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Authors: John Vaillant

The Tiger

BOOK: The Tiger
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Prologue

HANGING IN THE TREES, AS IF CAUGHT THERE, IS A SICKLE OF A MOON. Its wan light scatters shadows on the snow below, only obscuring further the forest that this man negotiates now as much by feel as by sight. He is on foot and on his own save for a single dog, which runs ahead, eager to be heading home at last. All around, the black trunks of oak, pine, and poplar soar into the dark above the scrub and deadfall, and their branches form a tattered canopy overhead. Slender birches, whiter than the snow, seem to emit a light of their own, but it is like the coat of an animal in winter: cold to the touch and for itself alone. All is quiet in this dormant, frozen world. It is so cold that spit will freeze before it lands; so cold that a tree, brittle as straw and unable to contain its expanding sap, may spontaneously explode. As they progress, man and dog alike leave behind a wake of heat, and the contrails of their breath hang in pale clouds above their tracks. Their scent stays close in the windless dark, but their footfalls carry and so, with every step, they announce themselves to the night.

Despite the bitter cold, the man wears rubber boots better suited to the rain; his clothes, too, are surprisingly light, considering that he has been out all day, searching. His gun has grown heavy on his shoulder, as have his rucksack and cartridge belt. But he knows this route like the back of his hand, and he is almost within sight of his cabin. Now, at last, he can allow himself the possibility of relief. Perhaps he imagines the lantern he will light and the fire he will build; perhaps he imagines the burdens he will soon lay down. The water in the kettle is certainly frozen, but the stove is thinly walled and soon it will glow fiercely against the cold and dark, just as his own body is doing now. Soon enough, there will be hot tea and a cigarette, followed by rice, meat, and more cigarettes. Maybe a shot or two of vodka, if there is any left. He savors this ritual and knows it by rote. Then, as the familiar angles take shape across the clearing, the dog collides with a scent as with a wall and stops short, growling. They are hunting partners and the man understands: someone is there by the cabin. The hackles on the dog’s back and on his own neck rise together.

Together, they hear a rumble in the dark that seems to come from everywhere at once.

PART ONE

MARKOV

1

There are many people who don’t believe this actually happened. They think it’s some phantasm of my imagination. But it was real. There are the facts.YURI ANATOLIEVICH TRUSH

SHORTLY AFTER DARK ON THE AFTERNOON OF DECEMBER 5, 1997, AN urgent message was relayed to a man named Yuri Trush at his home in Luchegorsk, a mid-sized mining town in Primorye Territory in Russia’s Far East, not far from the Chinese border. Primorye (Pri-mor-ya) is, among other things, the last stronghold of the Siberian tiger, and the official on the line had some disturbing news: a man had been attacked near Sobolonye, a small logging community located in the deep forest, sixty miles northeast of Luchegorsk. Yuri Trush was the squad leader of an Inspection Tiger unit, one of six in the territory whose purpose was to investigate forest crimes, specifically those involving tigers. Because poachers were often involved, these included tiger attacks. As a result, this situation—whatever it might entail—was now Trush’s problem and, right away, he began preparing for the trip to Sobolonye.

Early the following morning—Saturday—Yuri Trush, along with his squadmates Alexander Gorborukov and Sasha Lazurenko, piled into a surplus army truck and rumbled north. Dressed in insulated fatigues and camouflage, and armed with knives, pistols, and semiautomatic rifles, the Tigers, as these inspectors are sometimes called, looked less like game wardens than like some kind of wilderness SWAT team. Their twenty-year-old truck was nicknamed a Kung, and it was the Russian army’s four-ton equivalent to the Unimog and the Humvee. Gasoline-powered, with a winch, four-wheel-drive, and wide waist-high tires, it is a popular vehicle in Primorye’s hinterlands. Along with a gun rack and brackets for extra fuel cans, this one had been modified to accommodate makeshift bunks, and was stocked with enough food to last four men a week. It was also equipped with a woodstove so that, even in the face of total mechanical failure, the crew could survive no matter where in the wilderness they happened to be.

