I was blindsided by The Tiger on a wintry night in the mountains. It must have been around eight o'clock; I was alone, far from home, and completely unaware of the danger waiting less than 20 metres away. When it struck, it did so without warning - a sharp blow to the skull that I can feel to this day. But how was I to know that a movie theatre in Banff would contain such hazards? I had come to talk about The Golden Spruce, not to have my life hijacked for the next three years by a story I couldn't find on a map. Free movie tickets can do that to a person, if he's lucky.
Lurking in the theatre that evening was British filmmaker Sasha Snow's documentary, Conflict Tiger, which won the Grand Prize at the Banff International Film Festival that year. I knew little about it going in, but it didn't matter. By the time the film ended, an hour later, it had become an obsession, fraught with anxiety: Here was this incredible story touring the globe on the documentary circuit, shouting "Write me!" at every screening. How long had it been out there? Could I get to Russia before some other hungry writer scored a contract? Maybe someone already had. Or maybe there was nothing left to say.
I carried all this home from Banff, and it weighed far more than my luggage. As soon as I got back to my desk, I called Sasha Snow in London. He was warm and friendly; I liked him immediately. I congratulated him on winning Banff's Best of the Festival award; then I broached this awkward subject: So - have any writers approached you about, you know, doing something on this story?
No, he said. The sun grew inexplicably brighter.
So, no one's written about it? I asked.
No one, he said, but me and the Russian tiger biologist who did 5,000 words for a Russian nature magazine, which is where Snow, who's part Russian, found the story.
Then I told him what I was thinking. What was I thinking? That this story was the freaking Golden Spruce with stripes. Snow was open, generous and helpful; there was none of that clutching, proprietary weirdness you get when writers are sniffing around each other's stories. He gave me some names and his blessing. I thanked him, and then I bore down like a post-hole digger.
While I was researching visas and searching for a translator, a copy of The Golden Spruce was making its way toward London. A couple of weeks later, around the same time that I got an e-mail from Nanjing, from a 26-year-old, Vancouver-born linguistic genius offering to be my translator (fluent in Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, German etc. etc.), I got a message from Sasha Snow. "I read your book," he said. "I want to do a documentary."
So now it was an aye for an aye. Since then, Snow and I have been cheering sections, advocates and collaborators on our parallel projects. I have opened my old notebooks to him, and he has shared transcripts from deceased informants with me. I finished mine first. Fundraising is the filmmaker's bane, and while Snow has secured some crucial support from the NFB and made a trailer, he still has some way to go in the financing department. Nonetheless, we will be coming together in Banff this November, where we will discuss our symmetrical story exchange on stage with Marni Jackson.
Meanwhile, The Tiger has been set loose across the English-speaking world. Over the next year or so, it will also be appearing in languages ranging from Chinese (complex characters) to Greek. What is it about tigers, anyway? Why would a Finn want to read such a book? Because, I think, all of us have claimed it. The tiger is, for lack of a better term, a global power animal. In polls it has been voted the world's most popular wild creature. It's not that hard to see why: After all, what other animal (or cat, even) can function simultaneously as a symbol for power, sex and danger - and as a cuddly poster child for the conservation movement? Talk about mass appeal.
And that's the problem: Everyone from sports teams to insurgencies to oil companies has laid claim to this animal, in all kinds of ways. Businessmen, monks and drug dealers covet the skins. Depending on whom you ask, its organs and extracts can revive a sagging sex life, cure your aches and pains, even make you bulletproof. Not even tequila can do all that. It seems everyone wants some of the tiger's ju-ju.
Because of this, habitat loss and human encroachment, the world's wild tiger population has dropped by more than 90 per cent in the past 100 years. Today, a mere 3,000 tigers remain at large in all of Asia. Three of the nine recognized tiger subspecies have gone extinct in our grandparents' lifetimes. The rest are living in shrinking pockets of habitat, staring oblivion in the face. To put this in perspective: If we allow the tiger to go extinct in the wild, it will be the first large predator to do so since the American lion (Panthera leo atrox) went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago. That's a hell of a milestone. If this alarms you, here are some things you can do.
These agencies are working directly with local people and authorities to stop poaching and disrupt the multi-billion-dollar trade in wildlife trafficking: 21stcenturytiger.org; wildlifealliance.org; panthera.org.
In writing this book, I wanted to try to understand this tiger, its strange and spooky sentience, its frightening capacity for absorbing bullets and holding a grudge, and its apparent preference for only the most dangerous adversaries. What drives an animal like that, I wondered, across the years and miles, through Arctic cold?
Finally, I wanted to understand the desperate circumstances that set this serial tragedy in motion.The first time I went to the Far East, in the winter of 2007, I was simply trying to determine if there was any hope of answering these lingering questions. I found out there was still a lot of untapped information, so I went back again, and I drove and rode and walked and pestered, and sat and listened and read and wrote until, finally, a couple of years later, I felt confident that I had the goods, and that you would have The Tiger.