This story of an Amur (Siberian) tiger menacing a community of hunters in the taiga was thoroughly fascinating, from the background information on Siberia’s history as a Russian province to the murder mystery of the main story line—the tiger was tracked and eventually found by a group of government rangers called Inspection Tiger.
As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it, “The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace.” But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator.
For all these reasons, there is no creature in the taiga that is off limits to the tiger; it alone can mete out death at will. Amur tigers have been known to eat everything from salmon and ducks to adult brown bears. There are few wolves in Primorye, not because the environment doesn’t suit them, but because the tigers eat them, too. The Amur tiger, it could be said, takes a Stalinist approach to competition.
Tigers go by several different names here, and one of them is Toyota—because, during the 1990s, that is what you could buy with one.
After studying the files of Stalin’s political prisoners, historian Roy Medvedev concluded that 200,000 people were imprisoned for telling jokes.
It would be impossible to accurately tally the tiger’s collective impact on humans through history, but one scholar estimated that tigers have killed approximately a million Asians over the last four hundred years. The majority of these deaths occurred in India, but heavy losses were suffered across East Asia.
After surviving more than forty live tiger captures, not to mention the gauntlet of other hazards that take Russian men before their time, Kruglov was killed at the age of sixty-four when a tree fell on him.
Because most anthropologists and archaeologists working then were male, and because hunting is considered to be our ancestors’ primal drama—specifically, a man’s drama—a disproportionate amount of time, ink, and wishful thinking has been devoted to the subject.
“Another hunter and me, we once took some of a tiger’s kill,” he began. “We saw the tiger running away and cut some meat for ourselves. We didn’t take it all because you can’t take everything. It’s a law in the taiga: you have to share. But when we came to check the next day, the tiger hadn’t touched what we’d left for him. After that, we couldn’t kill anything: the tiger destroyed our traps, and he scared off the animals that came to our bait. If any animal got close, he would roar and everyone would run away. We learned the hard way. That tiger wouldn’t let us hunt for an entire year. I must tell you,” Boyko added, “the tiger is such an unusual animal: very powerful, very smart, and very vengeful.”
The Amur tiger’s territoriality and capacity for sustained vengeance, for lack of a better word, are the stuff of both legend and fact. What is amazing—and also terrifying about tigers—is their facility for what can only be described as abstract thinking. Very quickly, a tiger can assimilate new information—evidence, if you will—ascribe it to a source, and even a motive, and react accordingly.
“There are at least eight cases that my teams and I investigated,” he said in March of 2007, “and we all arrived at the same conclusion: if a hunter fired a shot at a tiger, that tiger would track him down, even if it took him two or three months. It is obvious that tigers will sit and wait specifically for the hunter who has fired shots at them.”
An Amur tiger’s sense of superiority and dominance over his realm is absolute: because of his position in the forest hierarchy, the only force a male will typically submit to is a stronger tiger or, occasionally, a large brown bear. Nothing else ranks in the taiga, and this is why, if threatened or attacked, these animals have been known to climb trees to swat at helicopters and run headlong into gunfire.
Based on the observations of hunters and biologists, it appears that Amur tigers will occasionally kill bears solely on something that we might recognize as principle.
One of a tiger’s jobs as keeper of a territory is to take inventory; a tiger needs to know who is around and “available.” When speaking of local tigers, Andrei Onofreychuk described them coming by periodically “to count us.”
Under normal circumstances, a tiger’s menu is based on a handful of local prey species, but it can expand almost limitlessly to include lizards, snakes, turtles, frogs, crocodiles, crabs, fish, seals, grass, berries, pine nuts, livestock, eggs, monkeys, cow dung, bones, carrion, maggots, termites, locusts, birds, porcupines, pangolins, badgers, sables, squirrels, cats, dogs, dholes, wolves, rats, mice, rabbits, bears, lynxes, leopards, and other tigers.
The tiger’s world, by contrast, is not only amoral but peculiarly consequence-free, and this—the atavistic certainty that there is nothing out there more lethal than itself—is the apex predator’s greatest weakness. The coyote is a gifted hunter, but it knows that if it fails to take proper precautions it can easily become prey. Even leopards, arguably the deadliest cats on earth, understand that they hunt on a continuum. A tiger, on the other hand, will, with sufficient provocation, charge a moving car.
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