The Tiger’s Revenge
Posted By MJ On September 22, 2010 @ 12:36 pm In Cover Stories,Features
Note: This article was adapted from John Vaillant’s new book, The Tiger, published in August by Knopp.
Yuri Trush has never seen a fellow human so thoroughly and gruesomely annihilated. It looks at first like a heap of laundry until one sees the boots, luminous stubs of broken bone protruding from the tops, the tattered shirt with an arm still fitted to one of the sleeves. Here, amid the twigs and leaf litter in the deep Russian forest, not far from his small cabin, is all that remains of Vladimir Ilyich Markov.
Trush is holding a video camera, and even as he films, his mind flees to the edges of the scene, taking refuge in peripheral details. He is struck by the poverty of this man — that he would be wearing thin rubber boots in such bitter weather. He contemplates the man’s cartridge belt — loaded but for three shells — and wonders where the gun had gone.
The previous afternoon, December 5, 1997, Trush had received a disturbing call: A man had been attacked and killed by a tiger, deep in Russia’s Primorye Territory. Trush headed a wildlife-investigation unit known as Inspection Tiger, which had been set up with funding (and pressure) from international conservation organizations to combat poaching of the endangered Siberian, or Amur, tiger, which lives in the forests of Russia’s Far East. Armed with cameras and broad police powers, Trush and his team dealt with a steadily increasing number of conflicts between tigers and human beings. Often, the tigers lost. Not this time.
The next morning, Trush and his men set out for Markov’s cabin in Kungs, Soviet-era military trucks similar to our Humvees. Markov was a resident of the nearby village of Sobolonye, and a man best known for keeping bees. Markov’s cabin lay at the center of a tangled skein of tracks in the snow, but two tracks in particular caught Trush’s attention. One set, human, traveled northward up the entrance road at a walking pace; the other, the huge paw prints of an Amur tiger, traveled south from the cabin in great bounding leaps. They approached each other directly, as if the meeting had been intentional — like an appointment of some kind. At the point where they met, the northbound tracks disappeared, as if the person who made them had simply ceased to exist.
The camera’s unblinking eye records the scene in excruciating detail: the rough cabin and the scrubby clearing in which it stands; the attacker’s path and the point of impact. Then it follows the long trail of horrific evidence — the pink and trampled snow, the severed hind foot of a dog, a single glove, and then a bloodstained jacket cuff — before halting at a patch of bare ground about a hundred yards into the forest. At this point the audio picks up a sudden, retching gasp. It is as if Trush has entered Grendel’s den.
The temperature is 30 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. Carrion crows flock in the trees overhead, and their raucous kvetching tells Trush that whatever murdered this man is still around; the kill is being guarded.
Trush’s hunting dog, a little Laika, is further down the trail, growing increasingly shrill and agitated. Her nose is tingling with blood scent and tiger musk, and she alone feels free to express her deepest fear — the tiger is there, somewhere up ahead. 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, something bigger and deeper. This is not a human sound. At the same moment, the tip of a low fir branch spontaneously sheds its load of snow. The flakes powder down to the forest floor; the men freeze in midbreath, and, once again, all is still.
If Russia is what we think it is, then tigers should not be possible there. After all, the nearest jungle is 2,000 miles away. The Siberian tiger is known locally — and formally — as the Amur tiger, and it lives, in fact, beyond Siberia. Once considered part of Outer Manchuria, Primorye is Russia’s southeasternmost territory: as densely forested as any jungle, a wilderness of rugged mountains and old-growth taiga. 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. Its capital, Vladivostok, is closer to Beijing than to Moscow.
Of the six surviving subspecies of tiger, the Amur is the only one habituated to arctic conditions, with a burlier build and much heavier coat than its sleek tropical cousins. 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. They are extraordinarily versatile, able to survive in temperatures ranging from 50 below zero to 100 above, and to turn virtually any environment to their advantage. Though typically forest dwellers, Amur tigers may hunt on the beaches as well, using sea fog as cover for stalking game. One young male was observed subsisting exclusively on harbor seals, going so far as to stack the carcasses like logs for future use.
