Are you afraid of the "bogeyman"? Why is such a nasty concept so common in disparate cultures around the world? Why are people, especially the young, so fascinated with horror and ghost stories? In The Tiger, author John Vaillant theorizes that this animal, maybe more than any other, is responsible for the idea. It takes some mental gymnastics to imagine what it must have been like tens of thousands of years ago, when our hunting and gathering ancestors had to live every moment with the reality that they qualified as prey, but it may have been this constant fear that actually influenced human psychology at some genetic level.
Now, The Tiger is about much more than evolutionary psychology. It's about one particular tiger in the Bikin River valley, located in Primorsky Krai - a coastal province in far eastern Russia, bordered by China to the west and North Korea to the south and home to the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway in Vladivostok. The massive forests of this region, known as the "taiga" are the last remaining stronghold of Amur (aka Siberian) tigers on the planet. Vaillant tells how in December of 1997 this tiger initiated a campaign of violence that led to the gruesome annihilation of two local hunters, leaving a distinct impression of pre-meditation and malicious intent.
"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 bone, a femur probably, that has been gnawed to a bloodless white."
Laying the story out like a true crime drama, Vaillant - author of the award-winning The Golden Spruce - tells the story from the perspective of three main characters: the first victim, a tough and experienced hunter and poacher (and beekeeper); the head tracker, responsible for the investigation of the "crimes"; and the tiger himself. Over three hundred pages, in a gripping and increasingly tense style, Vaillant weaves together tiger biology, Russian history, human and animal psychology and wildlife conservation into a fascinating and frightening tapestry.
I thoroughly enjoyed Vaillant's first book, but The Tiger is even bigger and better. Compiled from interviews with the participants, numerous experts and previous publications and broadcasts, the wide-ranging and complicated story explores every angle in impressive depth, keeping me riveted throughout. It's not very often that an egg-headed work of non-fiction has my heart pounding at the end, but this man writes really well. He reminds me of David Quammen - another non-fiction writer with flare - but Vaillant's work contains even greater levels of passion and well-tempered testosterone.
The Tiger is an excellent choice for anyone who enjoys fine nature writing or who wants to really try and understand the world from a top predator's viewpoint. I had a grand time with the book and finished wishing for more. I'm looking forward to Vaillant's next project with great enthusiasm. I also expect that I'll notice an extra surge of adrenalin the next time I'm walking in the woods alone.
Check out a review of John Vaillant's first book, The Golden Spruce.
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