John Vaillant on how The Tiger came to be

Every week leading up to the debates in February, Canada Reads is putting the spotlight on one of the five books in contention. From January 23 to January 29, we are exploring The Tiger by John Vaillant. The Tiger is being defended by Anne-France Goldwater in the Canada Reads debates.

One of the things that drew me to the story that became The Tiger was the way in which a solitary wild animal was able to make a modern community, equipped with cars, TVs, telephones and firearms, revert to a Stone Age mindset almost overnight. If we're familiar with tiger attacks at all it's likely because we've read stories about man-eaters in India — serial attacks on seemingly helpless villagers living in very primitive circumstances. The Russian village of Sobolonye, profiled in The Tiger, is much more familiar to the Western reader; the inhabitants (and the victims) are Caucasians with both feet firmly planted in the industrialized world.

Furthermore, the vast majority of the men and many of the women who live there are experienced hunters. And yet, in the space of one week at the turn of the millennium, this tiger was able to strip away the fragile veneer of civilization and human superiority and replace it with a kind of ancient, elemental terror. This was possible because, as one Chinese saying puts it, "The tiger's progress is as silent as the moon's."

When I was in the Far East, I was told repeatedly that if a tiger has targeted you, you will never see it coming. Should you have the misfortune to witness an attack like those experienced around Sobolonye, it has a way of undoing your confidence in the known world. Things you've taken for granted become unsteady, menacing, and magical — in a bad way. Children know this feeling well, but most adults have worked hard to forget it.


I wanted to understand more fully what this experience is like and, in order to do so, I had to learn a lot about how tigers operate. In the zoo, you can get a feel for a tiger's mass and "heavy grace," but zoo tigers tend to move very slowly, if at all. It's hard in that context to get a sense of how invisible — and how fast — tigers can be when they're sufficiently motivated. After the Siberian tiger attacks at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day, 2007, a noted tiger expert was asked how high a tiger can jump. His answer, "as high as it needs to," touches on an essential truth about tigers.

While I was in Russia, I interviewed several survivors of tiger attacks (all of whom were experienced hunters and woodsmen) and, in each case, the victim had time to take only a single step before the tiger was on him — and that was after the tiger had alerted him with a roar. Dodging or escaping was simply out of the question. The only reason these men survived is because the tiger was not fully committed to killing them, or because a third party intervened. The tiger featured in this book, however, was fully committed, every time.

After reading The Tiger, an editor at Publishers Weekly came away convinced that I had actually been present for these events. I was not, but in order to reconstruct them so vividly, I did three things:

1. I read a lot about how tigers hunt, fight and kill. Key sources were George Schaller's classic, The Deer and the Tiger, and Richard Perry's wonderful compendium of tiger lore, The World of the Tiger. There are other good sources, too, and many of these are included in The Tiger's bibliography.

2. I interviewed attack survivors extensively, along with hunters, wardens and scientists who had either been present during attacks or had closely examined their aftermath. Tiger attacks are rare in Russia, but when they occur, they are taken very seriously by the authorities. As a result, the inspectors charged with investigating this animal's attacks treated the evidence forensically, as one would a murder, so there was a lot of data to work with: in addition to interviews, notes, maps and diagrams, there was extensive video footage of the scenes. I also visited the sites. Amur tiger attacks are easier to reconstruct than those by other tiger subspecies because the Amur's environment (the Russian Far East) is often covered in snow. If you know how to read them, the tracks tell the whole the story. The level of detail that can be gleaned from these frozen records is extraordinary.

3. I also watched this amazing video:

In fact, there is a postscript to this video that I found even more amazing than the attack itself. You can read it here.

If you are interested in reading a Canadian story with strong similarities to The Tiger, check out Sid Marty's 2008 Governor General's Award finalist, The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek. It's a terrific — and hair-raising — read.


John Vaillant has a passion for writing about the "collision between human beings and the environment." His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic, The Walrus and Outside magazine. The Vancouver-based author's first book, The Golden Spruce, won both the Governor General's Award and the Writer's Trust Award for non-fiction. The Tiger will be defended by litigator Anne-France Goldwater in the Canada Reads 2012 debates. The debates will air at 11 a.m. (11:30 a.m. in Nfld.) on CBC Radio One and will be livestreamed on CBC Books at 10 a.m. ET on February 6,7, 8 and 9.

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