One of the many negative effects of perestroika and the reopening of the border between Russia and China has been a surge in tiger poaching. Between 1992 and 1994 alone, approximately 100 tigers — roughly a quarter of Russia’s wild population — were killed. Most ended up in China, where their organs, blood, and bone are much sought after for use in traditional medicine. Some believe the tiger’s whiskers will make them bulletproof and that its powdered bones will soothe their aches and pains. Others believe its penis will make them virile, and there are many — from Tokyo to Moscow — who will pay thousands of dollars for a tiger’s skin. A whole carcass can bring up to $30,000, a fortune in a region where jobs are scarce to nonexistent.
While tigers were being stolen from the forests, the forests were also being stolen from the tigers. The combination of a desperate need for hard currency, lax forestry regulations, and vast markets just across the border in China set loose a monster in the taiga that is wreaking havoc to this day. In the Russian Far East, legal and black-market logging (along with every shade in between) continue to jeopardize the habitat of tigers, humans, and the wild game that supports them both.
In many ways, Inspection Tiger’s mandate resembles that of detectives on a narcotics detail, and so does the risk: The money is big, and the players are often ruthless individuals who tend to be well armed. In Primorye, life is cheap for man and animal alike, and corruption is widespread at every level of government. Over the years, Trush has made busts involving powerful executives, high-ranking police officers, and members of parliament, all of whom can be dangerous enemies for a person to have.
Trush, however, is well suited to this work because he can be dangerous too. He stands about 6-foot-2, with a broad chest. His eyes are colored, coincidentally, like the semiprecious tiger’s eye, with black rings around the irises. They peer out from a frank and homely face framed by great, drooping brows. Though frail and sickly as a boy, Trush grew into a talented athlete with a commanding presence and a well-developed expertise in karate, aikido, and knife handling. Referring to a former colleague who went bad and whom he tried for years to catch, Trush told me, “He knows very well that I am capable of beheading him with my bare hands.”
But this latest adversary would prove deadlier than any poacher.
Trush had met Vladimir Markov once before he died. A year and a half earlier, in the summer of 1996, Trush and a colleague had been on a routine patrol when they found a dead badger cooling in a metal pot in a nearby creek. Markov was at home, and Trush confronted him. Visibly nervous, he gave a lame story about how the badger had gotten into the pot. Killed by dogs, he’d said. Trush drew his knife and sliced open one of the badger’s wounds, pulling out a shotgun pellet. Markov had no choice but to own up.
In some respects, Markov was no different from most of the other tayozhniks, or forest dwellers, that Trush and his men encountered on their rounds: the same shabby dwelling, seemingly inadequate for Primorye’s brutal winters; the same hand-to-mouth existence, much of it based on hunting that was, technically, against Russian law. There was, however, one detail that struck Trush as out of character for the average poacher; it was the way Markov handled a cigarette — “Very suave and stylish,” said Trush. “Very chic.” It was an odd conceit, but it was in keeping with his nickname, Markiz — the Russian equivalent of “Duke.”
Born in 1951 in Kaliningrad — on the opposite end of Russia — Vladimir Markov had been sent to the Far East as an 18-year-old draftee in 1969, when things were getting fractious on the Russia-China border. After his army service, he stayed on. By the early 1980s, he had ended up in the small logging community of Sobolonye, which had been carved out of the forest a few years earlier by a state-owned logging company that was set up to cut the old-growth poplar, oak, and pine throughout the Bikin River valley.
Sobolonye is the last settlement at the end of a road that, when not buried in snow, can go from choking dust to sucking mud in the space of an hour. The place has the feel of a Wild West mining town circa 1905, only with fewer straight lines. There are no sidewalks or paved streets, and there is no plumbing; the log houses, built on terraces above the Bikin River, are heated with wood, and water is drawn from common wells. Telephones of any kind are a rarity. Electricity is provided by a diesel generator on the edge of town. Where the village ends the taiga begins, stretching away for miles in all directions.
