Monday, November 08, 2010

Review: The Tiger by John Vaillant

How do humans live in the presence of large predators?

Too often, overly simplistic sound bites from both sides of the debate obscure the answers. For a telling example, consider the level of dialogue around “wolf politics” in our state.

Lost amongst the overblown rhetoric are some excellent, thoughtful books on the topic: David Quammen’s Monster of God, Will Stolzenburg’s Where the Wild Things Were, Joel Berger’s The Better To Eat You With.

And now: John Vaillant’s The Tiger, a masterful story of people and a very fearsome predator coexisting—with great tension—in the 21st century.

The residents of the remote Russian Far East (it’s closer to Australia than Moscow) still live in and from the forest—logging, collecting herbs, hunting, fishing. These activities place them in close proximity with the Amur tiger, arguably the most fearsome beast still roaming the earth. Weighing in at more than 500 pounds, this is an animal that causes grizzly bears to run in terror.

That’s right. The boreal jungle (as Vaillant calls it) is a region where tigers compete with grizzlies, a place where “timber wolves and reindeer share terrain with spoonbills and poisonous snakes.”

Vaillant writes that “the bizarre assemblage of flora and fauna leaves one with the impression that Noah’s ark had only recently made landfall, and that, rather than dispersing to their proper places around the globe, many of its passengers had simply decided to stay, including some we never knew existed.”

I suspect I’m not alone, after reading such passages, in feeling the urge to head off to the Russian Far East and search for tigers and musk deer and the other strange creatures of the forest.

And yet: This is far, far from a dream destination for the region’s inhabitants. Life here is lived on the edge, for people and for tigers.

The story begins with a tiger killing a poacher, ostensibly out of vengeance. This very personal tragedy alone makes for a worthwhile book. But Vaillant tells it against a backdrop of larger forces that shape the destinies of local people and tigers: the still looming and often-violent political history, a desperate economy and the current mind-boggling pressures of globalization.

In a place where people work hard year after year for pitiful wages, is it any wonder that some turn to killing tigers? And is it any wonder that an animal as large and intelligent as a tiger might retaliate?

It’s a compelling book of death and survival in one of the most fascinating and difficult regions on earth. There are no easy answers here. But as conservationists--if we truly want a world where large predators still thrive in the wild--we need stories like this. Only when we deny the the seductive but too-easy world of talking points and sound bites can we really hope to save tigers--and the people who must live with them.

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