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Tigers, Humans, and Snails

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Albert Watson
A Spanish snail, photographed by Albert Watson during a fashion shoot for Stern magazine, 1986; from Watson’s book UFO: Unified Fashion Objectives, which has just been published by PQ Blackwell

Inactivity and infinite patience do not suit all engagements with the natural world, and the management of wild tigers is a pursuit that involves more action than most of us could muster. Just 3,200 tigers now survive in the wild—down from tens of thousands a few decades ago, and those few survivors are increasingly harried. In Russia, around four hundred Siberian tigers remain, and whenever a forest crime involving attacks by tigers is reported, a law enforcement group known as Inspection Tiger swings into action. Based in Primorye in the Russian far east, in early December 1997 its group leader was Yuri Trush—a man destined to have an encounter with a tiger that remains without parallel.

John Vaillant, who tells the astonishing story of what happened in The Tiger, describes Trush as a 6'2” “Alpha male wilderness cop” with eyes “colored…like the semiprecious stone tiger’s eye.” Trush is one tough man. He taught hand-to-hand combat in the Soviet military and can break bricks with his bare knuckles. He said, of a miscreant he was pursuing, “He knows very well that I am capable of beheading him with my bare hands.”

Vaillant brilliantly describes the Primorye region’s inhabitants—from the indigenous Nanai, Udeghe, and Orochi peoples to the new immigrants from Russia, many of whom arrived just a generation previously. They are almost invariably dirt-poor, and it was the fate of one such—a man known as Vladimir Markov—that set Trush on his fatal course.

The Inspection Tiger team had been asked to check Markov’s cabin in the backwoods. Driving over snow-covered dirt tracks in a vehicle called a Kung, which sounds like something out of a Mad Max film, they arrived as the sun was low in the sky. The cabin was surrounded by human and tiger prints, and Trush, using a video recorder, followed a trail leading into the forest. As Vaillant puts it:

The audio picks up a sudden, retching gasp. It is as if he has entered Grendel’s den.
The temperature is thirty below zero and yet, here, the snow has been completely melted away. In the middle of this dark circle, presented like some kind of sacrificial offering, is a hand without an arm and a head without a face. Nearby is a long bone, a femur probably, that has been gnawed to a bloodless white.

Then

there is a sound: a brief, rushing exhale—the kind one would use to extinguish a candle. But there is something different about the volume of air being moved, and the force behind it—something bigger and deeper…. At the same moment, perhaps ten yards ahead, the tip of a low fir branch spontaneously sheds its load of snow.

The tiger, which was guarding its kill, had moved. With the light failing and armed with only a rifle, Trush decided to follow the killer into the forest. But it had vanished into the gloom.

Conflict between tigers and humans is likely to have begun soon after our ancestors wandered out of Africa, some 50,000 years ago. But as we became more settled, the nature of the relationship began to change. Vaillant writes:

Throughout Korea, Manchuria, and southeast China, tigers were considered both sacred and a scourge. Until around 1930, tigers continued to pose such a risk that, in North Korea, the bulk of offerings made to some Buddhist shrines were prayers for protection from these animals. Nonetheless, tigers were held in high esteem in part because it was believed that they, too, made offerings to heaven.
In the tigers’ case, these gifts took the form of the severed heads of their prey, a determination made, presumably, by the beheaded state of many tiger kills. Ordinary people were reluctant to retaliate against a predatory tiger for fear it would take offense, not to mention revenge, and so their day-to-day lives were shaped—and sometimes tyrannized—by efforts to at once avoid and propitiate these marauding gods.

If things got truly desperate for the harried villagers, there was one hope—a sort of bounty-hunting society known as the Tiger Hunters Guild. Wearing trademark conical blue felt hats, these intrepid Koreans used fourteenth- century-style matchlock rifles to kill the man-eaters. Their guns worked by lighting a wick and waiting for the flame to enter the touch hole, thus requiring a steady nerve and bravery almost beyond imagining.

Incredibly, some have taken it upon themselves to capture tigers alive—“a seemingly lunatic enterprise,” according to Vaillant, “which fell out of favor only in the early 1990s.” One of the last and most famous tiger catchers was Vladimir Kruglov. Somehow he managed to pin down wild adult tigers with forked tree branches, then hog-tie them and place them in a sack. He is, Vaillant says,

one of the only human beings in the history of the species to grab wild tigers by the ears repeatedly and live to tell about it. “I have never let anyone else handle the ears,” he explained…in 2001. “You know, the ears are her steering wheel. You can turn off her teeth with the ears.”

What had made Vladimir Markov a tiger victim? Most of the people in the Primorye region are not worried by tigers, living by the motto “If I don’t touch her, she won’t touch me.” Indeed, Vaillant records that

such was the stability of human–tiger relations in the Panchelaza [part of the Primorye] that the possibility of a person getting attacked—much less eaten—by a tiger was, literally, laughable—like getting hit by a meteorite.

