Tigers in the Snow

By Peter Matthiessen (with photographs by Maurice Hornocker)

The world is full of strange and wonderful creatures, but none possessing the same mix of mystery, myth and magic as the tiger. Whether it’s the fantastic flame-like patterns of their pelage or their casual combination of grace and power, there is something about tigers that has always had a special grip on the imagination.

Because of their immediately recognizable image, conservationists have long used the tiger as a symbol for wildlife preservation. In Tigers in the Snow, Maurice Hornocker teams up with well-known American naturalist Peter Matthiessen to document the work of the Siberian Tiger Project, an international effort to both study and protect the biggest of the world’s big cats. At the same time, it provides a brief history of the species and describes how they came to hold a totemic place in so many different cultures.

Those seeking to save the tiger are in for a tough fight. Today the wild tiger population – which only numbers a few thousand – is mostly located in countries that have thoroughly ineffective protection agencies. Making matters worse, tiger habitats spread across many of the poorest regions on the earth: China, India, South-east Asia, and the Russian Far East. The rapidly increasing human populations living in these places are also struggling at the edges of survival, in a competition with the big cats for fuel and food.

The main reason for the tiger’s decline is the loss of its habitat and prey, the result of these poor environments being unable to support so many humans and tigers, too. But in addition to this demographic threat there is also the hot market for tiger body parts, the demand for everything from the tiger’s skin to their crushed and powdered bones.

And so the tiger is disappearing from the earth. In fact, most of the photos in this book were taken in a special enclosure near Vladivostok. In a prefatory note, Hornocker points out that only a “few photographs of wild Siberians are known to exist, and most of those are of dead tigers.” Given the rapid extinction of tiger populations just within this century, this is one nature book that could all too soon turn into a memorial.

Review first published March 4, 2000. What can I say? I just have a thing for tigers.


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