Will Byrnes's Reviews > The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

The Tiger by John Vaillant
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
May 15, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: nature, non-fiction
Read from October 13 to 20, 2010

Fearful symmetry indeed. In 1997, during time when the Soviet system had collapsed but nothing much had arisen to take its place, Vladimir Markov, desperate to provide for his family, made a very large mistake. In easternmost boreal Russia, he came across the remains of a huge wild boar and made off with it. Big mistake. The big pig was the prize of a local striped feline, and it took exception, a lot of exception. The region is a tough one and stealing anyone’s hard won resources is a big existential no-no. The creature eventually tracked the two-legged thief back to his home and waited.

There are scenes in the beginning of this book that will give you chills. A tiger has killed a man and a group of investigators are on the scene. Vaillant describes the remnants of the victim as the group very carefully follows the trail of carnage, seeing what has been left uneaten. The tiger is probably watching. I was hooked very early on. Although the book does not sustain that high level of tingle, it is a fascinating look at the largest feline on earth, the Siberian tiger, or more specifically, the Amur tiger. I particularly liked the author’s description: “this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator.” Siberians, larger than the more familiar Bengal tigers, max out at about 800 pounds.

The author

The man-eater in question did not stop at one. Investigators could see that there was purpose to this cat. Tigers do not normally prey on people. But this one went out of his way to hunt down his first victim. It is no wonder that locals consider some tigers to be more than merely human. Some are thought to be imbued with a supernatural aspect, making these already pretty scary critters even more terrifying. Vaillant tells of the investigation and its conclusions. Along the way he offers a picture of this remotest part of Russia, and many of the very colorful characters who have called it home, past and present. The area appears to have more in common with the American wild west than with a vid-phone-chatting 21st century.

Vaillant looks people’s innate reaction to tigers, reporting on a study which concludes that our awareness of predator-prey relationships is an in-born gift from our ancestors. There is a fascinating section on why predators are naturally selected for intelligence. A dumb tiger will starve to death if it does not first become a cat-sicle in the 40-below temperatures of winter in the Amur region.


But it is the relationship between people and the huge cat that is perfectly adapted to its taiga environment that is central to the story here. Players include local residents, poachers, a non-profit group paid to keep track of and protect remaining tigers, government officials, and the new and vibrant Chinese free market. Personal histories of many of the players offer a rainbow of local color. Each group has its own agenda regarding tigers and the central government is very far away, so rule, regulations and decisions are effectively local. The demise of the Soviet Union changed everything. Perestroika may have given birth to a new freedom to speak one’s mind, but the collapse of the state also gave its people the right to starve, making it that much more of a challenge keeping folks from hunting this regal predator for the many body parts for which there are lucrative markets. Profound environmental degradation has also driven the tiger into closer proximity to people, increasing the probability of conflict.

I had some small quibbles with the book. There are a passel of Russian words that are used to describe aspects of tigers and the local populace. It would have been helpful to have had a glossary at the back. The book could have used an index as well. That said, Vaillant’s tiger tale is nuanced. He reports on the pressures that are experienced by all the players here, reserving judgment, offering analysis and understanding instead. This is a fascinating look at a little-known creature in a nearly invisible part of the earth. Hopefully something can be done before the taiga tiger flames out entirely.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages. Well, actually Vaillant’s personal page is to his site for the book. There is a wealth of material here.

A CBC Radio interview with the author

A short Q&A with the author from
Publishers Weekly
34 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Tiger.
Sign In »

Comments (showing 1-44 of 44) (44 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Ms.pegasus Can't believe I overlooked your review of this book. I was also happy to see that a number of writers had posted positive reviews after I had read the book. In my opinion, it was one of the most underrated books of the year. The combination of story and research was spectacular.

message 2: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Foster I would also recommend Ruth Padel's Tigers in Red Weather, in which she visits all the sites where tigers currently live.

Will Byrnes Rebecca wrote: "I would also recommend Ruth Padel's Tigers in Red Weather, in which she visits all the sites where tigers currently live."
Cool. Sounds like Among the Great Apes: Adventures on the Trail of Our Closest Relatives, in which the author travels the world to see the last remaining native great apes in nature.

message 4: by Mel (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mel I also enjoyed this book and reading your review reminded me of how mesmerized I was by the Amur. I found some interesting facts while researching the tiger for a review I wrote in 2011. I am including a bit of them, The sonic roar, the hooked tongue, wow what a majestic beast to us mere mortals, but sadly, what an unfair fight.>>>>>Imagine--the largest species of tigers, the Amur, or Siberian tiger: 700 lbs., with a chest girth of 56 inches, 12 feet long from nose to tail, 4 feet high at the shoulder. The best camouflaged animal in the forest, stalking you, unseen--silently on giant paws hiding retractable claws the size of a velociraptor's. The golden eyes are unblinking, and the mouth slightly open revealing teeth that are 5" long and over an inch thick at the base; the jaw has the power of 1200 psi; the tongue is covered with small hook-like projections that can lick the paint off a building--or strip meat from a bone. If you are average, you can run about 11 mph--but you are in knee high snow...the tiger can run 50 mp--in the snow. From a crouch, it was thought the tiger could jump 12 feet high, until at a San Francisco zoo an Amur tiger jumped a 12 1/2 ft. fence, escaping it's enclosure. Launched from a run, the tiger can cover a distance of up to 30 feet. The roar of the animal is so loud it is in the *sonic realm* and distorts the neurological pattern. Now, imagine that animal has a memory, a temper, and can hold a grudge...

