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Authors: John Vaillant

The Tiger (26 page)

BOOK: The Tiger
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All of us, whether predator or prey, are opportunistic and creatures of habit. Thus, if a leopard or a pack of hunting hyenas failed enough times in its efforts to capture us, or was effectively intimidated, its menu preferences would shift accordingly—perhaps to baboons, where they remain today. Once this new configuration had stabilized, the offspring of such “reformed” predators would presumably reflect these dietary changes. There is good reason to suppose that, like the !Kung among lions, and the Udeghe among tigers, early man became an active, if cautious, cohabitant with these animals rather than their chronic victim.

In any case, it would have been a close call—most likely, a long series of them. It is noteworthy that it took roughly five million years before hominids—probably in the form of Homo erectus—finally developed the brains, the tools, and the legs to get out of Africa alive. There were big cats, hyenas, and wolves all along the way, and this may be one reason most of our hominid relatives never made it. It is striking, too, that, unlike so many other species—cats, for example—we are the only branch of our family (Hominidae) who survived the journey. In this sense, we are evolutionary orphans—a broken family of one, and it puts us in strange company: we share our genetic solitude with the platypus, the gharial, and the coelacanth.

Today, the ghosts of our ancestors continue to haunt us, manifesting a host of old family traits that have persisted through the ages, and that continue to influence our behavior and inform our responses and attitudes toward the world around us. In an effort to test some of the instinctive connections between modern humans and our primitive forebears, Richard Coss, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, conducted a study in which he created a virtual savanna with typical features including a thorn tree, a boulder, and a rock crevice. After showing this empty, primordial landscape to a group of American preschool children, he introduced a virtual lion. Then he asked the children where they would go to find safety. Most of them chose the thorn tree or the crevice; only one in six picked the boulder. With no prior experience of savannas or predation, and a rudimentary, possibly cartoon-based, understanding of lions, more than 80 percent of these children understood the risk and the appropriate response to it. The small percentage who chose the boulder would not have escaped the lion, and to this day, despite millions of years of natural selection, there remains that small percentage of humans who make fatal choices.

The UCLA anthropologist Clark Barrett approached this question from another angle and, like Coss, he sought the help of children to answer it. It has been observed that infants as young as nine months understand the concept of pursuit and can distinguish between the chaser and the chased. But Barrett wanted to know at what age children were able to ascribe motives to different animals in hypothetical situations that didn’t involve them personally, as Coss’s lion experiment had. In other words, he wanted to know at what age we develop a “theory of animal mind,” the same mental tool hunters like the !Kung and the Udeghe use to anticipate the behavior of game and avoid predators. In order to do this as objectively as possible, Barrett assembled two groups of children aged three to five; one group was made up of German preschoolers and the other was composed of Shuar, a tribe of subsistence hunter-agriculturalists from Ecuador’s Amazon basin. Needless to say, these two groups of children had radically different cultural reference points and experience with animals. The experiment was elegant in its simplicity. Using a toy lion and a toy zebra, Barrett asked each child, “When the lion sees the zebra, what does the lion want to do?”6

The results were surprising: 75 percent of the three-year-olds in both groups answered with some variation of “The lion wants to chase/bite/kill the zebra.”7 (It must be remembered that these children had only just learned to speak and had vastly different levels of exposure to media and information about the wider world.) When Barrett posed the same question to the four- and five-year-olds, every single child anticipated the predatory intentions of the lion. Barrett then took the scenario a step further, asking, “When the lion catches the zebra, what will happen?”8 In this case, 100 percent of the Shuar three-year-olds answered with some version of “The lion hurts/kills/eats the zebra.”9 Only two thirds of the more sheltered and media-saturated German three-year-olds gave this answer, but when Barrett got to the four- and five-year-olds, every child understood that the zebra was in serious trouble.

