Tigers in the Snow

by Peter Matthiessen

Published by North Point Press

185 pages, 2000

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Burning Bright

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


In Tigers in the Snow Peter Matthiessen tackles his topic with the focused passion of Frances Mayes warbling on about Tuscany. Matthiessen brings all of Mayes' lyricism and even some of her joyous intimacy. Both writers are travelers with a pen never far from their grasp. However, while Matthiessen may occasionally wax poetic, there is a very real urgency that underlies every passage. Tigers in the Snow takes us to the far corners, but with a mission. We're not just seeing the sights this time: not here to partake of grilled vegetables or samovars filled with tea. "The researchers were enroute to the airstrip," Matthiessen writes early in Tigers in the Snow, "and I went along. In an old An-2 biplane with a 1,000-HP radial engine, we climbed laboriously into the air and headed north over the low coast range, whose highest peak is 6,575 feet." Tigers in the Snow is not about picnics.

In this, Matthiessen's 17th non-fiction book (there have been nine works of fiction, as well) we share in less scenery than usual and keep our mission firmly in mind: We're here to see tigers and understand their plight. It seems, at times, an impossible plight and one can feel Matthiessen's self-restraint in this book. The tables seem unfairly stacked against the noble striped cat and, to his credit, Matthiessen mostly succeeds in keeping himself from editorializing this impossible-seeming situation. Mostly. One can't imagine any human of creativity and intelligence not being moved by the facts the author shares with us. Anything you've imagined is likely nowhere even close to the truth.

"No doubt the species is now on its way to extinction," one authority would observe more than fifty years ago. Three of its geographic populations, perhaps four, have been extinguished in my lifetime, and at least three others may vanish forever in the first decades of the new century. Given the hardihood and tenacious adaptability of this species, such a calamity is profoundly saddening.... Present estimates of tiger numbers in the wild range between 4,600 and 7,700. A Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) report in November 1995 proposed a total of "less than 5,000" and most biologists and conservationists I have spoken with in the course of tiger travels would set that number even lower.

A colored map on the endpapers of the book tells a story just as unsettling. The "range of the tiger" circa 1800 is indicated in pale orange and it's a goodly swathe of color that includes parts of Siberia, Mongolia, all of North and South Korea, much of China and India as well as Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, Sumatra and Java in addition to smoke-like fingers through Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The range of tiger circa 2000 on the same map in a dark orange that is included so slightly there is no danger of it overpowering the lighter color. There is no dark orange in any of the more northerly areas mentioned and only small patches in some of the areas mentioned. The visible evidence of the dwindling amount of remaining tiger habitat is shocking. So much so that in our time, the Siberian tiger has belatedly come to be misnamed. "In the past century," writes Matthiessen, "its range has been reduced almost entirely to the Amur-Ussuri watershed, and today the most appropriate name for the largest of the world's cats is the Amur tiger."

As compelling as Tigers in the Snow is, it could have been more so. Matthiessen's obvious care to not punch up this material has had, in some places, almost the reverse of the desired effect. There is an unnecessary dryness to Tigers in the Snow that doesn't benefit the material: you can practically feel the passion of Tiger waiting to take the book over. It almost does at times, but in the end, it just doesn't. The result is a book that, while interesting and informative, doesn't really satisfy and, in fact, feels somewhat uneven.

The book's largest flaw is also the most puzzling. A non-fiction book of this caliber -- and it really is a lovely production -- is almost relegated to some other genre for want of an index. No really: no index. Not even a bad one. This flaw is almost crippling in a book that one would hope to keep around as a source of inspiration and reference for many years. But real reference usefulness is limited by this lack.

In the end, however, one can't help but hope that Matthiessen's quiet but articulate efforts will be heard by as many people as possible. The numbers of all of the world's tigers are dwindling. Factors that include, "habitat loss and fragmentation and an ever-decreasing prey base," compete with very real dangers from the most vicious of all primates -- man -- to spell the ultimate demise of the noble tiger. Can you or I make a difference? Maybe. But not at all until we understand the challenges. In Tigers in the Snow Peter Matthiessen makes these challenges completely apparent. How we rise to them will be up to us. | September 2000


Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.