For a certain kind of person, Sobolonye offered a life that was hard to improve on: decent housing, predictable employment, ready access to a river full of fish, and, for those who knew what to look for, a forest rich with nuts, berries, mushrooms, medicinal roots, and wild game. In the summer, you could even grow watermelons. The logging company was as generous as the forest, providing a school, clinic, library, general store, recreation center, and even a hairdresser.
Markov met his wife, Tamara Borisova, when they both worked for the logging company. She was divorced, like him, and they had a son together in 1982, raising the number of children under their roof to four. Markov supplemented his income by hunting and trapping sable, and when he was off in the taiga, she worried; more than once he came home to report that he had seen tiger tracks. “I would say, ‘You have to be more careful out there,’ ” Borisova recalled in her kitchen, “and he would say, ‘Why should I be afraid of her? She should be afraid of me!’ ”
After perestroika, state-owned enterprises collapsed and shriveled one after another, including the company that was Sobolonye’s sole reason for being. By 1994 the operation had pulled out altogether. At that point, Markov was in his early 40s; he had spent more than half his adult life in Sobolonye, and he had made some good friends there. Because of this, and because the forest offered him and his neighbors a measure of security that nothing else in Russia could match, he and Tamara decided to stay, along with about 250 others. What emerged was a kind of feral community, left largely to its own devices — a foretaste of a postindustrial world.
By 1997 the village of Sobolonye, then only 25 years old, was falling into ruin. Though still inhabited, it had the feel of a ghost town, a place where the boom had busted and the life had drained out. Meanwhile, the supply chain providing most basic goods had broken down so completely that remote villages like Sobolonye were turned into virtual islands. More and more, residents’ needs were met by the forest, which they called Mother Taiga.
Markov and a friend ran a honey operation consisting of about 40 hives. Apparently, he had a gift. “He liked bees,” recalled his son, Alexei, who shares his father’s stature, eyes, and cheekbones, “and they liked him. He would go to the hives without his shirt. He wasn’t afraid.”
In addition to tending his hives, Markov started poaching game in earnest. His guns, of course, were unregistered, his bullets homemade. When he managed to bag a deer or a boar, he would often barter the meat for essentials like sugar, tobacco, gunpowder, and tea. But as he approached 50, this subsistence living was taking its toll. Yuri Trush recalled that when he encountered him the previous year, he was struck by Markov’s badly bloodshot, yellow-tinged eyes. Trush couldn’t tell if this was the result of a recent drinking binge or something more serious, but Markov had other problems as well: A bad fall on his hunting skis had left him with a permanent limp, unable to cover the ground or carry the weight he once could. Something had to change, but without money there was no way to leverage himself out of his situation.
Well, there was one way. There are a lot of people in Primorye who wonder how they might get a piece of the glamorous new Russia that they see on their TV screens nightly. Some of them believe the answer lies in making what, in urban terms, might be called a big score. In the forest, there is really only one thing that qualifies, and that is a tiger. For someone as broke and isolated as Markov, even a fraction of the value of a tiger would represent a spectacular payoff, but it was a payoff that would come with a unique set of complications and liabilities — kind of like selling a briefcase full of stolen cocaine.
As Trush and his two colleagues backtracked from Markov’s remains toward his cabin, they found evidence of the animal’s method that, in some ways, was more unnerving than what they had just seen. The tiger had clearly been on the premises for a while, perhaps days — long enough to defecate at least twice, both times within a few feet of the cabin, as if staking a claim. The heavy aluminum water dipper Markov used for drinking had been chewed so savagely that it was unrecognizable. His latrine, his ax, his beehives — everything that might have his scent on it — had been thoroughly explored, and much of it destroyed. His washstand had been knocked off the cabin’s outer wall, and there was a swipe of tiger blood by the door. Tiger tracks were everywhere, circling the cabin, interrupted only by packed depressions in the snow where the animal had stopped to wait and watch before circling yet again.
