Tiger or Men: Case in Point!

Screen shot 2021-08-02 at 2.55.04 PM.pngThe Tiger a True Story of Vengeance and Survival. John Vaillant. Toronto, Vintage Canada, 2011. 329pp.
Reviewed by Line Brisebois, June 15, 2012.
John Vaillant is a journalist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Outside, among others.(1) He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and now lives in British Columbia, Canada. He won Canada's Governor's General award for non-fiction in 2005 with his first book, The Golden Spruce. The author first heard about the documentary Conflict Tiger by Sasha Snow at a film festival where he was also presenting. He found the subject so compelling that he immediately engaged in research, reading "a lot about how tigers hunt fight and kill"(2), and traveled to Russia's far-eastern region as soon as he got the required authorizations in order to write his most recent book, The Tiger.

In addition to observing tigers in man-made habitats, Vaillant traveled to Russia to research his subject. He interviewed the individuals who were involved in the story, visited the crime scenes and viewed video footage that was taken during the investigation, putting his journalistic skills to work on this non-fiction work. Vaillant is interested in the conflicting forces  that oppose nature.

By using the examples of an Amur Tiger turned man-eater and the dire existence of Vladimir Markov following Perestroika, Vaillant takes us on the tiger's journey of death and vengeance through the plight of Russian tiger tracker and investigator Yuri Trush.  Products that will increase one's potency, elixirs that will enhance men's virility, mystical good-luck charms, bigger and faster cars, waterfront properties, snakeskin handbags, unborn tiger cubs skin robes: how far will rich men's appetite for nature's unique and uncommon treasures (Vaillant, 300) on the one hand, and poor men's destitution on the other, take us?   Vaillant reminds us that society's failure to provide viable habitat for both man and tiger is threatening the survival of both species.
The book starts off with Inspection Tiger squad Leader Yuri Trush receiving a report of a man, Vladimir Markov, having been attacked by a Tiger near Sobolonye in Russia's far-eastern region.  Trush and his team immediately set out to the region to investigate.  It does not take long for Trush to conclude that they are in the presence of an extraordinary creature turned man-eater:  they must hunt-down this tiger because it will continue on its hunt for men.  Unfortunately, this theory is soon verified as Andrei Pochepnya, an innocent young man, falls victim to the tiger's prey.  As fear among the residents grows stronger, anger and criticism towards the work of Trush and his team is also on the rise: though Markov, a tiger poacher, may have been responsible for his own death, this horrible death should never have happened to an innocent young man?   As social pressure on the crewmen of Inspection Tiger increase, they accelerate the pace of their tracking of the animal, often to the detriment of their own security.  Fresh tiger tracks show that they are getting closer.   In an emotionally charged climactic finale, at that still moment in space and time, the tiger is shot to death by Trush's colleagues, stopped in mid-air in its last attempt at survival as it attacks Yuri Trush.
As the resources of the forest upon which men and tiger relied for their subsistence grew thinner, Markov, and many others, resorted to tiger poaching in order to survive; naturally and instinctively, tigers turned against their predators.  While it is easy to invoke vengeance for the killing of Markov in John Vaillant's riveting tiger turned men-eater story The Tiger, the underlying cause of the tiger attack is that of the failure of Russia to provide healthy habitat for man and wildlife alike in Russia's far-eastern territories following Perestroika.  In Vaillant's words:  The vast majority of Russians were completely unprepared for the ensuing free-for-all"(p.74).  And man's acknowledged responsibility for the tiger's behavior is illustrated by their fear that the tiger's killings are not random.  But despite fault, deprivation and fear, there are still simple men, such as Yuri Trush, who believe in the essential nature of the connection between men and his surrounding ecosystem and will advocate its defense. But for men and wildlife such as the Amur Tiger to coexist, there has to be a willingness by mankind to share his territory.

Vaillant writes extensively about the tiger, its history and its motives for resorting to eating man.  While his focus on the tiger contributes to our understanding of the tiger's, as well as all living creatures beneath it in nature's food chain, fragile ecosystem, it falls short on its participation in the conversation about our collective responsibility towards fellow human beings in today's society. 
Although Trush and Markov are also main characters in this book, the most important character is definitely the tiger. Vaillant's The Tiger is compelling in its vivid portrayal of the tiger.  Though challenging to have the animal as the main character, "Vaillant struggles, however, to make the people and the place of the story as vivid as the cat."(3)  Indeed the book fails to convince mass readership to embrace the author's vision of the fate of the tiger and the fragile coexistence between men and wildlife. For it is at the hands of men, not tiger, that the plight of the tiger lies.
Reading about this furry, determined, powerful and instinctive creature is appealing, almost sensuous.  One might also venture demagogic.   But while Vaillant takes us on the tiger's extraordinary journey through times, one can't help but wonder about men.  The destruction of fragile ecosystems by men through the abusive exploitation of natural resources such as wood and wildlife have devastating consequences for mankind.  This has been written about ad nauseam.  But that is where the responsibility lies, and that is what men have to hear over and over again.  Mankind is the specie that we have to make accountable, provide for and ultimately save.  Does Vaillant's The Tiger miss the point?

Man's huge appetite for what is unique in our natural environment is causing damage that includes, and goes well beyond the possible extinction of the Amur Tiger.  Society's failure to provide for mankind's basic needs is just as damaging.  One comparison that comes to mind is Melville's Moby-Dick.  Both have the animal as the main character. Both authors anthropomorphize the main character. Both "characters" are as resolved, scary and riveting.  Both fail to focus on human beings responsibility for fellow human beings.

(1)    http://www.thetigerbook.com/the-author/, consulted on June 15, 2012.
(2)    http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2012/01/john-vaillant-on-how-the-tiger-came-to-be.html, consulted on June 15, 2012.
(3)    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/books/review/Lewine-t.html, consulted on June 15, 2012.

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