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Authors: John Vaillant

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The Chinese knew this country as the shuhai, or “forest sea.” It may have been marvelous to contemplate from the deck of a ship, but on the ground, it took a savage toll on humans and animals alike. When you weren’t battling arctic cold, or worrying about tigers, there were insects on a scale that is hard to imagine. Sir Henry Evan Murchison James, a member of the Royal Geographical Society and no stranger to jungles or arthropods, was astounded: “There are several kinds,” he wrote in 1887,3

one striped yellow and black, like a giant wasp; and the rapidity with which they can pierce a mule’s tough hide is inconceivable. In a few moments, before one could go to its assistance, I have seen a wretched beast streaming with blood.… When we went to bed or when marching in the early morning, and at meals we enveloped ourselves with smoke.… If there be a time when life is not worth living, I should say it was summer in the forests of Manchuria.

More than one poor soul has been bound to a tree here and consigned to a hideous death from insect bites, and even Yuri Trush has used this method to make stubborn poachers more compliant.

Once considered part of Outer Manchuria, Primorye, or Primorskii Krai, is Russia’s southeasternmost territory; it is the man-made container for most of the Amur tiger’s current range, and about two million people live there. Protruding conspicuously from Russia’s vast bulk, Primorye is embedded in China’s eastern flank like a claw or a fang, and it remains a sore spot to this day. The territory is an embodiment of the tension between proximity and possession: the capital, Vladivostok, which is home to more than half a million people, is just a two-day train journey from Beijing. The trip to Moscow, on the other hand, is a week-long, 5,800-mile epic on the Trans-Siberian. No other major city lies so far from its national capital; even Australia is closer.

It is hard to express how far over the horizon this region lies in relation to Russia’s political, cultural, and economic centers, but a nickname can offer insight to a place just as it can to a person. Many Siberians refer to western Russia as the materik—the Mainland, which is similar to the way Alaskans think of the Lower 48. But most of Siberia is thousands of miles closer to the capital than Russia’s Far East. In terms of sheer remoteness—both geographic and cultural—the Maritime Territory is more like Hawai’i. As a result, visitors will find themselves standing out conspicuously in a geographic vortex where the gravitational pulls of Europe and North America are weak, and familiar landmarks are virtually nonexistent. Primorye doesn’t get many visitors and, out here on Eurasia’s ragged eastern rim, you are more likely to find kinship in your foreignness with a North Korean “guest” worker than with a wayward German tourist.

Vladivostok, which is the home base of Inspection Tiger, lies further south than the French Riviera, but this is hard to reconcile with the fact that the bays here stay frozen until April. Tigers used to roam the wedge-shaped hills above the harbor, and one of these is still called Tiger Hill; down below is a Tigrine Street. In hard winters, their namesakes still prowl the outskirts of the city, hunting for dogs; in 1997, one had to be shot after repeatedly charging cars by the airport. In this and other ways, Primorye represents a threshold between civilization and the frontier. This territory—and the Far East in general—occupies its own strange sphere, somewhere between the First World and the Third. That the trains are clean and run on time is a point of honor and pride, but when they get to the station there may be no platform and the retractable steps might be frozen shut, forcing you to simply heave your luggage into the darkness and jump out after it.

Because so much of life here is governed by a kind of whimsical rigidity—a combination of leftover Soviet bureaucracy and free market chaos—even simple interactions with officialdom can leave you feeling as if you have wandered into an insane asylum. To this day, the Russian Far East is a place where neither political correctness nor eco-speak have penetrated, and patriotism is vigorous and impassioned. Vladivostok is about as far as one can be from the Eastern Front and still be in Russia, but huge monuments to the heroic fallen command the squares, along with an intermittently eternal flame. To get an idea how large the Second World War’s legacy of sacrifice and heroism still looms in the popular mind, one need only stand on Svetlanskaya, one of the two principal shopping streets framing the harbor where the Pacific Fleet is berthed. Here, on an early-twenty-first-century Sunday, more than sixty years after the Red Army took Berlin, two grandsons of that generation—pink-cheeked family men out for lunch with their wives and young children—will invoke the legacy of that time with a ferocity few Westerners could muster. After reasserting Russia’s indispensable role in the defeat of the Nazis, and brushing aside the contributions of the Allies, one of these young men will go on to say, “If you stand with us, we will protect you with all our Russian soul.4 But if you are against us [a finger is jabbing now], we will fight you with all our Russian soul. We will fight you to the end!”