What is remarkable about this experiment is that very young children, regardless of culture, learning, or living conditions, understand fundamental rules of predatory behavior, even when they have never seen a live lion or zebra and know nothing about life in sub-Saharan Africa. Barrett believes their innate grasp of these primordial relationships is a genetic legacy based on millions of years of hard-won experience, and that this is why young children continue to be fascinated by dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures. He calls this “Jurassic Park syndrome”; the implication is that, in ages past, this was information one absolutely had to take an interest in if one was to survive to breeding age.10

As we get older, our skill at motive discernment grows increasingly sophisticated, and several studies have shown that we are adept at determining an animal’s behavior and intention simply by being shown spotlit portions of its limbs and joints with everything else blacked out. This ability is crucial for distinguishing friend from foe and predator from prey when only fragmentary information is available, as is often the case in tall grass, dense forest, or at night. Today, this same visual acuity enables fighter pilots to distinguish between ally and enemy aircraft in a split second, and it is also what keeps us alive in heavy traffic. But the full perceptive range of these ancient gifts is most easily appreciated in a crowded bar as we assess potential mates, no matter what they may be wearing.

Researchers from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wanted to refine this idea and test whether people pay preferential attention to certain categories of things like, for example, animals, over others. To determine this, they showed undergraduates pairs of photographs depicting various scenes in which the second image varied slightly from the first and included a single specific change. The students’ only instructions were to indicate when and if they noticed a change and what it was. There were animate and inanimate categories so the second image might introduce a pigeon, a car, or a tree. It quickly became apparent that students were more successful at noticing animals, and they did so 90 percent of the time. When something like a wheelbarrow or even a large silo was added, only two thirds of the students noticed. The success rate spiked when the changes involved a human or an elephant, with 100 percent of the participants noticing. These relative success rates held even when it came to introducing a distant, well-camouflaged elephant or a bright red minivan into scenes on the African savanna: fewer than three quarters of the participants spotted the added van.

Joshua New and his colleagues published their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluding that “the results herein implicate a visual monitoring system equipped with ancestrally derived animal-specific selection criteria.”11 Which is to say, we seem to be hard-wired to spot animals. “People develop phobias for spiders and snakes and things that were ancestral threats,” Dr. New told a journalist in 2007.12 “It’s very infrequent to have somebody afraid of cars or electrical outlets. Those statistically pose much more of a threat to us than a tiger. That makes it an interesting test case as to why do tigers still capture attention.”

Evidence suggests that the reason tigers and their kind continue to capture our attention is because, over time, this has proven the most effective way to prevent them from capturing us. Maybe this is why it is impossible not to wonder what Markov and Khomenko saw and felt in their last moments—an experience so aberrant and alien to us, and yet strangely, deeply familiar: there is a part of us that still needs to know.

Ongoing in the debate about our origins and our nature is the question of how we became fascinated by monsters, but only certain kinds. The existence of this book alone is a case in point. No one would read it if it were about a pig or a moose (or even a person) who attacked unemployed loggers. Tigers, on the other hand, get our full attention. They strike a deep and resonant chord within us, and one reason is because, as disturbing as it may be, man-eating occurs within the acceptable parameters of the tiger’s nature, which has informed our nature. If the pig or the moose did such things, they would simply be abhorrent and weird; it wouldn’t resonate in the same way.

As long as they are carnivorous and/or humanoid, the monster’s form matters little. Whether it is Tyrannosaurus rex, saber-toothed tiger, grizzly bear, werewolf, bogeyman, vampire, Wendigo, Rangda, Grendel, Moby-Dick, Joseph Stalin, the Devil, or any other manifestation of the Beast, all are objects of dark fascination, in large part because of their capacity to consciously, willfully destroy us. What unites these creatures—ancient or modern, real or imagined, beautiful or repulsive, animal, human, or god—is their superhuman strength, malevolent cunning, and, above all, their capricious, often vengeful appetite—for us. This, in fact, is our expectation of them; it’s a kind of contract we have. In this capacity, the seemingly inexhaustible power of predators to fascinate us—to “capture attention”—fulfills a need far beyond morbid titillation. It has a practical application. After all, this is the daily reality of many savanna baboons, and it has been ours as well. In southern Tanzania, in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, and in many war zones around the world, it still is.

