By Sy Montgomery
Sunday, August 29, 2010; B07
A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
By John Vaillant
Knopf. 329 pp. $26.95
Though it's the world's largest and deadliest cat, the tiger does not have an easy life. It kills with its mouth, dodging flailing hooves and slashing tusks. Compared with a wild boar or a moose, an unarmed human would seem easy prey. It's a testament to the cats' sense of restraint that they hunt us so seldom.
When they do, however, they have excellent reasons -- reasons that could well surprise humans who believe ours is the only species that can think. John Vaillant's riveting story unfolds in the brutal cold of Russia's Boreal Forest in December 1997, when Yuri Trush, the fearless, charismatic leader of an anti-poaching squad, was called to investigate a crime in the forest. Usually, the squad spent its time checking hunters' documents, raiding hunting cabins and performing sting operations along the Chinese border, where body parts of slaughtered wild animals, especially Siberian tigers, are sold as elixirs. But this was a different kind of killing: A tiger had killed a poacher.
Trush and his team read the showdown etched in the snow: two sets of tracks -- a human's, northbound, and a tiger's, southbound -- heading toward one another as if they were meeting for an appointment. And then the northbound tracks disappeared.
Scattered across the pink snow was a cartridge belt. A single glove. A jacket cuff. A hand. Bones protruding from the tops of thin rubber boots.
That was all that remained of Vladimir Markov, a boisterous and popular hunter from an impoverished village. Never before in Trush's dangerous career had he seen a human "so thoroughly and gruesomely annihilated," Vaillant writes.
What would lead a tiger to such a vehement and violent act? As the story unfolds, it becomes abundantly clear that this tiger did not just happen upon its victim. The tiger sought Markov out, carefully planning the encounter that lead to the hunter's gruesome death. This was no random killing, Trush and his team agreed. It was a case of premeditated -- and justified -- murder. Because Markov, reliable sources said, was not just a hunter. He was a poacher, one who specifically targeted tigers -- and one who had almost certainly previously shot and wounded this one.
Every part of a tiger's body can bring significant amounts of money in nearby China. The skin is of course valuable, but so are the bones, penis, paws, internal organs, blood, even the whiskers, which are used in potions believed (wrongly) to bring strength, restore health and enhance potency. Demand for these so-called medicines is driving the tiger to extinction. Three of the eight subspecies have already been wiped out. The Siberian tiger numbers only a few hundred in the wild.
Which is why, to those of us who love the embattled cat, "The Tiger" offers the emotional satisfaction of Quentin Tarantino's film "Kill Bill" -- with the tiger in the role of Uma Thurman's vengeful bride. But the characters in this book, both human and tigrine, are more nuanced. Vaillant, who journeyed to Russia several times for research, uncovered much about Markov that makes him seem a more sympathetic figure than Tarantino's Bill. He was handsome and funny, genial and well-liked. He had a wife and a son. And like many in this corner of Russia, he struggled to get by.
"People don't live in Sobolonye," Markov's village, a woman from a neighboring town tells the author. "They survive." It's a place of homemade vodka and homemade bullets, alcoholism and rampant poaching.
But the habitat surrounding the poacher's village is almost impossibly rich in plant and animal life. Russia's Far East nurtures the greatest biodiversity of the largest country in the world. Wolverines and timber wolves live among spoonbills and leopards. Magnolia and lotus grow among spruce. In summer, biting insects can exsanguinate a mule; in winter, the cold can freeze your eyelids shut.
Only such bizarre extremes could produce the Siberian tiger: a jungle cat adapted to Arctic conditions, whose "thickly maned head," Vaillant observes, "can be as broad as a man's chest and shoulders," a creature with "fangs the length of a finger" and claws "a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto." But those who truly know the tiger realize that it also possesses an invisible but equally lethal weapon: a brilliant and calculating mind. One hunter tells the author: "The tiger is strong, powerful and fair. You have to respect him. You think he doesn't understand the language, but he understands everything. He can read a person's mind."
Of course, there are those who say a tiger doesn't have a mind, much less one that can read ours. But Vaillant's book teaches a lesson that humankind desperately needs to remember: When you murder a tiger, you not only kill a strong and beautiful beast, you extinguish a passionate soul.
Sy Montgomery is the author of 15 books, including "Spell of the Tiger: The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans."