On Dec. 3, 1997, at a remote cabin outside the logging outpost of Sobolonye in the Russian Far East, not far from the Chinese border, 46-year-old Vladimir Markov beekeeper, Soviet army veteran and poacher was killed and eaten by a tiger.
Yuri Trush, the poaching enforcement official who was called to investigate and who documented the macabre scene on video, came to the conclusion that the tiger had targeted Markov for a reason, that it had acted out of vengeance.
This was a premeditated murder by a Siberian or Amur tiger, a fearsome beast combining "the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator," a mighty predator, but one at risk of extinction from poachers and a Chinese market hungry for tiger parts.
That true-life murder mystery intertwining the stories of Markov, Trush and the tiger makes for fascinating reading in John Vaillant's "The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival," the November selection of The Buffalo News Book Club.
Vaillant won much critical acclaim for his first book, "The Golden Spruce: a True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed," another environmental-themed, true-crime mystery tale published in 2005. That told the story of logger-turned-activist Grant Hadwin, who took a chain saw to the legendary 300-year-old Golden Spruce in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands as a protest against logging, then vanished before his trial.
In a recent phone interview from his home in Vancouver, Vaillant, 50, said he discovered the story of Markov, Trush and the endangered Amur tigers through "Conflict Tiger," a documentary by British filmmaker Sasha Snow. Vaillant saw the movie "almost by chance" in November 2006 at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in Banff, Alberta, where he was promoting "The Golden Spruce."
"I was intrigued by the theme of Russians and tigers on the Chinese border," he said. "It was clear to me really within minutes of sitting down that this was a story that bore further investigation."
He contacted Snow in London, and five months later, in March 2007, Vaillant found himself in the Russian Far East, slogging around the impossibly remote towns of Primorye with a translator, interviewing Markov's family and friends and Trush and other Russians who have been on the front lines battling poachers and who had been part of the expedition that tracked down the tiger that killed Markov.
"It was wintertime there. I really wanted to be there in winter. Because that's when the story originally took place, I wanted to be in that environment, to be able to really feel it," Vaillant said.
Thanks to Vaillant's extraordinarily vivid prose, the reader does "feel" the extreme of the Russian winter, the desperate poverty in Sobolonye since the collapse of communism, even the terror Markov must have felt when confronted by a "killing machine," which Vaillant describes this way:
"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 ... Now, imagine the vehicle for all of this: nine feet or more from nose to tail."
The "murder mystery" part of the book concludes with Vaillant's heart-stopping re-creation of Trush's expedition to track down the killer tiger, a scene that has the feel of an eyewitness account, which Vaillant attributes to the fact that Markov's death was treated as a murder. The "case files," as it were, included not only video, but interview transcripts, notes, maps and diagrams.
But "The Tiger" is much more than the mystery of why the tiger singled out Markov. It combines the colorful detail of a travelogue to an exotic, little-known corner of the world with a probing look at humans' long fascination with and uneasy coexistence with the tiger, and a thoughtful exploration of the turbulent history of the Soviet Union and new threats to endangered tigers from the chaos of perestroika.
Getting around the Russian Far East was difficult, Vaillant said. (The Primorye region's capital of Vladivostok is two days by train from Beijing, seven days and 5,800 miles by train from Moscow.)
"It's not set up for tourists. It's not a terribly friendly place. When you leave any major town, you're at checkpoints with policemen who are completely alone with you in the forest with machine guns. They are under no obligation to be kind or cooperative or even honest," he said.
"Then it's not like there are hotels to stay in. In Vladivostok, there are, but when you get out in the country, you're at the mercy of the people. People in the country were very, very lovely to us. My translator deserves a lot of the credit for that I don't speak Russian, and he does. He was their first impression, and people were unfailingly kind with very few exceptions. Mostly people were just really surprised to see us, because nobody goes there.
" You came all the way from Canada to do this?' It just didn't make any sense to them. Their own provincial and federal government has abandoned them. So the idea that someone would come from another country to take an interest just didn't compute."
Vaillant said he and his interpreter stayed on "couches, we stayed in a logging camp. ... People were really, Wow, you know you made it this far, we'll look after you.' People fed us. Given how incredibly limited resources are, considering what they've been through, over the past decade, almost the complete collapse of their society, I was really impressed and deeply moved at how people looked after us."
Soviet Russia was the first nation in the world to declare the tiger a protected species, under Stalin in 1947, which is surprising since "the tiger wasn't seen as a benefit to society according to Marxist philosophy," Vaillant said. Still, at great personal risk, "some very courageous individuals sort of stepped up" to make a case for tigers, he said. "The Amur tiger made the biggest comeback in Russia of any big cat ever, from 30 individuals to nearly 500 at the end of the communist era" in the late 1980s, Vaillant said. "We think of the Soviets as being hard on their environment, but it was a good time for tigers."
The post-communist years have seen new threats to tigers, as desperate locals turn to poaching, logging destroys habitat and a newly opened border with China amps up the demand for tiger parts.
"There is much less law and order in the forest now. There's a market now for tiger parts that didn't exist when the border was closed," Vaillant said. "What's amazing is, again the Russians stepped up with foreign help in the early 1990s. Anti-poaching squads like Yuri Trush's and those financed by foreign groups have helped to restore order to some extent. So that the tigers have a chance."
The people of Sobolonye have yet to read his book, which "is not out in Russian yet," Vaillant said. The book has been "very well-received" in the tiger conservation community, he said. "That means a lot to me. That's very high praise in terms of getting the biology, the issues right. In terms of how it is for a villager or a poacher to read the book, I'm waiting to find out."
Vaillant's two books share a theme. "I'm interested in the edges where civilization and the wild world meet, collide, grind against each other. I think that's where you can see the future, frankly, in terms of what our lives may be like as we press forward and increase our pressure on the planet. That story, the story of how we come to an accommodation with nature, and its capacity to support us that's the biggest story of our time."
(His collaboration with Sasha Snow may be a first. Snow's movie "Conflict Tiger" inspired Vaillant's book. Snow is now working on a documentary of Vaillant's "The Golden Spruce.")
Vaillant's next book, slated for publication in fall 2013 from Knopf Canada, is "a real departure for me," he said. "Jaguar's Children" is a novel about illegal immigration, "narrated by a fictional character, a young Mexican guy who's being smuggled across the border, and the smuggling operation goes awry."
Tiger conservation remains a passion for Vaillant and a cause he promotes through speaking engagements, on Facebook and on Twitter. "The Russians have been doing this for three generations now. It's only a handful of people each time. It's powerful, especially when you meet them and see what they're up against. These are people who are putting their lives on the line, putting their money where their mouth is. It's very, very impressive. That's one reason I remain a staunch advocate and still do tiger fundraisings. Because what I saw from people over there and the circumstances, I just feel that's an effort I want to stay connected to."
> BOOK CLUB
In recognition of "The Tiger" being chosen as The Buffalo News Book Club's November selection, Vintage Books has donated ?10 paperbacks to be given away to Book Club readers. To be considered for a copy, email email@example.com. Or you can write to us by mail, at The Buffalo News, Book Club, 1 News Plaza, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240. Include your name and address, and feel free to tell us why you should win one ?of the books.
The Tiger: ?A True Story of Vengeance ?and Survival
By John Vaillant
Vintage Books506 pages ($15, paperback)