Over time, these creatures or, more specifically, the dangers they represent, have found their way into our consciousness and taken up permanent residence there. In return, we have shown extraordinary loyalty to them—to the point that we re-create them over and over in every medium, through every era and culture, tuning and adapting them to suit changing times and needs. It seems they are a key ingredient in the glue that binds us to ourselves and to each other. Without our social networks and the fragile carapace of technology with which we shield ourselves, Khomenko’s and Markov’s fate could be our own. And neither our psyches nor our stories will allow us to forget it.

* Taphonomy is the study of an organism’s decay and related processes over time, including its fossilization.




It is quite in the order of things in folk-tales … that a parent should purchase his own safety by sacrificing his son to a ferocious animal or to a supernatural enemy.C. F. COXWELL,

Siberian and Other Folk Tales1

SOBOLONYE WAS A PLACE FAMILIAR WITH MORTAL TRAGEDY, BUT IT tended to be accidental or self-inflicted, and alcohol was often a factor. One side effect of these repeated blows was a caustic graveyard humor, and not even Markov was spared. Some in the village felt sure he had invited his own death by robbing the tiger of its kill. “It became a bit of a joke,” said one local resident, “that he brought that meat to his own funeral.”2

True or not, this assumption was also a way of deflecting such a fate away from oneself, a corollary to the widely held belief that tigers never attacked unprovoked. Without this psychic armor, how could one dare to make one’s living in the taiga? Nonetheless, the possibility that there might be exceptions to this rule had been preying on people’s minds during the week following Markov’s death. By then, news of the tiger’s behavior at the road workers’ camp had also spread through the valley, and there was little doubt that this was the same tiger that had killed Markov. Regardless of their other feelings about tigers, the residents of Sobolonye had great respect for their intelligence and hunting prowess, and the idea that these powers might be directed against them—at random—was terrifying. This tiger’s presence had cast a pall over the village, not just for its own sake, but for what it implied: the forest was Sobolonye’s sole reason for being, and Mother Taiga was the closest thing to a deity its inhabitants had. When all else failed—and it had—she alone had stood by them. If the taiga should turn against them, too, where else could they go?

During those few days following Markov’s funeral, nothing much had changed for Denis Burukhin or his best friend, Andrei Pochepnya, save for the emptiness left by the death of their “Uncle” Markiz, a man they had known and liked. Both Denis and Andrei were twenty years old and fresh out of the army; they had lived in Sobolonye for most of their lives. Where Denis was short, dark, and compact, Andrei was tall and fair-haired; he was a quiet young man, even shy, but like Denis, he was a competent tayozhnik. The two of them had been hunting and trapping together since they were boys; they trusted each other implicitly, and trust among fur trappers is like trust among gold miners—a rare and precious thing. In many respects, their fates appeared to be linked; they even left for the army on the same day. Denis, the better marksman of the two, drew the short straw and was sent to the front in Chechnya, and that was the last his family heard of him. After a few months, his mother, Lida—short, dark-haired, and densely packaged like her son—gave him up for dead. “There were no letters,” she said. “Nothing. We stopped waiting. And then he came back.” But he wasn’t quite the same. “He became aloof—like a different person. It must have affected him to see all those people die.”

Andrei, meanwhile, spent his entire tour at a base in Khabarovsk, the tough, historic city of half a million on the left bank of the Amur River, only 150 miles north of Sobolonye. But even so far away from the front line, the Russian army can still be a brutal environment. The hazing of new recruits is entrenched, systematic, and often barbaric, and morale was abysmal: soldiers could be seen standing at the edge of their fenced compounds begging for money from passersby. For teenaged boys from a remote village, either experience would have been a rude awakening and, after two years away, both of them were having trouble readjusting to village life. On the one hand, they were free at last; on the other, they were effectively marooned with no prospects in this broken, isolated outpost.

BOOK: The Tiger
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