Seen together, all these signs implied an alarming confidence and clarity of purpose. As Trush and his team pieced the evidence together, they came to understand that this tiger was not hunting for animals, or even for humans; he was hunting for Markov.
In human terms, a typical tiger attack is a third-degree murder, a spur-of-the-moment defensive reaction in which death is incidental rather than intended. By contrast, the attack on Markov resembled something closer to first-degree murder: premeditated, with malice aforethought and a clear intent to kill. Even so, at this early stage of the investigation, neither Trush nor anyone else yet grasped the threat this tiger posed to the general public.
For three days, Trush and his team patrolled the area, making inquiries and mining established local informants, and the rumors they were hearing about Markov’s activities had the ring of truth. They also had a common theme — that, prior to the attack, Markov had been having trouble with a tiger. Something had happened, and it wouldn’t leave him alone.
It was believed by some who knew him well that Markov had killed a tiger cub recently. “You cannot hide things in the taiga,” an acquaintance of his explained. “The police might not find out about it, but we always do.”
True or not, it formed a tidy narrative: Markov, a known poacher, blatantly hunting tigers in violation of federal law, kills a cub and is himself killed by the wounded and vengeful mother. Case closed. It was this version of events that inspired headlines (tigress avenges dead offspring) and raised Trush’s hopes for a peaceful resolution in which the tigress would simply disappear into the forest.
The avenging-tigress theory gained traction when a tiger trap was discovered a quarter-mile east of Markov’s cabin. Whoever built it had known exactly what he was doing. It consisted of a sturdy wooden corral six feet high, four feet wide, and 20 feet long. At the closed end was a stake with a chain, and this was for the bait: a live dog. In the taiga, such a contraption has only one conceivable purpose, and its discovery confirmed for Trush that Markov had made the jump from subsistence poaching to the big leagues of black-market tiger hunting.
The only problem with this theory was that, judging from the enormous size of its tracks, the tiger that killed Markov was pretty clearly a male. So the tiger’s problem with Markov must have stemmed from something else. But what?
Other clues emerged in the following days. Markov had been a regular at a road-workers camp a few miles from his cabin, as well as a nearby logging base. When Markov bagged something big, he would pack a haunch down the trail to barter for supplies he needed: cooking oil, rice, potatoes, and cigarettes, perhaps a little vodka. According to the watchmen at the road camp, Markov had come by earlier in the month with some boar meat. Trush had a strong suspicion that Markov had robbed it from a tiger kill. When it comes to a fresh kill, there is, in the taiga, a spirit of give and take, but only up to a point, and that point depends on who is doing the killing. Male tigers are particularly possessive — even vindictive — when it comes to trespasses on their mates and food. And this may have been Markov’s fatal mistake: He stole meat from the wrong tiger.
A day after Markov was killed, the tiger showed up at the road-workers camp, and the two guards there watched from inside their cabin as he paced around the latrine. A latrine is a veritable bulletin board of scents for a tiger, but there may well have been two scents in particular that leaped out from the others: those of Markov and boar meat. Specifically, meat from the tiger’s last wild kill. Whatever was in there was rank and ruined, but the tiger considered it his, and he tore that outhouse down to get at it, board by shrieking board.
Born shortly after the fall of communism, the tiger that killed Vladimir Markov was roughly six years old — just entering his prime mating years — and wherever he chose to live, he would likely be the dominant male. After a good feed, he could weigh close to 500 pounds, and yet he had the explosive power to make a standing leap over a 10-foot fence or across a residential street. Able to launch himself in total silence, before his prey could sense his presence, he was a force of nature that could manifest as powerfully and invisibly as the wind.
