In ‘The Tiger,’ John Vaillant compellingly explores what happened when a natural predator turned on humans

May 23, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 23, 2015

In early December 1997, Vladimir Markov seemed to be anxious about something. Markov lived in Sobolonye, a village in Russia’s Far East, and he’d been roaming around the community’s outskirts. These movements weren’t unusual in and of themselves, but as he visited various friends, most noticed that he paced nervously, smoked endlessly, and refused offers of food and shelter despite the long winter nights and the piercing cold.

A few days later, Markov was found dead, the victim of a brutal tiger attack. When a team of inspectors from a Russian agency with the unlikely name of Inspection Tiger visited Markov’s cabin, little remained of Markov’s corpse — the enormous cat had made sure of that. This was somewhat unusual. But as John Vaillant documents in his thrillingly readable nonfiction book, The Tiger, other ominous signs were afoot.

In this early passage from the 2010 book, investigator Yuri Trush and his team learn that the method in which the tiger hunted Markov was quite extraordinary and disturbing:

[Markov’s] latrine, his beehives — everything that might have his scent on it — had been thoroughly explored and much of it destroyed. His washstand had been knocked off the cabin’s outer wall, and there was a swipe of tiger blood by the door. Tiger tracks were everywhere, circling the cabin, interrupted only by packed expressions in the snow where the animal stopped to wait and watch before circling the cabin yet again. In one spot, by the wellhead, the tiger had lain on a patch of snow long enough to partially thaw it out. When it finally moved on, a furry shadow of itself remained behind, frozen in place. The tiger had clearly been on the premises for a while, perhaps days — long enough to defecate twice, both times within a few feet of the cabin. It was as if the tiger had staked a claim to the premises and all they contained.

Animal attacks are relatively common in the taiga, but they probably would be anywhere you had two species of bear, two species of big cat, and humans all vying in earnest for similar prey. In Amgu, a dicey, off-grid village on the coast, an alarming percentage of the male population carries evidence of mauling; even Trush has been attacked by a bear. However, such encounters are usually spontaneous, impulsive responses to immediate threats, competition or surprise. Everything Trush was seeing now suggested something else…

Tigers are ambush hunters, and this — the practice of stealth coupled with the element of surprise — is what has enabled this solitary predator to kill fast-moving, often dangerous game for eons, through major variations in climate and landscape. But this tiger, on this occasion, made no attempt whatsoever to conceal itself. Not finding what it sought at the wellhead or around the cabin, the tiger lay down in the open by the entrance road and waited — again. Seen together, all of these signs, and all of these behaviors, implied an alarming confidence and clarity of purpose. As Trush and his team pieced the evidence together, they came to understand that this tiger was not hunting for animals, or even for humans; he was hunting for Markov.

An adult tiger is a daunting predator — able to anticipate the behavior of its prey, capable of impressive feats of stealth, the 400-pound or larger animal can generate bursts of great speed. Once upon its victim, the predator uses its fearsome jaws and large front paws to drag down its meal. Even some immense brown bears, Vaillant writes, have learned to beware the orange-and-black striped cat.

But in the wild, especially during the winter, margins are tight. The tiger that killed Markov was injured and incapable of catching the animals that would normally furnish its meals. It would stalk humans again, and Trush and his companions sought it out in a hunt that Vaillant brings to a thrilling conclusion. Along the way, the author discusses the zoology and history of the land and society that framed the lives of Markov, Trush and the marauding tiger.

The most interesting character in the book may be its setting, Primorye (sometimes rendered Primorsky Krai), or the Maritime Province, which actually lies further east than Siberia. This land and its history have many parallels with the western United States, including the shameful legacy of the forceful assimilation of native peoples and the often reckless exploitation of natural resources.

But Primorye is larger and more severe than its U.S. counterpart. Imagine a place somewhat like Alaska, except that it’s as far removed from the opposite coast as Hawaii is from America’s Eastern Seaboard. The provincial capital of Primorye is Vladivostok, home port of Russia’s Pacific Fleet; this city of more than half a million people is closer to Australia than Moscow. To journey from Vladivostok to Moscow by rail requires a week-long, 5,800-mile odyssey. The city is further south than the French Riviera, Vaillant writes, “but this is hard to reconcile with the fact that the bays here stay frozen until April.”

Vaillant also delves into the relationship between man and beast, presenting some fascinating findings. He describes research suggesting that the image of ancient man as hunter, propagated in 2001: A Space Odyssey and elsewhere, may be overblown. Instead, early humans may have been scavengers more than killers.

The Tiger isn’t exactly flawless. Vaillant seems to run out of story; the book’s first part, describing the circumstances of Markov’s death, takes up nearly 200 pages, while the rest of the narrative barely exceeds 100 pages. Also, the story seems to double back on itself in confusing ways on occasion.

Still, The Tiger relates a compelling and exciting tale, one which asks important questions about man’s relationship to his fellow man and fellow species. This is an engrossing book, and anyone with an interest in frontiers or in wild cats would do well to dive in.

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