earth six feet under, are reanimated, irascible and, of course, hungry for brains!