Man and tiger face off in Siberia's boreal forests as an Amur tiger turns man-eater and begins methodically selecting and stalking victims in The Tiger.
The book contains such vivid descriptions that, initially, I (wrongly) assumed you were present at the expeditions tracking the tiger. How did you recreate those scenes?
The men charged with investigating [the tiger's killing of a poacher] treated the case and its evidence forensically, as one would a murder. I wanted readers to feel this tiger as the people in this story did, and all of their extensive video footage, notes, maps, and diagrams, combined with my own interviews and visits to the scenes, allowed for visceral recreations.
You're conspicuously absent as a character in the book—why did you leave yourself out?
It would have been easy to turn this into a first-person reporter's travelogue, and it was tempting because the place is so colorful and remote. But I stifled that impulse early on. This story, in my view, represents an almost mythic drama with many timeless, universal themes, and I didn't want to dilute that in any way.
Your subjects acknowledge that the tiger can easily destroy them, but they insist it is a "protector, a just animal." Does this perspective say more about the tiger or about how Russians tend to look at nature?
That's a wonderful, difficult question, and I think I spent the entire book trying to answer it! Wherever people live closely with tigers, sharing the land as opposed to dominating it, there tends to be this kind of attitude. I think it stems from a combination of the tiger's spooky sentience and potency, and the experience of those who encounter this energy on a regular basis. Finding fresh tiger tracks around your outhouse is a very unsettling experience: you know she's there, but where? If the ecosystem is intact, those tracks are likely all you'll ever see.
This story seems poised on the fault lines of many hot topics—the ravages of the "free" market, climate change, China's resource consumption. Is there cause for optimism?
The short answer is a qualified yes. In Primorye, tigers may be better protected than humans. For three generations, brave individuals have advocated for Amur tigers, and over the course of the 20th century (the most traumatic period in Russian history), Russians restored the collapsing tiger population. Since perestroika, however, the combination of a porous border with China, ineffective laws against poaching, and rapid habitat loss is proving lethal to tigers and the prey on which they depend. In the end, it comes down to money and political will, both of which are in short supply at the moment. Nonetheless, in this Year of the Tiger, I believe Primorye, of all places in Asia, represents the tiger's best chance for a wild, safe, and stable coexistence with humans.