Tigers in the Snow

Tigers in the Snow

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by Peter Matthiessen
     
 

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No more than a few thousand tigers survive in pockets of Asia, a continent they once roamed far and wide. The largest of them, the Siberian tiger, is today almost entirely confined to the little-populated Russian Far East, a region that may offer the species' best hope for survival. But the implosion of the Soviet Union intensified poaching and habitat depredation,… See more details below

Overview

No more than a few thousand tigers survive in pockets of Asia, a continent they once roamed far and wide. The largest of them, the Siberian tiger, is today almost entirely confined to the little-populated Russian Far East, a region that may offer the species' best hope for survival. But the implosion of the Soviet Union intensified poaching and habitat depredation, prompting a group of Russian researchers and U.S. wildlife biologists led by Maurice Hornocker to join forces to stave off extinction.

Peter Matthiessen brings to the Siberian tiger the deep knowledge of and feeling for the natural world that have made classics of his previous books. Accompanying researchers into the field, he allows the reader to participate vicariously in the battle for the tiger's future. Along the way, he tells how the species evolved and evokes its crucial, often totemic role in human cultures and mythologies. He has made of the tiger's dilemma a drama-underscored by Hornocker's one-of-a-kind photographs-that conveys powerfully what a loss to our collective imagination the disappearance of these great cats would be.

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Editorial Reviews

John Anderson
. . . the fate of the tiger . . . a kind of final judgment on whether human beings can actually call themselves civilized. —Newsday
Brian Doyle
. . . powerful account of the world's 3,000 or so remaining wild tigers . . . the whole species' evolution and place in our world. —San Francisco Chronicle
Mark Hertsgaard
Thanks to . . . Matthiessen's stately prose and . . . Hornocker's magnificent photographs, [the tiger] is beautifully and urgently conveyed . . . without . . . sentimentalism or polemic. —The Washington Post
Mark Hertsgaard
"When you see a tiger, it is always like a dream", says biologist Ullas Karanth. Thanks to writer Peter Matthiessen's stately prose and biologist Maurice Hornocker's magnificent photographs, that dream is beautifully and urgently conveyed in Tigers in the Snow, a book that seeks to mobilize readers against the impending extinction of what tiger specialist George Schallers calls "one of the most beautiful and dramatic animals this world has ever known".
The Washington Post Book World
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Are tigers doomed? Between 4,600 to 7,700 remain in the wild, but their numbers are dwindling. Matthiessen's eloquent report on the fate of tigers--chiefly in Siberia but also in Indonesia, India, Thailand and China--explains what conservationists and governments are doing to save the tigers; compact reportage and natural history share space with poetic meditation on the significance and majesty of the big cats. To the graceful prose and attentive descriptions that mark his bestselling nonfiction (The Snow Leopard; In the Spirit of Crazy Horse; etc.) and his fiction (Bone by Bone, etc.), Matthiessen's new work adds a sense of urgency: the result is a marvelously effective brief in favor of tigers. Matthiessen begins and ends by recounting his trips to Russia (in 1992 and 1996) in which he sought the Siberian tiger, the largest and most majestic of surviving tiger subspecies. He spoke to Russian villagers, learned about poachers and antipoaching efforts, and watched the rare beasts roam the taiga, take down elk and give birth. The Sikhote-Alin wildlife reserve, an expanse of forested mountains and beaches as big as Yosemite, represents the great hope of Siberian tigers; there, Matthiessen met biologist Hornocker, codirector of the Siberian Tiger Project. The rest of the book surveys tigers elsewhere in Asia. Iranian tigers are already extinct; Thailand, fortunately, maintains a "system of protected areas, well staffed and funded, where most of its tigers are already sheltered." As Matthiessen learns from filmmaker and "tiger partisan" Belinda Wright, India's efforts to save its tigers have foundered, in part because they fail to solicit, or to reward, indigenous people's assistance; worse yet, Indian authorities can't bring themselves to catch and prosecute poachers, even when Wright goes undercover to nab them. Hornocker--who pioneered radiotelemetry, the practice of tracking big cats via radio collars, on which the Siberian project depends--contributes the volume's 60 spectacular black and white photographs. Some capture the scientists and villagers as they follow tiger prints over thick snow or dig themselves out of a rugged winter. In other shots, the tigers--black and white themselves--pose amid birches, romp across tundra, sniff the air as for prey or lean protectively over a tranquil cub. Invigorated by Matthiessen's potent prose, these photos celebrate the majesty, and highlight the plight, of one of nature's most magnificent beasts. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
One of the most recognizable animals on Earth, the tiger comes in eight distinct subspecies. The largest variety--the Siberian, or Amur, tiger--is the focus of this book. Matthiessen is no stranger to the study of animals in their natural habitats, having given us more than two dozen memorable works, including The Snow Leopard, on the subject. Here he recounts the research projects that started in 1990 when Maurice Hornocker, director of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute, and others first made a trip to tiger country in the Russian Far East. Matthiessen describes the difficulties the expeditions encountered in gathering data on a very elusive species in a harsh environment, with powerful foreign cultural forces at work. His very readable, engaging text is accompanied by more than 60 equally impressive photographs by Hornocker. Essential reading for everyone interested in wildlife and the preservation of endangered species, this is highly recommended for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/99.]--Edell Marie Schaefer, Brookfield P.L., WI Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
New York Times Book Review
Matthiessen . . . is our greatest modern nature writer in the lyrical tradition.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780865475762
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
02/01/2000
Edition description:
1 ED
Pages:
185
Product dimensions:
7.28(w) x 9.59(h) x 0.77(d)

