The Tiger

    [The Tiger by John Vaillant recounts the natural history of the Amur tiger, whose habitat is the Primorye district of southeast Siberia, bordered by the Amur and Issuri Rivers and the Sea of Japan to the east. The tigers of Primorye are an officially protected species, but they are still hunted there by poachers. The central narrative of the book concerns one tiger which took to hunting poachers in return.]

Of the six surviving subspecies of tiger, the Amur is the only one habituated to arctic conditions. In addition to having a larger skull than other subspecies, it carries more fat and a heavier coat, and these give it a rugged, primitive burliness that is missing from its sleeker tropical cousins. ... As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it: "The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace." But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator.

To properly appreciate such as animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: 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. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons on a velociraptor. Now imagine the vehicle for all of this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder. Finally, emblazon this beast with a primordial calligraphy: black brushstrokes on a field of russet and cream, and wonder at our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature.

...Unlike wolf or bear claws, which are designed primarily for traction and digging, a cat's claw is needle-sharp at the end, and bladed along a portion of its inside length. With the exception of a snake's fang, it is about as close to a surgical tool as one can find in nature. When extended, the claws of the forepaw become slashing blades with the result that the victim is not so much sliced as flayed. But this is almost incidental to the forepaws' most important purpose, which is to plant a pair of virtually unshakable anchors in an animal's flesh. Once the forepaws are fully engaged, a tiger can literally ride its prey into the ground.

In the final nonseconds of an airborne attack, a tiger's tail will become rigid, balancing and stabilizing the hindquarters almost like the tail fin on an airplane. Meanwhile, the tiger's forepaws, combined with its fangs, form a huge three-point grappling device, as if for a moment the claws had become extensions of the jaws. Working together in this way, they can cover an area of a square yard or more to manifest a gathering and gripping capability comparable to the mouth of a much larger creature --- something more on the order of a salt-water crocodile or an allosaurus. The interplay of paws and jaws shifts according to the task at hand.... Once the prey is down, these same assault weapons can become the most delicate scalpels and clamps, able to disembowel an animal, organ by organ.

For all these reasons, there is no creature in the taiga that is off limits to the tiger; it alone can mete out death at will. Amur tigers have been known to eat everything from salmon and ducks to adult brown bears. There are few wolves in Primorye, not because the environment doesn't suit them, but because the tigers eat them too. The Amur tiger, it could be said, takes a Stalinist approach to competition. It is also an extraordinarily versatile predator, able to survive in temperatures ranging from fifty below zero Fahrenheit to one hundred above, and to turn virtually any environment to its advantage. Though typically a forest dweller, Amur tigers may hunt on the beaches as well, using sea fog as a cover for stalking game, and driving animals into heavy surf before subduing them. One young male was observed subsisting exclusively on harbor seals, going so far as to stack their carcasses like logs for future use.

Unlike most cats, tigers are skilled, even avid, swimmers, and there are hunters and fishermen on the Bikin River who have had tigers crawl into their boats. Many encounters, including those observed by scientists and captured on video, seem lifted from myth or fiction. The occurrence, and subsequent recounting, of such incidents over dozens of millennia has embedded the tiger in our consciousness. The tiger has been a fellow traveler on our evolutionary journey and, in this sense, it is our peer. In Asia, there is no recess of human memory in which there has not --- somewhere --- lurked a tiger. As a result, this animal looms over the collective imagination of native and newcomer alike.

Within every major ecosystem nature has produced, she has evolved a singularly formidable predator to rule over it. In Primorye, the Amur tiger is the latest, most exquisitely lethal manifestation of this creative impulse. The indigenous peoples of Primorye --- the Udeghe, Nanai, and Orochi --- have always understood and acknowledged the tiger's supremacy, and some clans claimed the tiger as a direct ancestor as much to placate it as to share its power. There appears to be no ritual of tiger killing here (as there is for bears), but there are many stories of tigers taking human wives --- and husbands --- and of tigers killing humans who dared to challenge them. The tiger, as indigenous peoples know it, is a consummate hunter and the undisputed lord of the taiga, possessing the ability to change shape or disappear at will. Shrines were erected in the tiger's honor, and some of these remain; hunters would lay their weapons down and beg forgiveness if they crossed its path.

--- From The Tiger
John Vaillant
©2010 Vintage Books
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