Trush interviewed people who had met the victim just before his death, including Evgeny Sakirko, whom Markov had visited at his logging camp. “I’d better get home because the dogs will get killed,” a nervous Markov had said. He seemed anxious, according to Sakirko, and was unwilling to stay and eat despite the fact that hot food was being served. More evidence of Markov’s disturbed state of mind came from the old Nanai hunter Ivan Dunkai—a person in whom Markov confided. The night before the attack, Markov had visited Dunkai and said, “There’s a tiger about.” Dunkai asked where, and Markov replied that it was hiding. “Come now, and we’ll go hunting together,” he had said. “How can we go hunting at night?” Dunkai asked, before offering Markov food. But Markov said that he “had to go now!” Strangely, after he trudged off into the gloom, his hunting dog turned up at Dunkai’s cabin. “A dog usually stays with its master, and that one was a hunting dog,” Dunkai noted.

Markov’s closest neighbor was a hermit known as Kopchony (Smokey). He lived in a hole in the ground just a mile from Markov’s cabin, and saw tigers regularly. He related:

“Once, I was walking on the road and noticed something up ahead. I came closer, and there she was—her paw big like that.” He put his hands up to frame his face. “She had stood there for a long while, and I said to her, ‘You have been waiting for me for quite some time, haven’t you? You noticed me from far away.’”

This extraordinary man clearly had a peaceful relationship with tigers. When asked if he had ever discussed Markov’s death with Dunkai, he said, “No, we never talked about it because he knew about it without me telling him about it, and I knew about it without him telling me, so what are we going to talk about?”

When Trush returned to Markov’s cabin to investigate further, he discovered that the tiger had stayed for several days, destroying everything that bore Markov’s scent—splintering his ax handle, destroying his pots, and tearing apart his washstand and outhouse. As Trush and his team put the evidence together, “they came to understand that this tiger was not hunting for animals, or even for humans; he was hunting for Markov.” One wildlife officer thought he knew why:

“I knew that he was catching tiger cubs,” said [Yevgeny] Smirnov. “He ate the meat and sold the skins. I was trying to hunt him down myself. If it weren’t for the tiger, I’d have gotten him sooner or later. The tiger beat me to it.”

The village of Sobolonye, where Markov’s family lived, had been terrorized by the killing. Most people simply refused to enter the forest until the man-eater was caught. But Andrei Pochepnya had laid a trapline for fur-bearing creatures. A young man just back from the army, he was being badgered by his parents to get a job. So he began his rounds. The tiger was less than a mile away and had already detected his presence. Breaking into a disused shelter, it had taken a mattress, dragging it fifty yards across a frozen river and placing it under a spruce tree:

When Pochepnya arrived, as the tiger somehow knew he would, it would have been around two in the afternoon. Hunters are vigilant of necessity, and a four-hundred-pound tiger sitting sphinxlike on a mattress is hard to miss. But Pochepnya was not aware of the tiger until he launched himself off his bed from ten yards away.

When, days later, his father and friends arrived on the scene, they found very little blood, and Pochepnya was nowhere to be seen. Only his rifle, still loaded, lay near the mattress. The gun had misfired, but when a member of the search party reloaded it with the same bullet and pulled the trigger, it fired perfectly. Throwing the unreliable weapon into the river, his father went to look for his son:

What Alexander Pochepnya found is something no parent is equipped to see. Fifty yards into the snowy forest lay a heap of blood- blackened clothing in a circle of exposed earth. It looked more like a case of spontaneous combustion than an animal attack. There was nothing left but shredded cloth and empty boots.

Pondering the scene, Vaillant wonders what happens to those so eaten:

If the body journeys through the viscera of an animal—if its substance and essence become that animal—what happens to the soul?

The reputation of Trush and his Inspection Tiger team was now on the line. They had to find and kill the man-eater. Reading “the White Book,” as hunters refer to tracks in snow, they could easily believe that the tiger had somehow influenced Pochepnya’s mind, getting him to walk directly toward his death, while it remained unseen, yet in full view.

The Inspection Tiger team had no alternative but to track the man-eater on foot. It was now nearly the shortest day of the year, and the tiger’s tracks were heading directly toward the terrified village of Sobolonye. Trush and his men caught up with the creature on a dirt road around ten miles out of town. It was a brilliantly sunny day, and the clearing the tiger lay in looked like it couldn’t conceal a rabbit. Nothing could be seen. Then the clearing exploded. “The first impact of a tiger attack does not come from the tiger itself, but from the roar, which…has the effect of separating you from yourself,” writes Vaillant.

The next three seconds would change forever the life of a man and a man-eater, but to reveal the climax would do a profound disservice to all those who will surely read this extraordinary book. It is a brilliantly told tale of man and nature, and if you find your heart beating rather too fast at its end, as I did, you may wish to turn to the equally brilliant Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, which is sure to provide an antidote.

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