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Book Review: The Tiger


The Tiger by John Vaillant

John Vaillant’s masterful book The Tiger has plenty of intriguing human characters–including poachers, trackers, corrupt officials, and a Jack Bauer type named Trush who uses kettlebells)–but the characters I will remember most are:

  • Russia
  • Isolation
  • The Amur Tiger


One rather shrill Amazon review I read said that The Tiger is not about tigers, vengeance, or survival at all, but is rather an anti-travel guide whose sole purpose is to persuade you not to visit the more isolated regions of Russia.

I’ll say this: the country and its political and ecological histories are probably given as much space on the page as the tigers themselves, but so what? I got to learn all sorts of (mostly depressing and bleak) things about a country I know little about. And Vaillant doesn’t just toss in details for filler. Everything that might resemble a tangent to someone only interested in reading about tiger attacks is in the book for a reason–it serves the story.


I lived in Spring Creek, Nevada for about 17 years. It seemed incredibly remote because our house had one whole acre to sit on and the nearest “big” town, Elko, was all of eight miles away.

The Primorye Territory is a bit harsher.

From a discussion on why so many weapons in Russian are not legally licensed:

[The appropriate offices] might be a day’s travel from the applicant’s village, and may not be open anyway.

The region has created what Vaillant calls a “poach or starve” reality.

There are so beautiful and terrifying passages where the author describes how quietly a tiger can move in the snow, and how cut off everyone is from the nearest…anything. We recently watched the movie Transsiberian and the tundra they pass through on that train was how I pictured just about everything in The Tiger.

One more quote from this section:

The most terrifying and important test for a human being is to be in absolute isolation…a human being is a very social creature, and ninety percent of what he does is done only because other people are watching. Alone, without witnesses, he starts to learn about himself–who is he really?

Now picture yourself out in the middle of nowhere, cut off from everything and everyone, and there is a wronged tiger nearby that wants to settle a score with you.

The Amur Tiger

A few images from the book itself will give you a better picture than I can:

Picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton.

Imagine the vehicle for all this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder.

The thickly maned head can be as broad as a man’s chest and shoulders.

In other words, a well-muscled machine that serves as extremely bad news for anyone who gives the tiger a reason to seek retribution.

And that is what makes the adventure and suspense part of the story so memorable. The tigers are smart, vengeful, and have very long memories.

Summary of the story

I’ll put it as simply as I can so as not to spoil anything:

  1. Tiger loses cub to poacher
  2. Tiger eats poacher
  3. A team of trackers and hunters have to chase the tiger and deal with the situation, as it also chases them

There are parts that are about as white-knuckle exciting as anything I’ve read in any thriller, and everything surrounding the adventure was just as worthwhile to me.

A fascinating, superbly written book that really has me hoping I’ve never done anything to get a tiger mad at me.


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  • Kami Anzures June 6, 2011, 10:47 am

    I’ve been scared ever since I read it. It made me feel like a vengeful tiger was probably following me.