Will Byrnes Here, kitty, kitty

message 6: by Mel (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mel Obviously, you can run about 65 miles an hour! They do look cuddly.

message 8: by Mel (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mel awww, how cute! Now wouldn't your little girls love one of those?
Those paws are the size of my head already! (One day you'll have to tell me how to post pictures)

message 9: by Lilo (last edited May 10, 2014 12:09AM) (new)

Lilo I would love to read this book if I only had a little more time. Since I don't, I have to make do with the documentaries about tigers I have seen on TV.

I love all animals, and especially all cats, no matter what their size. I would love to pet a baby tiger. Would be a bit careful with an adult tiger. :-)

I once had a baby lion on my lap, in some safari park, in Florida. It did not feel as cat-like as I had expected. It felt as stiff as a dog. And it peed on my lap. :-)

P.S. The above photograph is simply adorable. I'd be tempted to not only pet the baby but also the mother tiger. Yet this might not be recommendable.

message 10: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes You might wind up with some unwanted stripes on your hide.

message 11: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Will wrote: "You might wind up with some unwanted stripes on your hide."

Is that all? As long as the sweet, big cat won't eat me.

message 12: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes It did not work out so well for the Russian poacher in the book

message 13: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Will wrote: "It did not work out so well for the Russian poacher in the book"

I think tigers are sweet pussycats. The only problem is their size. If I imagine our cats this size, there might be a few problems with some of them, too, for instance, the nervous ones or those that give us love bites. (And we might have to get a bigger house. :-))

message 14: by Lilo (new)

Lilo I just looked at the picture you added to your review. The facial expression and body language of this tiger is the very same as our cats have when they have killed some prey. The only difference is the size.

(Not all of our cats hunt. Our Mao, for instance, would be more likely to adopt a mouse if he were fast enough to catch one. Mao is a slow motion cat. He would definitely not survive in the wild.)

message 15: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes One of ours is fond of the love bite as well. Would not be pretty were she 60 times larger. If some of ours every got out, pipe cleaners would soon be an endangered species.

message 16: by Lela (new)

Lela I love little pussycats but love is not what I feel for the big beauties - awe, fear, sorrow, guilt, delight at their beauty, amused at their arrogance, etc..., etc..., etc.... Furtastic review!

message 17: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Lela

message 18: by Danielle (new) - added it

Danielle Ok

£lizabeth I love this book so much

message 20: by Lilo (new)

Lilo @ Will: You have to explain this thing with the pipe cleaners a bit more. I didn't get it.

message 21: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Pipe cleaners is the prey of choice for our kitties

message 22: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Will wrote: "Pipe cleaners is the prey of choice for our kitties"

Don't tell me you are smoking a pipe.

message 23: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Hah! No, we get them for the cats to play with. I stopped smoking in 2002, and never smoked a pipe.

message 24: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Will wrote: "Hah! No, we get them for the cats to play with. I stopped smoking in 2002, and never smoked a pipe."

Thank God!

message 25: by Danielle (new) - added it

Danielle Ok

message 26: by Douglas (new)

Douglas  I have this book, but haven't read it yet. I might, now. I studied Russian in college, so maybe the words you referenced will pry open my memory.

You certainly can't judge a book by its cover. If so, this would get a 10. I don't know if you agree, but the cover is one of my favorites in my collection.

Great review.

message 27: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Glad you liked the review. Yeah, the cover really works. Were I reading this now I would have kept a list of the Russki words. Alas.

Jason Koivu Last week, while down in Oaxaca, Mexico I was talking with a friend about his kids and he mentioned how his son was away playing with a friend. He then mentioned the friend's father, because "he's a writer, like you, but he does non-fiction. He wrote a NY Times best-seller, you might've heard of it, it's called The Tiger?" Yeah, I'd heard of it. In fact, I read it and loved it. Great book and great review. Thanks, Will!

message 29: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Small world, and a wonderful book

Jason Koivu Will wrote: "Small world, and a wonderful book"

I was thinking the same thing(s).

message 31: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Terrific review, Will. Another one!

£lizabeth it's.my birthday today May 13

message 33: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Happy birthday,Elizabeth, mine was on the 4th.

£lizabeth Thank u henry urs is May 4th coolwell happy late birthday what did u do on ur birthday

message 35: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Not much...

£lizabeth Aw im sorry well did u at least do something with ur family?

message 37: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Yes, family, is all.

£lizabeth Well did u have fun like what did u get for presents or areu older than 20 and u did nor get any presants

message 39: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila I come from a big Portuguese family, I'm always getting presents.

£lizabeth nice wait even when ur 30 wel I come from a Russian Family

£lizabeth or are u over 30??????

message 42: by Cathy (new)

Cathy DuPont Will:

As usual, excellent review.

And I agree, some books scream for an index and glossary. Have no idea why editors or authors don't see that.

Enjoyable review from beginning to end.

message 43: by Lewis (new) - added it

Lewis Weinstein Thanks for a mesmerizing review ... LEW ... http://lewweinsteinauthorblog.com/

message 44: by T (new)

T Moore I found it thoroughly well researched, often insightful, well put together and a good read.

My only objection to "Tiger" was his repeated anti Russian and Soviet canned waxing. "Repeated" being the key word. I am willing to accept and overlook an author's personnel political views to a point - at least, until it becomes either space filling or until it goes beyond the pale of making a point into the realm of a PC crusade (esp. one I do not embrace).

4 stars

back to top