Markov’s tiger had a big nose, a clear indicator (among several) of his fully developed masculinity and natural inclination toward dominance. A tiger’s nose is one of the few places where battle scars will show, and this one’s was crisscrossed with them. He bore other wounds as well, and these would come to light in time. As young as he was, he was already a veteran, perfectly poised to be the czar of his domain for years to come.
His chief weapons were his stealth, his speed, and his enormous paws, strong enough to knock prey unconscious with a single swipe. A tiger’s jaws can exert roughly a thousand pounds of pressure per square inch, but as menacing as they appear, tiger fangs are actually delicate instruments — literally, bundles of nerves and blood vessels encased in layers of bonelike dentin, sheathed in enamel and somewhat rounded at the ends.
With these four surgical sensors, the tiger has the ability to feel its way through its prey, differentiating between bone and tissue types to find the gap between two vertebrae in order to sever the spinal cord, or locate the windpipe in order to stifle the air supply — deciphering the Braille of an animal’s anatomy at attack speed. As removed as we are from the wild, our own teeth possess the same sensitivity, and we rely on it daily, whether we are gnawing a T-bone or love-biting a nipple.
Unlike the wolf or the lion, the tiger is a solo stealth hunter and thus has a far more challenging task. Possessing neither the endurance to run down its prey nor the numbers to surround and harry it, the tiger must instead play the role of lone assassin. Complicating matters is the fact that his prey generally travels in herds, their senses acutely attuned to intruders and disturbances.
Thus the tiger must embody a contradiction: This large, pungent, extraordinarily charismatic animal must achieve a state of virtual nonexistence. Witnesses agree that there is something almost metaphysical about the tiger’s ability to will itself into nonbeing — to, in effect, cloak itself in invisibility. In the Bikin valley, it is generally believed that if a tiger has decided to attack you, you will not be able to see it.
A little more than a week after Markov’s demise, a 20-year-old Sobolonye man named Andrei Pochepnya arrived at his family’s apiary on the bank of the Takhalo River, a tributary of the Bikin, and before heading out to check his traps, he made a fire and had some tea and bread. Pochepnya believed himself to be alone there, but he wasn’t. The tiger, though he was more than a mile away, sensed the young man’s presence. It is impossible to know whether it was the slam of the cabin door, the smoke from the fire, or some other cue that caused the tiger to pause in his tracks there, near the foot of the Takhalo, but something did. Whatever it was made the tiger change direction, and he stalked this new information with a single-minded intensity that would have been chilling to behold.
The tiger had eaten Markov over a three-day period, but that had been days ago, and, once again, the animal was ravenous. This would not have been quite so serious had it been a different season, but the temperature was ranging from 25 to 45 below zero. The amount of meat required to keep something the size of a tiger as much as 150 degrees hotter than the world around it is prodigious — on the order of 40 pounds per day. Between his injuries, the brutal cold, and the hunger gnawing in his gut, the tiger was being pressured from all sides. Winter was only just getting started in the taiga, and without a significant kill, the tiger’s thermal clock was in grave danger of running down. He could freeze to death before he starved.
As he moved down the valley toward Sobolonye, every step was painful. In the tiger’s left forepaw was a deep, fresh laceration through the pad — possibly sustained when the tiger destroyed the outhouse. Far worse, though, was the wound to his other leg. A small handful of pea-size buckshot had raked his right paw and foreleg, separating it at the cubital joint (the equivalent of our elbow). Trush believed that Markov had shot the tiger at close range from inside his cabin — at some point prior to the night when he was killed. A factory-load shot from that distance would have shattered the tiger’s leg and crippled him fatally, but Markov’s homemade shell, possibly compromised by condensation, had succeeded only in making the tiger extraordinarily dangerous to humans.
The damage to the joint was hindering the tiger’s ability to hunt. Over and over again, he caught fresh scent, stalked game, and set up ambushes that, a week earlier, would have produced life-sustaining results. Now, the boar and deer were getting away. The tiger’s speed, agility, and jumping distance were off — not by much, but margins in the taiga are tight to begin with: With a missed kill, an inch might as well be a mile. It was slowly dawning on the tiger that his only viable prey was human beings. In a sense, Markov had succeeded in bringing the animal down to his level, forcing it to violate its own rules: Now the tiger had become a poacher too.