After passing through the police checkpoint on the edge of town, the Tigers continued on up to a dirt road turnoff that led eastward along the Bikin (be-keen) River, a large and meandering waterway that flows through some of the most isolated country in northern Primorye. The temperature was well below freezing and the snow was deep, and this slowed the heavy truck’s progress. It also allowed these men, all of whom were experienced hunters and former soldiers, many hours to ponder and discuss what might be awaiting them. It is safe to say that nothing in their experience could have prepared them for what they found there.

Primorye, which is also known as the Maritime Territory, is about the size of Washington state. Tucked into the southeast corner of Russia by the Sea of Japan, it is a thickly forested and mountainous region that combines the backwoods claustrophobia of Appalachia with the frontier roughness of the Yukon. Industry here is of the crudest kind: logging, mining, fishing, and hunting, all of which are complicated by poor wages, corrupt officials, thriving black markets—and some of the world’s largest cats.

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. As the economy disintegrated and unemployment spread throughout the 1990s, professional poachers, businessmen, and ordinary citizens alike began taking advantage of the forest’s wealth in all its forms. The tigers, because they are so rare and so valuable, have been particularly hard hit: their organs, blood, and bone are much sought after for use in traditional Chinese 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.

Between 1992 and 1994, approximately one hundred tigers—roughly one quarter of the country’s wild population—were killed. Most of them ended up in China. With financial assistance (and pressure) from international conservation agencies, the territorial government created Inspection Tiger in the hope of restoring some semblance of law and order to the forests of Primorye. Armed with guns, cameras, and broad police powers, these teams were charged with intercepting poachers and resolving a steadily increasing number of conflicts between tigers and human beings.

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 desperate and dangerous individuals. Tigers are similar to drugs in that they are sold by the gram and the kilo, and their value increases according to the refinement of both product and seller. But there are some key differences: tigers can weigh six hundred pounds; they have been hunting large prey, including humans, for two million years; and they have a memory. For these reasons, tigers can be as dangerous to the people trying to protect them as they are to those who would profit from them.

The territory covered by Yuri Trush’s Inspection Tiger unit in the mid-1990s was centered on the Bikin River. You can drive a truck on the Bikin in winter, but in summer it has a languid bayou feel. For many of the valley’s jobless inhabitants, the laws imposed by the river and the forest are more relevant than those of the local government. While most residents here poach game simply to survive, there are those among them who are in it for the money.

In 1997, Inspection Tiger had been in existence for only three years; given the state of the Russian economy in the 1990s, its members were lucky to have jobs, particularly because they were paid in dollars by foreign conservation groups. Four hundred dollars a month was an enviable wage at that time, but a lot was expected in return. Whether they were doing routine checks of hunters’ documents in the forest, searching suspect cars en route to the Chinese border, or setting up sting operations, most of the people Inspection Tiger dealt with were armed. As often as not, these encounters took place in remote areas where backup was simply not available, and they never knew what they were going to find.

Following perestroika, virtually everything in Russia went on sale, and vast quantities of military ordnance disappeared from local armories. In the course of their raids on the many anonymous hunting cabins that dot the forest here, Trush and his men confiscated plastic explosives, TNT, and 12mm (.50 caliber) machine guns, robbed from armored vehicles. Trush could not imagine what one would do with guns that size in the forest, but the explosives were easier to explain: they were used in creeks to kill fish en masse, or to blow bears out of their dens. The Asian market is less interested in the intact skins or carcasses of bears than it is in their paws and gall bladders; the paws go into soup, and the gall bladders are used for medicinal purposes. In Primorye, in the mid-1990s, life, for man and animal alike, was cheap, and corruption was widespread at every level of government. During these years, Trush made busts involving high-ranking police officers and members of parliament, and these were dangerous enemies for a person to have. Trush, however, was well suited to this work because he can be dangerous, too.

