The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival - By John Vaillant
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.
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