Vladimir Markov is dead, killed in gruesome fashion. The killer is obvious: a Siberian tiger. What little remains of Markov's body is torn and tattered. When Yuri Trush arrives at Markov's cabin, he records the scene with a video camera.
The camera doesn't waver as it pans across the pink and trampled snow, taking in the hind foot of a dog, a single glove, and then a bloodstained jacket cuff before halting at a patch of bare ground about a hundred yards into the forest....Trush lead the Bikin unit of Inspection Tiger, an agency charged with investigating forest crimes, specifically those involving tigers. Inspection Tiger was created to protect Russian wildlife--Primorye territory, bordered by China and North Korea, is a Boreal Jungle, as John Vaillant terms it, "unique on earth, and it nurtures the greatest biodiversity of any place in Russia" (p. 25). It's home to the most valuable timber in the Far East, and the animals that make their home in the taiga are just as valuable. For most people living there, the animals provide essential sustenance. Poaching, though illegal, is common because of the widespread poverty. However, a few poachers target not wild boars or badgers, but the most fearsome creature in the taiga. A tiger carcass will fetch $30,000 on the black market, a stunning amount of money, especially when you consider that most people in Primorye may not make $1,000 in one year. Inspection Tiger tries to stop poaching, but in this case, the tiger is dangerous, attacking and eating humans. It must be stopped.
The temperature is thirty below zero and yet, here, the snow has been completely melted away. In the middle of this dark circle, presented like some kind of sacrificial offering, is a hand without an arm and a head without a face. Nearby is a long white bone, a femur probably, that has been gnawed to a boneless white. (p. 14-15)
At its heart, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival is not just the study of a tiger. Vaillant uses the circumstances of Markov's death and the hunt for the tiger that killed him as the framework for an absorbing exploration of the confluence of history (both natural and Russian), geography, and ecology in Primorye, and of the relationship between humans and tigers living there, focusing on one particularly shocking and fascinating incident. Some readers may consider Vaillant's scope too broad, with digressions into human evolution and predators in other parts of the world that slow the momentum of the narrative; I found them fascinating.
Perhaps the most haunting, disturbing part about Markov's death is the calculation with which the tiger deliberately stalked Markov and, later, its second victim. The tiger, it seems, held a grudge against Markov and the results were brutally obvious.
Book source: public library
Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010
Cross-posted at The YA YA YAs.
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