John Vaillant's The Tiger is part natural history, part Russian history and part thriller; it tells a gripping and gory story of what it's like to stalk — and be stalked by — the largest species of cat still walking the Earth.
The most bio-diverse region in all of Russia lies on a chunk of land sandwiched between China and the Pacific Ocean. There, in Russia's Far East, subarctic animals — such as caribou and wolves — mingle with tigers and other species of the subtropics. It was very nearly a perfect habitat for the tigers — until humans showed up.
The tigers that populate this region are commonly referred to as Siberian tigers, but they are more accurately known as the Amur tiger. "Imagine a creature that has the agility and appetite of the cat and the mass of an industrial refrigerator," Vaillant tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "The Amur tiger can weigh over 500 pounds and can be more than 10 feet long nose to tail."
These majestic tigers can jump as far as 25 feet — vertically, they can jump over a basketball hoop. Vaillant cites a famous tiger biologist who, when asked how high a tiger can jump, responded: "As high as it needs to."
At the center of the story is Vladimir Markov, a poacher who met a grisly end in the winter of 1997 after he shot and wounded a tiger, and then stole part of the tiger's kill.
The injured tiger hunted Markov down in a way that appears to be chillingly premeditated. The tiger staked out Markov's cabin, systematically destroyed anything that had Markov's scent on it, and then waited by the front door for Markov to come home.
"This wasn't an impulsive response," Vaillant says. "The tiger was able to hold this idea over a period of time." The animal waited for 12 to 48 hours before attacking.
When Markov finally appeared, the tiger killed him, dragged him into the bush and ate him. "The eating may have been secondary," Vaillant explains. "I think he killed him because he had a bone to pick."
The other central character in The Tiger is Yuri Trush, the head of the local squad of an anti-poaching unit known as Inspection Tiger, an organization created by the Russian government to combat the black-market trafficking of tigers and tiger parts.
Trush was "a guy well-suited to work in tiger country," Vaillant says. Physically imposing and a skilled fighter, Trush was a larger-than-life figure, and a "real warrior."
For most of his time with Inspection Tiger, Trush's job involved setting up sting operations and catching poachers. But Markov's death — which is followed later by the death of a second man — meant that Trush ended up having to hunt the same animal he had worked to protect.
Trush needed to anticipate what the tiger's next move would be, and then get there before the tiger did, Vaillant explains. "Trush was charged not just with protecting tigers, but now with saving human lives."
Vaillant's retelling is a life-and-death, moment-by-moment chase — and at times, it can be hard to remember whether you're rooting for the tiger or the humans.
"The tiger is just trying to be a tiger," Vaillant says.
"What's so fascinating to me about that region is that there are human beings and tigers hunting for the same prey in the same territory — and they don't have conflicts." But if you make the mistake of attacking a tiger, you will regret it, he says.
Markov certainly learned that the hard way. Vaillant says the tiger's response was "logical" and "understandable," but in the case of the revenge it exacted on Markov, it was anything but typical. In writing the book, Vaillant interviewed people of all ages from families who had lived in the Russian Far East for generations.
"In living memory, there was no record of an incident like this, of a tiger hunting a human being," he says. "This was a highly unusual circumstance, completely driven by human behavior. If the tiger hadn't been shot, there would be no story."