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Holiday Reading Book Review: The Tiger – John Vaillant

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It’s hard to open a book between semesters, especially in law school. You’ve just come off a few months of intensive readings, and now you have all the time in the world and a backlog of recommended TV series to binge. The goal is to find an even more binge-worthy book that is sufficiently unlike anything you just wrote an exam about.


I settled on The Tiger by Canadian author John Vaillant. He tells the true story of hunting one of the few remaining Siberian tigers. Though it is illegal to hunt tigers in Russia’s Far East, there is an exception for man-eaters. Russia authorized a group of poacher police to track this particular tiger after it had eaten two hunters – one of which, a poacher.


The story takes place in Primorye, which is the name given to a maritime territory in Russia that shares a border with China and North Korea, opposite Japan. The flag in this region has a picture of a roaring tiger – a sign of fearlessness and survival. The irony is that for some in this neglected corner of post-Communist Russia, poaching tigers is a means of survival. The body of a tiger is valuable not only for its fur but also for its uses in alternative medicine. Vendors pay exorbitant sums for tiger organs that are thought to increase vitality and courage.


Tigers will also do anything to survive, and where this story takes place, it is perfectly designed to do so. The Siberian Tiger is the largest of its genus, with thick fur coats and layers of mass to insulate against the cold. It weighs between 400-700 pounds, yet is disproportionately athletic. Because of their relatively low stamina, tigers need to creep next to their prey. Given its size, a tiger’s stealth is a paradox that can only be reconciled with an understanding of its intelligence. This is an animal that has had to learn how to pounce at the right place, and at the right time. It studies the pattern of its prey so that it can formulate a plan to overwhelm it. Were it not for humans, tigers would rule the Far East.


Though healthy tigers have the edge over their prey, a flaw in their machinery –broken canines or injured limbs – may cost them their usual food sources. They begin to see human beings as another player on the food chain – hunters who are taking precious food, poachers who are catching up. In most circumstances, technology and organization have allowed people to transcend the food chain. But for a pair of hunters and a group of conservationists in Eastern Russia, a certain starving tiger challenged human superiority. It analyzed these people in order to learn when they are unarmed and vulnerable. It did so in a way that betrayed its contemplation of revenge along with brute, mechanistic survival. Both sides seemed evenly matched.


Vaillant developed his retelling by travelling to Primorye to interview the hunters and friends of the deceased. His recounting of the hunt for this tiger is weaved into Russian politics and conservationism.  Overall, I recommend this book as an escape for a student. School may be tough sometimes, but at least you are not being hunted by a man-eating tiger.

Shanil Patel, 2L, is the De Minimis Editor

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