Tag Archives: Tigers

The Tiger: a True Story of Vengeance and Survival

Cats are adorable little serial killers, as The Oatmeal would say. What if the cat in question were about fifty times bigger, and actually did decide to turn its predatory instincts on humans? It does happen, occasionally, that a big cat decides to put soylent green on the menu, and go hunting for long pork.

Cover art of The Tiger

Make a housecat fifty times bigger: the scariest thing you can think of, or the scariest thing possible to think of? Oh, and you’re trapped in the taiga with it. On the other side of Siberia. Good luck with that…

There have been other books about tigers, lions, leopards, and even lots of other non-cats that eat people. We have told stories of predators eating people for as long as stories have been told. Below: mammoth ivory carving of a cave lion, Panthera leo spelea, about 40,000 years old, from Vogelherd Cave. This is literally one of the oldest works known to be from our own species.

mammoth ivory carving of a cave lion's head.

By Rainer Halama (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

With head reattached to the recently-recovered body:

whole cave lion figurine

By Museopedia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By the late 19th Century, the stories people told were different: dangerous big cats were obstacles in the way of progress, and tigers were treated as vermin to be exterminated, prizes to be shot and counted.

a stack of dead tigers after a hunt

You get the idea. A large, relatively slow-breeding animal with a low rate of survival to adulthood and huge energy and space needs can’t make it against this kind of pressure.

As human settlement encroached on tiger territory, and old patterns of human and tiger behavior that kept both insulated changed, tigers came into increasing conflict with people. In this context, professional hunter Jim Corbett wrote the landmark book Man-Eaters of Kumaon, detailing why – in his experience – big cats became predators on humans, and that humanity and Earth would lose a part of their heritage and soul if they were to become extinct. Nature’s reserves were not infinite, and could be hunted to exhaustion.

cover of a new edition of man-eaters of kumaon.

A modern reprint of the classic. To give the book it’s due, it cemented the common wisdom that cats that eat people do so because they can’t catch their usual prey, and our world is richer for having tigers in it. Without this book, maybe all of our nature reserves and parks would be without any large predators in them.

The Tiger by John Vailiant adds to this robust body of literature, and, as it is written in the shadow of Corbett, far from being a straightforward “hunter vs man-eater” tale, touches on the instinct, myth, religion, and folklore of feline predators. Although in the main, this doesn’t go beyond a means to build up the beast into an almost supernatural force of vengeance, and ultimately it feels incomplete, as if in fleshing out this killer tiger tale with these details, there is another, more academic treatment that goes down to the bone marrow waiting to be made into its own book. Overall, while it left me hungry for more, this read is more modern, nuanced, and substantial than the earlier hunter-savior-proto-conservationist genre, epitomized by Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaon.

— Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch