Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Tiger

What persuades a tiger to become a man eater? This is the core question animating John Valliant's 'The Tiger' that tells of a hunt for a man eating tiger in the far east of Russia in the 1990s. The tiger in question was to kill two men and narrowly miss two others in what can only be described as a systematic and thoughtful campaign, beginning with the hunter, Markov, who, on the evidence painstakingly compiled by Valliant, had injured the tiger (in hunting it), an injury from a human co-inhabitant of the forest, that was straw that broke the tiger's tacit arrangement of avoiding men. He took up vengeance.

You might think that this is to 'anthropomorphise' the tiger but as Valliant compellingly shows theory of mind is not only applicable to our species. We genuinely have difficulty thinking about thinking when it is not bound with language but it is apparent that other animals have no such difficulty. Intelligence is not the preserve of the human - nor the ability to anticipate, plan and execute that it enables.

The tiger is necessarily killed for once it has taken up an offensive, as opposed to a defensive position, it will not retreat back to the boundaries of past behaviour: a threshold has been crossed that cannot be returned across.

Valliant ranges wide in painting a portrait of the tiger and its relationship with its ecosystems. A relationship that has included humankind for hundreds of thousands of years.  He paints a vivid picture too of the Primorye - the temperate jungle, taiga - that was this tiger's home and of its indigenous and Russian inhabitants. Most especially vivid of the post-Soviet era of collapse that placed extraordinary pressure on those inhabitants to supplement their bare livings from that taiga and the opening of the Chinese border that enabled a 'real' trade in poached tiger to spring up.

It is on the whole a sad story - of conversation colliding with human need, of people genuinely in love and at home in the taiga forced to extract every last survival opportunity from it.

There are too fascinating cultural differences between the indigenous population who see themselves as one part of a whole, inhabited by other beings, with similar needs and the ethnic Russians who see themselves as 'owners' of a space, where, however much they think of themselves as stewards, ultimately they command.

The book's epilogue ends on warning and a note of qualified optimism. The tigers' survival as a species depends on us, it must become a conscious act; and, with signs, still tentative, that this may be emerging, most noticeably in China whose driving needs give rise to much of the illicit trade in endangered species.

But what remains most vivid are the glimpsing hints of what can only be called the 'non-locality' of mind. Such 'non-locality' is obvious to the indigenous inhabitants - the idea that the tiger can 'cast a spell' over certain people with whom they have come into contact for example. Or that one tiger might 'know' that a person has killed another tiger. There is a very strange incident at the end where the Russian, Trush, who has led the team that killed the man eater is being filmed at a tiger reserve. One of the tigers, reared from birth and wholly unaggressive, on seeing Trush explodes with a never before seen rage and leaps at the fence with such force in his direction that he is thrown backwards (even though he is not touched and the tiger remains within its compound). Coincidence or not?

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