LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
"The Tiger" is the name of a new book by John Vaillant about a man-eating tiger and the men who hunt it. The book is part natural history, describing the exotic lands of what Vaillant calls Eurasia's ragged eastern rim.
Mr. JOHN VAILLANT (Author, "The Tiger"): The Russian Far East is sandwiched really between China and the Pacific Ocean. The southern tip of it abuts North Korea. You have timber wolves, caribou, wolverines, overlapping with tigers and leopards and poisonous snakes. In that sense, it's unique on Earth.
WERTHEIMER: The book is also a compelling tale of stalking and being stalked by a tiger. Not just any tiger but the largest species of cat still walking on the Earth.
Mr. VAILLANT: Imagine a creature that has the agility and appetites of a cat and the mass of an industrial refrigerator. The Amur tiger can weigh over 500 pounds, can be more than 10 feet long nose to tail. They're really, really imposing, impressive animals.
WERTHEIMER: And they can jump.
Mr. VAILLANT: They can jump 20 feet, 25 feet. In terms of height, they can jump over a basketball hoop. Think about it, you know, a 400-pound...
WERTHEIMER: You're kidding.
Mr. VAILLANT: No. I mean, you know, one tiger biologist famously said when he was asked, you know, how high can a tiger jump, and he said as high as it needs to.
WERTHEIMER: Let's just get right to the point that has fascinated all of us about your book: the idea that the tiger is capable of vengeance. The central story of your book is about a poacher named Markov. Markov shot the tiger and wounded it but didn't kill it. Then he took the - what was it, a pig, that the tiger was carrying around?
Mr. VAILLANT: A wild boar that the tiger had killed. So this is an animal lying dead in the forest.
WERTHEIMER: But the tiger appears to have come back for Markov and he killed the man and ate him.
Mr. VAILLANT: That's right. They had some kind of confrontation over this boar and Markov shot the tiger at close range - close enough range for the tiger to identify him. And you know, tracking a man and his dogs back to a cabin is nothing, you know, for a tiger. It has quite a scent trail to work with there.
WERTHEIMER: The most interesting thing about it was that there was a passage of time. I mean, the tiger just didn't follow the guy back and kill him. The tiger waited and he came back for him later.
Mr. VAILLANT: This is what's so fantastic to me, I mean, it's so chilling, really, is that - the way the tiger was able to hold this idea over a period of time. This wasn't an impulsive response. You know, you shoot me and I attack you. It's you did this thing to me, I'm holding it inside me, carrying it with me, and I'm going to hold it until I resolve it. And that period of time was, you know, somewhere between 12 and 48 hours.
And he went to his house, to his cabin, staked it out, found things that had Markov's scent on it, systematically destroyed them, and waited by his home, in the open by his front door - waited for this man to come home - killed him, dragged him into the bush and ate him. And, you know, I think in some ways the eating may have been secondary. You know, well, you know, I think he killed him because he had a, you know, a bone to pick, so to speak.
WERTHEIMER: So in addition to the story of Markov the poacher, this is a story of the man who headed the team of hunters who tracked the tiger down. Now, this is a fellow named Trush - is that how you say it?
Mr. VAILLANT: Yeah, Trush, yeah.
WERTHEIMER: Trush, who is - his main job is to try to shut down tiger poaching, the illegal killing of protected tigers. So tell us about him, the hunter.
Mr. VAILLANT: He's really kind of a larger than life figure, you know, and a very, very physically imposing man, a very skilled fighter, martial artist, a real warrior. And he's a guy well suited to work in tiger country. And he found himself in this really thankless situation of hunting, having to hunt down the animal that he had been charged to protect.
WERTHEIMER: He's like a cop pursuing this creature. And you created kind of a mystery around how he tracks the tiger.
Mr. VAILLANT: Well, yeah. I mean, for Trush in the moment it was a mystery. And so what he has to do is anticipate what the tiger's next move is going to be and try to be there before the tiger's there. And it infused those weeks of tracking with incredible tension, because Trush was charged not just with protecting tigers but now with saving human lives.
And that changed the situation into really a life and death, moment by moment chase.
WERTHEIMER: You know, despite the awful things this tiger did, I still found myself wanting to be on the side of the tiger.
Mr. VAILLANT: Well, the tiger is just trying to be a tiger, and that's something that, you know, I really came to respect and admire and appreciate about these animals, is they're really just trying to do what tigers do. And human beings don't necessarily even have to get in the way. You know, 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.
If you make the mistake of attacking a tiger, especially a healthy male, as this one was, he'll come back at you. And, you know, a human being would do the same thing in many cases. And so the tiger's responses in a way are so understandable, so logical.
WERTHEIMER: What do you think might be the future of this Russian tiger, which seems to exist in a habitat which was very nearly perfect for it until man arrived?
Mr. VAILLANT: It's - I mean, this is a turning point, for sure. What gives me hope is that there are precedents for successful protection. The Russians have brought the Amur tiger back from the brink of extinction when the tiger was almost hunted out and was down to about 30 animals in the wild. They restored that population to almost 500 by the late 1980s and the incidents of poaching were reduced radically.
Now we've reached another turning point. A lot of the teams that were active in the '90s were disbanded; their funding has been cut, and conservation groups are now stepping in to fill the gap in terms of funding these inspection teams.
WERTHEIMER: Is there any place that you can go in the United States - I realize zoos are a poor substitute, but still - to see one of these creatures?
Mr. VAILLANT: Oh yeah, the Siberian/Amur tiger is a really popular zoo attraction, because they're so big, because they have such thick and lustrous fur. They're very, very beautiful animals and many zoos have them. Even behind bars and, you know, sitting on a fake rock, they're incredibly striking. And magnify that by a factor of 10 and you can get a sense of what it might be like to encounter one in the wild.
WERTHEIMER: John Vaillant, thank you so much.
Mr. VAILLANT: It's a pleasure to be on the show. Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: John Vaillant's book is called "The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival."
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WERTHEIMER: You can read an excerpt from "The Tiger" on our website, NPR.org.