Following the Takhalo River now, the tiger made its way toward a crude shelter constructed of branches and covered in tar paper that belonged to a local hunter. He broke in, found a mattress, and hauled it 50 yards across the frozen river. There, on the opposite bank, he spread the mattress out under a spruce tree, lay down on it in plain view, and waited.
When Pochepnya came along, as the tiger somehow knew he eventually would, it would have been around two in the afternoon. Hunters are vigilant of necessity, and a 400-pound tiger sitting sphinxlike on a mattress is hard to miss. But Pochepnya was evidently not aware of the tiger until it launched itself off its bed from 10 yards away.
When news of Pochepnya’s death reached Yuri Trush in Luchegorsk, on the afternoon of the 15th, it upset him deeply. Even now, when he recalls it, he must work fiercely to master his emotions. In Trush’s eyes, Andrei Pochepnya was an “innocent,” the same age as his own son. He had no quarrel with this creature.
Trush couldn’t help revisiting that pivotal moment back at Markov’s cabin: The tiger had been so close, yet he had decided to pull back, call off the search. Now he had the thankless task of being the go-between for Inspection Tiger and the traumatized citizenry of Sobolonye. Complicating matters was the fact that Trush and his men had cited so many locals for poaching and possession of illegal firearms.
Once again, the villagers gathered for a burial service, first building a fire in the graveyard to thaw the frozen ground. The survivors were clinging to symbol and gesture now because there was little else except for anger and blame. Both landed squarely on the shoulders of Yuri Trush and Inspection Tiger. “They should have shot the tiger right away!” a good friend of Markov’s spat, still angry nearly a decade later.
As if on cue, a newspaper article appeared with the headline tiger eats while ‘tigers’ drink, and it wouldn’t be the last. Word was getting around. The situation was no longer simply a safety issue: Inspection Tiger’s credibility was at stake, and so was Trush’s reputation. This tiger was going to die, even if killing it was Trush’s final act.
The hunt began on the Takhalo River near the spot where Andrei Pochepnya had been killed. It was another brilliant, bitter day, and the hunting party that took charge of it was formidable. Six men descended the riverbank at Pochepnya’s apiary and headed downstream on the ice, every one of them armed. Along with Trush and his colleague, Sasha Lazurenko, were three local hunting inspectors who had been brought in to assist, and the Belarusian sheriff of Krasny Yar, the town nearest to Sobolonye.
Everyone on the team was a lifelong hunter, and this was a good day for hunting; spirits were high. They all shared a deep affinity for the taiga, and there was a certain bracing joy — like that of sled dogs being put into harness — in being presented with a task that was not just worthy of their mettle but bound to test it. Seeing that Trush was filming, they razzed one another: “Aw, fuck,” said one. “It’s too bad I didn’t put my gold epaulets on.”
Of all of them, it was Yuri Trush, alone behind the camera, who bore the day’s burden most heavily — not just because he was the mission’s now embattled leader, but because, with the exception of Lazurenko, he was the only one present who truly, viscerally grasped what a tiger could do to a human being. The rest would understand soon enough, and, when they got to the site, the collective mood sobered quickly.
They all knew how to decipher winter sign — how, as Russian hunters say, to “read the White Book.” And there was no mistaking the implications of the pale and hairless scat that lay on the ice like a warning at midstream. Nor was there any confusion about the limping tracks: This was the same tiger that had killed Markov. These tracks were now a few days old, the snow grown hard around the edges, but the wreckage remained.
Stepping carefully, speaking only in soft tones, they followed the tiger’s tracks, past the fallen gun, to Pochepnya’s scant remains. It looked like the work of paramedics at an accident scene: There was virtually nothing left; even the boots were empty. “The tiger took all the clothing off the individual,” murmured Trush into the video camera. “The tiger undressed him quite well.”
