People don’t live in Sobolonye; they survive. Sobolonye, a former logging town in Russia’s far east, lies in a freakishly alien environment. In the diverse taiga forest, daytime temperatures drop to 40 degrees below zero in winter. Hardened locals eke out humble existences hunting forest animals, and collecting pine cones to sell to China. Here, humans have lived alongside endangered Amur tigers for generations, with a mutual respect maintaining a relative truce.
In 1997, this truce was broken, and one tiger became a dangerous “man-eater”.
Perestroika, and the subsequent opening of the border between China and Russia, was bad news for the Amur tigers: many were poached and sold to Chinese buyers. The profit to be made illegally hunting tigers was tempting – but it was a dangerous undertaking.
Vladimir Markov, a bee-keeper turned tiger poacher, met a grisly end when the tiger he was hunting sought revenge. All that remained after an apparently pre-meditated attack were Markov’s boots.
At the hub of this brilliant account, the leader of a Russian tiger conservation unit, Yuri Trush, leads a hunt to track down the desperate tiger. However, there is much more to this story, from the impact of perestroika on poor, regional Russians to the brutality of a Siberian winter itself, and the hardness of those who must survive it.
Vaillant has achieved a difficult goal, maintaining compassion and sympathy for all involved: poachers, villagers, law enforcement, and the tiger itself. This is a lyrical, gripping, lovely read.
Reviewed September 2010