The speaker looks at his mate, and their eyes lock in solidarity; then they laugh, embrace, and knock their heads together so hard you can hear the crack of bone on bone.

In Primorye, the seasons collide with equal intensity: winter can bring blizzards and paralyzing cold, and summer will retaliate with typhoons and monsoon rains; three quarters of the region’s rainfall occurs during the summer. This tendency toward extremes allows for unlikely juxtapositions and may explain why there is no satisfactory name for the region’s peculiar ecosystem—one that happens to coincide with the northern limit of the tiger’s pan-hemispheric range. It could be argued that this region is not a region at all but a crossroads: many of the aboriginal technologies that are now considered quintessentially North American—tipis, totem poles, bows and arrows, birch bark canoes, dog sleds, and kayak-style paddles—all passed through here first.

Primorye is also the meeting place of four distinct bioregions. Like their far-flung human counterparts, plants and animals from the Siberian taiga, the steppes of Mongolia, the subtropics of Korea and Manchuria, and from the boreal forests of the far north have all converged here, pushing the limits of their respective growing zones between coastline, alpine, floodplain, and forest. As a result, attempts by botanists to classify the region have produced marble-mouthed results: “Manchurian and Sakhalin-Hokkaido Provinces of the Eastern Asiatic Region” is one; “Transbaikalian Province of the Circumboreal Region” is another.5

Here is an alternative suggestion: the Boreal Jungle.

It sounds like an oxymoron, but it acknowledges the blended nature of this remote and slender threshold realm in which creatures of the subarctic have been overlapping with those of the subtropics since before the last Ice Age. There is strong evidence suggesting that this region was a refugium, one of several areas around the Pacific Rim that remained ice-free during the last glaciation, and this may help explain the presence of an ecosystem that exists nowhere else. Here, timber wolves and reindeer share terrain with spoonbills and poisonous snakes, and twenty-five-pound Eurasian vultures will compete for carrion with saber-beaked jungle crows. Birch, spruce, oak, and fir can grow in the same valley as wild kiwis, giant lotus, and sixty-foot lilacs, while pine trees bearing edible nuts may be hung with wild grapes and magnolia vines. These, in turn, feed and shelter herds of wild boar and families of musk deer whose four-inch fangs give them the appearance of evolutionary outtakes. Nowhere else can a wolverine, brown bear, or moose drink from the same river as a leopard, in a watershed that also hosts cork trees, bamboo, and solitary yews that predate the Orthodox Church. In the midst of this, Himalayan black bears build haphazard platforms in wild cherry trees that seem too fragile for the task, opium poppies nod in the sun, and ginseng keeps its secret in dappled shade.

This region, which feels so like an island, could almost be described as one because it is nearly separated from the rest of Asia by two major rivers—the Ussuri and the Amur—and Lake Khanka, the largest lake in the Far East. The Amur, for which the local tigers are named, is northeast Asia’s mother river; the Chinese call it Heilongjiang: the Black Dragon. Rising from two different sources in Mongolia, it flows for nearly three thousand miles before terminating in the Tartar Strait opposite Sakhalin Island. It is the third longest river in Asia, and the longest undammed river in the world. An ecosystem unto itself, it nurtures scores of bird species and more than 130 kinds of fish. Here, sturgeon—some the size of alligators—work the river bottom along with pearl-bearing freshwater oysters, and taimen, an enormous relative of the salmon that was once hunted with harpoons from birch bark canoes.