The hunters split into two teams and piled into the Kungs, equipped with bunks and even a small woodstove. One team would follow the tiger’s tracks on foot, while the other would patrol the network of logging roads in the truck, looking for sign. The tiger was headed in the general direction of Sobolonye, but the steep, rocky terrain — ideal for the tiger — made for slow going for the hunters. For four days after they discovered Pochepnya, Trush and his team found nothing but days-old tracks.
Until two weeks earlier, human settlements would have been places for the tiger to avoid. Now, despite a lifetime of training and instinct, the tiger was actively seeking them out. The barking dogs and engine noise and woodsmoke scent drew him toward the village. On December 20, Trush found fresh sign — right outside Sobolonye. Trush was desperate to intercept the tiger before he killed again. This is what he had been fearing all along. Somehow, he had to head the tiger off. But instead it was the tiger that changed course, perhaps thinking it wiser to avoid the village, with all its alert men and their guns. He had had good luck at isolated hunters’ cabins — with two kills, so far — so he made a beeline for another one of those instead.
Hours later, in the early dark of December 21, the tiger halted at an outlying cabin belonging to a man named Grisha Tsibenko. He scouted the place for dogs, a meat cache, the owner. Failing to find any of these, he started knocking things off the cabin’s outer walls. When he got to a set of large bowls, he chewed them to scrap metal, just as he had at Markov’s, but this time he took things a step further: Once the possibilities of the cabin’s exterior had been exhausted, the tiger located a window and forced his way in.
Much to the tiger’s irritation, no one was home. In the course of searching for something — anything — made of meat, the tiger destroyed the place. When he got around to the mattress, which smelled richly of Tsibenko, his habits and afflictions, the tiger tore it apart.
Then he lay down to wait.
The first thing that strikes one about the Siberian, or Amur, tiger is its sheer, overwhelming mass. This is a seriously burly animal that can weigh more than a quarter-ton, measuring more than 10 feet nose to tail. (Imagine a grand piano, with teeth.)
Long isolated from its feline relatives, Panthera tigris altaica is a unique subspecies of the familiar orange-and-black-striped cat, perfectly adapted to the snowy mountain forests where it resides.
In order to survive the arctic conditions of a Russian winter, where temperatures can drop to 50 below, Amur tigers are insulated with thick, dense fur.
In snow, their paw prints are as big as hats and pot lids. Amur tigers also have the largest skulls of any tiger subspecies, with fangs as long as your finger and teeth that can shatter cow bone.
In spite of its size and weight, an Amur tiger can leap over a basketball hoop or spring across a residential street in a single bound, and it can drag a dead moose for 50 yards through thick forest.
In the Amur tiger’s world, wolves are snacks, and its only rivals, other than human poachers, are Russian brown bears, which are similar to grizzlies and themselves stand 10 feet tall. Tigers often kill and eat bears, but the bears win about half the time. Amur tigers are not particularly fast animals — though they’re a lot faster than you. Their key to success, as the Far East’s ultimate predator, is stealth. Big as they are, they can disappear themselves with a totality that can be described only as spectral.
Its fangs and body size so impressed early-20th-century biologists that some believed this animal to be a separate species altogether, a “cave tiger” that had somehow survived the mass extinctions that took out the cave bear and woolly mammoth.
Save the Tigers
Unfortunately, the Amur tiger is severely threatened and is at risk of disappearing altogether. The tiger’s range is a shadow of what it once was. Until a century ago, it was found from Korea and northeast China into Russia as far west as Lake Baikal. Today, poaching and habitat loss due to logging have reduced this tiger’s domain to the rugged, mountainous coast of southeastern Russia, an area only slightly larger than Washington State. According to best estimates, about 450 Amur tigers survive in the wild, with at least 30 lost to poachers each year.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Men’s Journal
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