In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, poverty, desperation, and lawlessness have led to one of the great environmental catastrophes of our time: the deforestation of the Russian taiga. A thriving market in illegally harvested timber has taken off along the Russia-China border. More than five billion pounds of largely unprocessed wood from Russia’s Primorskii Krai region, in the southeastern part of the country, enter China each year. Primorye also happens to be the last stronghold of the Amur tiger, known among locals as the “Czar of the Forest.” But the cat’s rapidly shrinking habitat and the same market forces driving the illegal timber trade threaten its dominion. A single tiger can fetch upwards of $50,000. Its organs, blood, and bone are highly valued in China, and the penalty for trafficking is hardly a deterrent. Meanwhile, tiger skins have become fashionable among Russia’s nouveau riche.
“It is only in the past two hundred years – out of two million – that humans have seriously contested the tiger’s claim to the forest and all it contains,” writes John Vaillant in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. “As adaptable as tigers are, they have not evolved to accommodate this latest change in their environment.” Vaillant’s sweeping if sometimes digressive book (it is a mix of anthropology, travel writing, and investigative journalism) is an attempt to place the last 200 years of often violent change in the context of the tiger’s long and storied history.
Over the last century, 95 percent of the tigers living in Asia have been killed. A population of roughly 75,000 has dwindled to just over 3,000. Three subspecies have become extinct; a fourth has not been seen since 1990. In the Russian Far East there are thought to be some 450 tigers still roaming what Vaillant calls the “Boreal jungle,” a highly unusual ecosystem known for its bitterly cold winters and summers that bring typhoons and monsoon rains. Primorye is a convergence of four distinct bio-regions – the Siberian taiga, the steppes of Mongolia, the subtropics of Korea and Manchuria, and the boreal forests of the far north. “Nowhere else can a wolverine, brown bear, or moose drink from the same river as a leopard, in a watershed that also hosts cork trees, bamboo, and solitary yews that predate the Orthodox Church,” Vaillant writes. “It is over this surreal menagerie that the Amur tiger reigns supreme.”
For hundreds of years, native inhabitants of the Russian Far East – the Manchus, Udeghe, Nanai, and Orochi – lived in relative harmony with the tiger. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century, when Russian colonists and missionaries began to settle the region, that long-held beliefs and a more traditional way of life began to break down. Cossacks and exiles followed and by the mid-nineteenth century tiger hunting was fairly common. “Like their New World counterparts across the Pacific, theirs, too, was manifest destiny,” writes Vaillant, of the new settlers. “They had a mandate, in many cases from the czar himself, and they took an Orthodox, Old Testament approach to both property and predators.”
It is this mentality, exacerbated by the austerity of the post-Soviet period, that Vaillant sees as particularly troubling. An already fragile co-existence has been further frayed. But it wasn’t the decline of the Amur tiger alone that interested Vaillant. Rather, it was a series of killings in 1997 near a village in Primorye in which a wounded tiger seems to have pursued its victims with a methodical, almost human, focus.
Vaillant meticulously reconstructs the events leading up to the killing of Vladimir Markov, a local hunter who had been living a hand-to-mouth existence for several years. His body was literally torn to pieces and Vaillant speculates that he had shot the tiger because of a conflict over meat – a boar that he or the tiger had killed – in self-defense, or for profit. Whatever the case, he failed to kill the tiger and it returned to Markov’s cabin several days later. If the killing of Markov is easy to explain – there seemed to be a clear “motive” – the tiger’s behavior after the incident is less so. Later that day the tiger tore apart an outhouse at a nearby road workers’ camp that Markov may have used, leaving nothing behind but the battered frame. It then stalked and savaged a young soldier from the same village, dragging a mattress from a hunting camp and lying in wait for its unsuspecting prey. “It looked more like a case of spontaneous combustion than an animal attack,” Vaillant writes. “There was nothing left but shredded cloth and empty boots.”
For Vaillant, though, the tiger’s rampage signals more than just an aberrant attack; it marks what may be an irreversible loss. “A new model had been created,” he writes. “Whatever bonds had held this tiger in relationship to his human neighbors, indeed, to his own nature, were broken.”
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