Trush stands about six-foot-two with long arms and legs and a broad chest. His eyes are colored, coincidentally, like the semiprecious stone 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, a deep resonant voice, and an ability to remain composed under highly stressful circumstances. He is also immensely strong. As a young soldier in Kazakhstan, in the 1970s, Trush won a dozen regional kayaking championships for which he earned the Soviet rank Master of Sports, a distinction that meant he was eligible to compete at the national level. It was a serious undertaking: he wasn’t just racing against Bulgarians and East Germans. “I was,” he said, “defending the honor of the Military Forces of the USSR.” In his mid-forties, when he joined Inspection Tiger, Trush won a territory-wide weightlifting competition three years running. This was not the kind of weightlifting one is likely to see in the Olympics; what Trush was doing looks more like a contest devised by bored artillerymen during the Napoleonic Wars. It consists of hefting a kettlebell—essentially a large cannonball with a handle—from the ground over your head as many times as you can, first with one hand, and then the other. Kettlebells are a Russian invention; they have been around for centuries and their use clearly favors the short and the stocky. So it is surprising to see someone as attenuated as Trush, who has the Law of the Lever weighted so heavily against him, heave these seventy-pound spheres around with such apparent ease.

Trush learned to shoot, first, from his father and, later, in the army. He also studied karate, aikido, and knife handling; in these, his rangy build works to his advantage because his long reach makes it nearly impossible to get at him. He is so talented at hand-to-hand fighting that he was hired to teach these skills to the military police. Trush’s physicality is intense and often barely suppressed. He is a grabber, a hugger, and a roughhouser, but the hands initiating—and controlling—these games are thinly disguised weapons. His fists are knuckled mallets, and he can break bricks with them. As he runs through the motions of an immobilizing hold, or lines up an imaginary strike, one has the sense that his body hungers for opportunities to do these things in earnest. Referring to a former colleague who went bad and whom he tried for years to catch red-handed, Trush said, “He knows very well that I am capable of beheading him with my bare hands.” This tension—between the kind and playful neighbor, friend and husband, and the Alpha male wilderness cop ready to throw down at a moment’s notice—energizes almost every interaction. It is under the latter circumstances that Trush seems most alive.

The deeper Trush and his men drove into the forest, the rougher the road became. Once past Verkhny Pereval, their route took them through the snowbound village of Yasenovie, a sister logging community of the same size and vintage as Sobolonye. Here, they picked up a young deputy sheriff named Bush, but his presence on this mission was more formal than practical. Bush was a cop, and tiger attacks were beyond his purview; however, if there was a body, he was required to witness it. With Bush onboard, they trundled on upriver.

It was already afternoon by the time they reached Sobolonye, an impoverished village of unpainted log houses that at first glance seemed barely inhabited. Gorborukov was behind the wheel, and here he steered the truck off the main road, such as it was, and plunged into the forest on a track wide enough for only a single vehicle. Several inches of new snow had fallen earlier in the week and, as they drove, Trush scanned the roadside for fresh tracks. They were about fifty miles from the nearest paved road and a couple of hard-won miles east of Sobolonye when they crossed a wide and improbably located gravel highway. This road had been conceived during Soviet times as an alternative to Primorye’s only existing north—south throughway, which follows the Ussuri River north to Khabarovsk (the same route used by the Trans-Siberian Railway). Despite handling every kind of traffic, including transcontinental freight trucks, the Ussuri road is poorly maintained and only as wide as a residential street; it was also considered vulnerable to Chinese attack. This new highway, though safer, wider, and ruler-straight, was never finished and so it is essentially a highway to nowhere—in the middle of nowhere. The only people who benefit from it now are loggers, poachers, and smugglers—pretty much the only people around who can afford a vehicle. But sometimes tigers use this highway, too.

There is an unintended courtesy in the winter forest that occurs around pathways of any kind. It takes a lot of energy to break a trail through the snow, especially when it’s crusty or deep, so whoever goes first, whether animal, human, or machine, is performing a valuable service for those following behind. Because energy—i.e., food—is at a premium in the winter, labor-saving gifts of this kind are rarely refused. As long as the footpath, logging road, frozen river—or highway—is going more or less in the desired direction, other forest creatures will use it, too, regardless of who made it. In this way, paths have a funneling, riverlike effect on the tributary creatures around them, and they can make for some strange encounters.

BOOK: The Tiger
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