If you know about tigers you know about the Siberian Tiger. But that’s no longer an accurate name because it’s been wiped out of Siberia. It now lives in the Russian Far East beyond Siberia and it’s more accurately called the Amur Tiger. Tigers are disappearing so fast it’s hard to keep up, with names or anything else. The Russian Far East is an oxymoronic place, easily the most exotic one in that country. Author John Vaillant calls it the Boreal Jungle, or arctic jungle. It’s 40 below for weeks on end in the winter and hot and humid in the summer. Leopards and moose drink from the same river. It’s where an Amur Tiger hunted and killed two men in 1997 before it was itself killed by a group of locals who saw no other option. In the book Vaillant demonstrates how the tiger is nature’s most perfect predator, but by the end you realize that there’s an even more terrifying one roaming the forest.
You can live in the taiga, or forest, and not even see a tiger for ten years. They almost never hunt humans. Why had this one done so? They have to be crossed, robbed of their food, severely threatened. Had someone done that? These and other questions must be answered by Yuri Trush, head of a local tiger conservation group. In effect, he’s the detective, the tiger is the suspect and he has to find a motive and proof. In portraying the region, the unusual Russians who live there, the Amur Tiger and human-tiger relations that go back almost two million years, Vaillant has given us a thrilling, poetic and marvelously factual account.
In the Seventies a book came out called Mind in the Water which argued for and celebrated the consciousness of whales and dolphins. (Ascribing consciousness to some animals is mainstream now and not radical, as it was in the Seventies.) A variation on that title, Mind in the Taiga, could well be an alternate title for this book. The mind here would refer to the mind of the tiger, which Vaillant argues for and indirectly celebrates. It’s this mind that’s the main revelation of the book. A tiger can, according to Vaillant, “assimilate new information…ascribe it to a source, and even a motive, and react accordingly.” It’s capable of abstract thinking. Examples of this kind of thinking run through the book. The tiger’s profound cunning is apparently why the native peoples of the taiga have stayed away from, feared, even worshipped it, for millennia. But the newer residents are desperately poor and don’t necessarily have this caution, and that’s how the trouble starts. Vaillant marshals much lore about the Udeghe and Nanai natives so that we can gradually see how far we’ve strayed from the pragmatism of their tiger coexistence and how badly we need to learn it before it, like the tiger, is extinguished. Fascinatingly, Vaillant shows how the Bushmen of Africa over the eons learned to live with lions in eerily similar ways. But things aren’t as simple as a foolish moderns/wise natives stereotype. The Bushmen were forced to give up their traditions decades ago and now they’ve lost most of their heritage. Similarly, the Far East natives have assimilated to the Slavic norm so much their lore is almost gone, too. That being said, our species has the ability to live, and live well, with tigers. We’re inextricably linked with them. We’ve known for some time now that healthy tigers mean healthy forests (and jungles, grasslands, etc.). When those systems, go, we’ll go. We’re joined at the hip, skin to stripes.
But wait, you say. This was supposed to be a suspense book. Yes, it’s that. But it’s also an impassioned green plea, paradoxical as that may seem. Meditative and unstoppably forward-moving, detailed and electrifying, it’s a new kind of book, a “conservation thriller,” in the words of one reviewer. In the end it’s more sobering than anything, because it convinced me that this animal has, in terms of modern human-tiger relations, conducted itself far better than we have. Ours isn’t necessarily the supreme morality. I wanted the tiger caught, and then I didn’t. I thank John Vaillant for challenging some of my deepest assumptions, and my arrogance. I haven’t had an experience like this since I read The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. Even that comparison comes up short. But rule-breaker books are hard to corral.