Primorye’s bizarre assemblage of flora and fauna leaves one with the impression that Noah’s ark had only recently made landfall, and that, rather than dispersing to their proper places around the globe, many of its passengers had simply decided to stay, including some we never knew existed. Within this waterbound envelope live unclassifiable species like the raccoon dog, as well as a bizarre tropical canid called a dhole that hunts in packs, and has been reputed to attack humans and tigers, along with more traditional prey. Here, too, can be found red-legged ibis, paradise flycatchers, and parrotlike reed sutoras, along with five species of eagle, nine species of bat, and more than forty kinds of fern. In the spring, improbable moths and butterflies like the Artemis Emperor, the Exclusive Underwing, and the as-yet unstudied Pseudopsychic hatch out to spangle and iridesce by the roadsides. In the dead of winter, giant ladybugs with reverse color schemes cruise the walls of village kitchens like animated wallpaper. This Boreal Jungle (for lack of a better term) is unique on earth, and it nurtures the greatest biodiversity of any place in Russia, the largest country in the world. It is over this surreal menagerie that the Amur tiger reigns supreme.

Of the six surviving subspecies of tiger, the Amur is the only one habituated to arctic conditions. In addition to having a larger skull than other subspecies, it carries more fat and a heavier coat, and these give it a rugged, primitive burliness that is missing from its sleeker tropical cousins. The thickly maned head can be as broad as a man’s chest and shoulders, and winter paw prints are described using hats and pot lids for comparison. 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.”6 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.

To properly appreciate such an animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons on a velociraptor. Now, imagine the vehicle for all of this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder. Finally, emblazon this beast with a primordial calligraphy: black brushstrokes on a field of russet and cream, and wonder at our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature. (The tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin.) Able to swim for miles and kill an animal many times its size, the tiger also possesses the brute strength to drag an awkward, thousand-pound carcass through the forest for fifty or a hundred yards before consuming it.

A tiger may greet a mate or a cub with a gentle nuzzle, but it meets its prey paws-first. The tiger’s forepaws differ from the hind ones in that they are larger with five claws arranged in an almost handlike spread. By contrast, the hind paws have only four claws. In addition to walking, running, and climbing, the forepaws can serve as twin maces, enabling a tiger to club its prey to death. And yet, they are also gentle and dextrous enough to catch a fly in the fold of a pad and release it, unharmed. Tigers tend to attack from the rear or the side, giving them the advantage of surprise, but they fight head-on, often rearing up on their hind legs. In this stance, with ears laid flat against a bull-necked head, a fighting tiger bears a startling resemblance to a fighting man, specifically a heavyweight boxer. Surprisingly delicate hind legs give way to slender hips and waist, which then swell dramatically into a deep chest hung with massively proportioned “arms” that flex much as ours do as they jab and parry.

Unlike wolf or bear claws, which are designed primarily for traction and digging, a cat’s claw is needle-sharp at the end, and bladed along a portion of its inside length. With the exception of a snake’s fang, it is about as close to a surgical tool as one can find in nature. When extended, the claws of the forepaw become slashing blades with the result that the victim is not so much sliced as flayed. But this is almost incidental to the forepaws’ most important purpose, which is to plant a pair of virtually unshakable anchors in an animal’s flesh. Once the forepaws are fully engaged, a tiger can literally ride its prey into the ground.

In the final nanoseconds of an airborne attack, a tiger’s tail will become rigid, balancing and stabilizing the hindquarters almost like the tail fin on an airplane. Meanwhile, the tiger’s forepaws, combined with its fangs, form a huge three-point grappling device, as if, for a moment, the claws had become extensions of the jaws. Working together in this way, they can cover an area of a square yard or more to manifest a gathering and gripping capability comparable to the mouth of a much larger creature—something more on the order of a saltwater crocodile or an allosaurus. The interplay of paws and jaws shifts according to the task at hand, and one way to envision their fluid and complementary roles is as a basketball team: the jaws are the center—the big star around which the action revolves; the forepaws are, of course, the forwards, driving and rebounding in the midst of the fray, while the smaller hind paws, which set up and then assist on the periphery of the attack, are the guards. The hind legs provide the power for the attack leap, or drive, but, once launched, they become levers and stabilizers, supporting the larger players. Once the prey is down, these same assault weapons can become the most delicate scalpels and clamps, able to disembowel an animal, organ by organ.

BOOK: The Tiger
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