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By Peter Matthiessen
Introduction and Photographs by Maurice Hornocker
North Point Press
154 pages, $25

I It is the chilling prediction of Peter Matthiessen's splendid and gloomy book, "Tigers in the Snow," that the wild tiger is close to extinction and that, short of emergency measures to protect its environment and put an end to poaching, the early years of the 21st century could see its disappearance from its remaining habitats. The past century, he writes, saw the collapse of thriving populations throughout the tiger's range, so that, from an estimated 100,000 tigers world-wide in 1900, perhaps 5,000 or less remained by 1995.

Several sub-populations have disappeared, notably the Balinese (1939), Caspian (1968), and Javan (1979), while others, including the Indian and the Amur or Siberian, are in peril. Everywhere, the tiger is hunted mercilessly, and even where its habitat is not under population pressure, it is coveted for its pelt and for its bones, blood, and organs, which are used in traditional medicines, mainly in China.

Though Matthiessen calls no attention to himself in telling this story, the work inevitably calls attention to him. He is the one American writer beyond all others who has brought the fragile and imperiled ecosphere to our awareness in book after troubling book. A writer of deep sympathies and a firm and controlled intelligence, Matthiessen has devoted a half-century to bringing the story of the earth as exploitable and exploited ground to our attention. Be it in his novels or stories, in books of painstaking historiography, or in impassioned nature studies, he has told the story of the earth and its embattled ecosystem in an incisive and scholarly, but also poetic and inspired, prose.

From the South American rain forest (in "Cloud Forest") to Africa in a fistful of books, including "The Tree Where Man Was Born," to the stark ridges and hidden valleys of the Himalaya, in "The Snow Leopard" and "East of Lo Monthang," to the American Great Plains, Matthiessen has lent his writing to the service of environmental conservation and native rights.

This time he has taken the tiger for his subject, and in particular the Amur or Siberian tiger, Panthera tigris altaica, of the Russian Far East. Once ranging south into Mongolia, China, and Korea and as far East as Lake Baikal, altaica has been reduced in the past century to the watersheds of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers, in the rugged Sikhote-Alin Range of mountains north of Vladivostok. That region is a rare biological crossroads, where "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 fauna -- an ecological 'peaceable kingdom' -- unlike any other northern land on earth."

But remaining numbers of altaica are uncertain. They may have dwindled to as few as 50 at one time, until the Soviet Government in the 1930s established the Sikhote-Alin reserve, where their numbers began to revive, reaching as high as 450 by 1985. The collapse of Communism proved to be disastrous to preservation, since in the period of lawlessness that followed, "Siberia's natural resources, from timber to wildlife, were sold and traded like hot chestnuts in the streets, whether or not the seller was the lawful owner, and unpaid 'zapovedniki' (game preserve) officials and forest rangers in the penniless wildlife departments were increasingly susceptible to bribes."

"Most of the tigers lived and were killed outside the 'zapovedniki,' where uncontrolled logging and mining, splitting the forests with rough roads, was destroying good habitat for the tiger and its prey and providing easy access for the hunters. Modern firearms, formerly prohibited and scarce, were now available, and so were new vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive. The great forests of the Sikhote-Alin were under siege by Korean, Japanese, and American corporations seeking a foothold in this region, and a surging economy ever more inflated by globalization created an increased demand for traditional medicines in East Asia, as Siberia's once-rigid borders were laid wide to smuggling for the wildly profitable market.

"By January 1992, when a Russian-American tiger research project was formally established in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve, more than a third of the remaining Amur tigers had already been destroyed, and P.t. altaica was once again in serious danger of extinction."

The Siberian Tiger Project, a joint venture of American and Russian scientists, was conceived in 1989 at the University of Idaho's Hornocker Wildlife Research Institute, when visiting Soviet scientists invited Hornocker and his colleague Howard Quigley to visit the Soviet Far East. The project was formally granted Soviet government approval in 1990, and Hornocker and Quigley made several quick trips to Sikhote-Alin, and would meet Peter Matthiessen there in June 1992.

They were quick to form a bond, and Matthiessen would subsequently return in January 1996. By then, Hornocker, Quigley and their Russian colleagues had captured a number of mature tigers and fitted them with radio collars. But in the intervening years, the mushrooming trade in tiger parts had taken its toll on altaica, as the value of a single tiger rose to $25,000 and beyond, with an estimated sixty animals poached every year from 1990-94. With such profits, improvised local poaching operations "gave way to criminal enterprises rumored to have been taken over by the mafia, and for a time, the poaching in the Russian Far East was perhaps the most virulent in Asia."

Though Matthiessen reports that that trade quieted in 1997, altaica is still poached and may number no more than two hundred-fifty throughout its range. There are far more altaica in captivity than in the Russian Far East. Anyone might have written this book's summaries and overviews, and in fact Maurice Hornocker's fine introduction to "Tigers in the Snow" is an excellent summary of the factual record.

But as readers of Matthiessen's books know well, he is master of the half-captured splendor, the instant that suddenly catches fire. Matthiessen is a Zen Buddhist, known in the movement as Muryo Sensei, and he has learned how to fine-tune his senses to suit the moment.

Circling the frozen taiga in an ancient AN-2 biplane a near-stall speeds, Matthiessen sees his first wild tiger "across the white expanse in bursts of powder. With the low winter sun glancing off the snow, all I could see was the black, bounding silhouette. The image evoked a Tungus belief that stalking tigers use the sun to blind their prey, leaping out of the wild fireball at dawn or sunset like a tongue of flame."

I am, of course, an admirer of Peter Matthiessen and his collected body of writing, but there are times when it is wrong to admire a book, the way you admire a well-made film or well-written novel. That's not the point here. Rather, we're supposed to listen and then go about creating a world in which there can always be wild tigers.

"Life would be less without the tiger," Howard Quigley says to Matthiessen, and what can anyone say but amen?

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