Absolutely fascinating book.
The Primorye region of the Soviet Union is like an anomaly, existing at the confluence of arboreal forest and subarctic environments. It’s at the intersection of four distinct bio-regions. It’s home to a huge variety of species not found elsewhere: sturgeon the size of alligators, It pushes the limits of the four and attempts to classify the area by biologists have resulted in “marble-mouthed results.” Here’s Vaillant’s description: “Here, timber wolves and reindeer share terrain with spoonbills and poisonous snakes, and twenty-pound Eurasian vultures will compete for carrion with saber-beaked jungle crows. Birch, spruce, oak, and fir can grow in the same valley as wild kiwis, giant lotus, and sixty-foot lilacs, while pine trees bearing edible nuts may be hung with wild grapes and magnolia vines. These, in turn, feed and shelter herds of wild boar and families of musk deer whose four-inch fangs give them the appearance of evolutionary outtakes. 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. In the midst of this, Himalayan black bears build haphazard platforms in wild cherry trees that seem too fragile for the task, opium poppies nod in the sun, and ginseng keeps its secret in dappled shade…. It is over this surreal menagerie that the Amur tiger reigns supreme.”
Many of the “quintessential” cultural objects associated with North American Indians originated in this area and made their way across the Bering Strait to the Americas: the birchbark canoe, tepee, totem poles, bows and arrows, dog sled and kayak-style paddles.
Lots of interesting material here beside the land itself and the hunt for a hungry tiger who has begun eating humans. It’s an area that is closer to Australia than Moscow, very close to the Sino-Russian border, how perestroika has affected the poor residents,
The tiger, having been injured by a poacher, is no longer able to hunt and takes revenge (tigers are imbued with supernatural qualities by the locals,) in the area in far south eastern Russia around Sobolonye, described by Vaillant as “the last settlement at the end of a road that, when not buried in snow, can go from choking dust to sucking mud in the space of an hour... The place has the feel of a North American mining town circa 1925, only with fewer straight lines." Yuri Trush’s job is to track and kill the tiger. Politically, the area is isolated and forgotten. One postman described it as anarchic. Poachers seek to make a living off Chinese desire for tiger skins and testicles.
Valiant mixes in evolutionary theory with the story. To make it out of Africa early humans had to develop the brain power and skill to survive when faced with such a formidable foe. Ghosts of our ancestors abilities haunt and inform our responses. Richard Koss, a psychologist created a virtual savanna devoid of anything but thorn bushes, a boulder, and a rocky crevasse. He presented this to several American preschoolers and then introduced a lion into the virtual world and asked the children what they would do. One in six picked the boulder -- these would not have survived against the lion. The remaining 80% picked the thorn bush or crevasse.
The NYTimes reviewer compared this book to Moby Dick, “alternating a gripping chase narrative with dense explanations of the culture and ecology surrounding that chase. “Jaws” fans will recognize the dramatic strategy of keeping the beast offstage as much as possible to allow terror to fill in the blanks, as well as a certain lurid detail at the book’s end, which I won’t reveal.” High praise in my book.
I feel sorry for those who complained that the story dragged and there was not enough action in the tiger hunt. This is a wonderfully detailed examination of a culture and the effects of political and cultural changes on a people isolated from the rest of the world and what extreme poverty forces people to do to survive. It’s also the story of evolutionary competition between two apex predators. Non-fiction at its best.