On a subfreezing night in early December 1997, a gigantic Amur tiger killed and devoured a beekeeper and hunter named Vladimir Markov just outside his cabin in a forest in the Russian territory of Primorye, near the borders of China and North Korea. This is the event around which John Vaillant’s The Tiger is coiled. Markov’s death activated a unit of the Russian conservation service known as Inspection Tiger, then headed by the dogged and charismatic ex-soldier Yuri Trush. It became Trush’s duty to track down and subdue the tiger before it killed again. In this, he failed, although there would be an ultimate face-to-face confrontation between the man and the beast.
“To properly appreciate such an animal,” Vaillant writes, “picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve. . . . Now, imagine the vehicle for all this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder.”
Vaillant unspools his story in several strands. In addition to giving an hour-by-hour account of the hunt, he also describes in considerable detail the landscape and history of this incredibly remote, exotic and inhospitable region. He explains the impact the breakup of the Soviet Union has had on efforts to conserve the tiger’s habitat and probes the mentality and motivation of those who wrest a living from this resource-rich—and thus endangered—frontier. Most absorbing, though, are Vaillant’s musings on whether this particular tiger sought out and attacked specific human beings as deliberate acts of revenge. Had the victims, in effect, courted their own destruction? This question leads to other discussions of how humans and animals behave toward each other in stressful environments.
As digressive and far-ranging as Vaillant’s narrative is, it never shifts for long from the tiger he has crouching at the edge of the reader’s imagination.