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Read an Excerpt

The beautiful wild region known as the Russian Far East curves south along the Sea of Japan like a Veal claw of Siberia, from the vast delta of the Amur River to the North Korean border, and its coast range-the Sikhote-Alin-extending southward some 600 miles between the Ussuri River and the sea is the last redoubt of Panthera tigris altaica, the Siberian or Manchurian tiger, which ranged formerlythroughout northeastern China (or Manchuria) and the Korean penninsula, and west as far as Mongolia and Lake Baikal. In the past century, its range has been reduced almost entirely to the Amur-Ussuri watershed, and today the most appropriate name for the lardest of the workd's great cats is the Amur tiger.

The Sikhote-Alin, at latitude 40 to 50.5 degrees, is a rangeof mountains rarely more than 6,ooo feet high. Its forest is temperate pine-and-hardwood taiga with fir and spruce at higher altitudes, subsiding as it descends in the north into boreal conifers of sprucemuskeg tundra (the original taiga, or "land of little sticks," refers to those stunted spruce; today the term is used more often as a rough equivalent of "wilderness"). Here the brown bear, lynx, wolf, and sable of the north cross tracks with the black bear, tiger, and leopard of the broad-leafed forests farther south, in an astonishing mammalian faunaunlike any other left on earth.

Ussuria or Ussuri Land was all but unknown to the West until early in the twentieth century, when it was explored by Vladimir K. Arseniev, a young army lieutenant, geographer, and naturalist who made three expeditions there between 1902 and 1908 in order to map the wild Primorski Kral, or Maritime Province. Arseniev was subsequently described as "the great explorer of Eastern Siberia" by the Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who expressed astonishment that this region of the Asian land mass had remained less known than the wildest Indian countries of North America.

Traveling on horseback and on foot, Arseniev was guided by a man named Dersu, an indigenous hunter-trapper of the Tungus-Manchu tribes (Altaic Tatar peoples related to the Tibetans and Mongolians and also to those ancient hunters who traveled east across the Chukchi Peninsula and Beringia to North America). As a young man, Dersu had survived a terrible mauling by a tiger; he was exhausted and near death from loss of blood when his wife found him in the taiga after days of tracking. Like all aboriginal hunters, Dersu feared the tiger's immense strength and ferocity but also revered it as the very breath and spirit of the taiga. These Tungus peoples considered it a near-deity and sometimes addressed it as "Grandfather" or "Old Man." The indigenous Udege and Nanai tribes referred to it as "Amba" or "tiger" (it was only the white strangers-the Russians-who translated that word as "devil"). To the Manchurians, the tiger was Hu Lin, the king, since the head and nape stripes on certain mythic individuals resembled the character Wan-dathe great sovereign or prince. "On a tree nearby fluttered a red flag," Arseniev wrote, "with the inscription: `San men dshen vei Si-zhi-tsi-go vei da suay Tsin tsan da tsin chezhen shan-Zin,' which means `To the True Spirit of the Mountains: in antiquity in the dynasty of Tsi he was commander-in-chief for the dynasty Da Tsin, but now he guards the forests and mountains.' "

Because the tiger protected the precious ginseng root from the Manchurians, Dersu would never shoot at Amba, and he entreated Arseniev not to shoot him, either. (Indigenous peoples throughout southern Asia avoided killing tigers, all except man-eaters, and even then might hold a ceremony of regret in which it was explained to other tigers how their kinsman had erred and must now forfeit its life.) Arseniev and Dersu, exploring Ussuri Land in every season, had many encounters with Amba, to whom they lost their dog, and one day the lieutenant expressed regret that he had never actually laid eyes on this secretive presence. Dersu cried out, "Oh no! Bad see him! Men [who] never see Amba . . . happy, lucky men . . . Me see Amba much. One time shot, miss. Now me very much fear. For me now one day will be bad, bad luck." (In keeping with the conventions of the era, Dersu's speech was rendered in the same pidgin English spoken to white sahibs by Indian scouts, African bearers, and other trusty native guides in memoirs from all around the colonial world.) Amba pervades Arseniev's journals, an imminent menace that the doughty Russian begins to dread. "We stood there silently a few minutes in the hope that some sound would betray the presence of the tiger, but there was the silence of the grave. In that silence I felt mystery, and fear."

In Arseniev's time, the tiger was already under heavy pressure from foreign hunters. Both Russians and Manchurian Chinese claimed these remote hunting grounds, which were rich in the precious ginseng root and the lustrous fur of the large arboreal weasel called the sable; these invading strangers, and the Koreans, too, ignored the rights of the indigenous peoples, who were mainly discounted as tazi by the Russians (from the Chinese da-tst, or "foreigners"-that is, "others") despite their long prior habitation- at least 6,ooo years, according to the carbon dating of petroglyphs found along the upper Amur, which include representations of the great northern tiger that in other days was found there, too.
Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, New York, NY USA. From Tigers in the Snow by Peter Matthiessen. Copyright (c) 2000 by Peter Matthiessen. All rights reserved.

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