Cover image for Tigers in the snow
Tigers in the snow
Matthiessen, Peter.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2000]

Physical Description:
xviii, 185 pages : : color illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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QL737.C23 M28 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
QL737.C23 M28 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QL737.C23 M28 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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The author of "The Snow Leopard" and "Bone by Bone" takes readers into the world of the Siberian tiger to convey powerfully what a loss to our collective imagination the disappearance of these great cats would be. Full color.

Author Notes

Peter Matthiessen was born in Manhattan, New York on May 22, 1927. He served in the Navy at Pearl Harbor. He graduated with a degree in English from Yale University in 1950. It was around this time that he was recruited by the CIA and traveled to Paris, where he became acquainted with several young expatriate American writers. In the postwar years the CIA covertly financed magazines and cultural programs to counter the spread of Communism. While in Paris, he helped found The Paris Review in 1953.

After returning to the United States, he worked as a commercial fisherman and the captain of a charter fishing boat. His first novel, Race Rock, was published in 1954. His other fiction works include Partisans, Raditzer, Far Tortuga, and In Paradise. His novel, Shadow Country, won a National Book Award. His novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, was made into a movie.

He started writing nonfiction after divorcing his first wife. An assignment for Sports Illustrated to report on American endangered species led to the book Wildlife in America, which was published in 1959. His travels took him to Asia, Australia, South America, Africa, New Guinea, the Florida swamps, and beneath the ocean. These travels led to articles in The New Yorker as well as numerous nonfiction books including The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness, Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons of Stone Age New Guinea, Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark, The Tree Where Man Was Born, and Men's Lives. The Snow Leopard won the 1979 National Book Award for nonfiction. He died from leukemia on April 5, 2014 at the age of 86.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Matthiessen, well known for his previous writing on nature and humans' place in the natural world, brings his lyrical eye to an account of the plight of the Amur (or Siberian) tiger. The largest of the big cats, this heavily furred race of tiger is almost entirely confined to the far eastern portion of Russia. In 1990, Maurice Hornocker, a big-cat expert and the book's photographer, signed an agreement with the then-Soviet government to study the Siberian tiger with a joint Russian-American research team. Matthiessen was invited to visit the resulting Siberian Tiger Project early on. In this book, he tells of the battle to save one of the planet's most charismatic animals. Mixing information about the lives of all the races of wild tigers with firsthand tales of his visits to Russia, the author brings an immediacy to his narrative that stirs the reader to awe of these great cats. Quotes from people living in close proximity to tigers illustrates the human element so necessary in mobilizing efforts to save endangered species--plans won't work if the local people are not on the animal's side. Although not available in the galley, the text is illustrated with photographs of semi-wild Amur tigers; Hornocker's previous tiger photographs, which have been published in National Geographic magazine, are superb. This evocative look at one of our rarest animals will be very popular. (Reviewed December 1, 1999)0865475768Nancy Bent

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Matthiessen's new book is different than his The Snow Leopard (1978), within whose autobiographical 338 pages he records his life, thoughts, religious quest, and experiences on a Himalayan trek only a year after his wife's death. That book is nearly devoid of illustrations. In this new work there is a nine-page introduction and numerous, excellent, color photographs by Maurice Hornocker. Unlike The Snow Leopard, which is tangentially about snow leopards, this book emphasizes tigers, especially Siberian ones; the politics and economics associated with tigers; and the people who live with them, including the Russian and American researchers who both live and work with them. It is a plea for the survival of all wild tiger populations based on sound research, conservation action, and the recognition that people living near them must at least tolerate their presence. Like The Snow Leopard, this book is very well written, well researched, thought-provoking, and often exciting. May it help protect both the tigers and the people that live among them. All levels. A. S. Mossman; emeritus, Humboldt State University



Chapter One                  The beautiful wild region known as the Russian Far East curves south along the Sea of Japan like a great 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 formerly throughout northeastern China (or Manchuria) and the Korean peninsula, 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 largest of the world's great cats is the Amur tiger.     The Sikhote-Alin, at latitude 40 to 50.5 degrees, is a range of mountains rarely more than 6,000 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 spruce-muskeg 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 fauna--unlike 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 Krai, 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-da--the 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-lin ,' 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-tsi , or "foreigners"--that is, "others") despite their long prior habitation--at least 6,000 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. * * *                        The primary habitat of the Amur tiger is the taiga or temperate woodland from sea level to 3,000 feet, in a climate where winter temperatures may fall as low as-40°F, with snow twelve to twenty inches deep for four months of the year. Prey animals in these mixed hardwood forests included the large red deer (or wapiti or elk), the spotted or sika deer, the small roe deer, the Asian goral (a brown, goatlike creature of the Eurasian family called goat-antelopes), and the wild pig or "wild boar," which in Arseniev's day apparently attained a weight of over 600 pounds. For all of these prey animals, the tiger competed with the leopard in the south and the wolf in the north and also with brown and black bears, which are primarily vegetarian but also opportunists; the brown bear will often dispute a tiger's kill. (In the many accounts of bear-tiger confrontations, both animals are alleged to have been the victors; however, it is commonly agreed that the bear prefers to contest the much smaller female tiger, lest it become an item of tiger diet.) Other inhabitants of the Sikhote-Alin and the Ussuri Valley noted by Arseniev were moose and musk deer, lynx, sable, badger, fox, hare, polecat, otter, and a squat canid animal with a dark "mask" called the raccoon dog, in addition to various squirrels and sundry chipmunks, gophers, water rats, moles, voles, and shrews. (The one large animal he does not mention is the leopard, though it must have been widespread in southern Ussuri Land.)     As early as their second expedition, in 1906, Dersu was saying, "All round soon all game end. Me think ten years, no more wapiti, no more sable, no more squirrel, all gone." And Arseniev comments, "It was impossible to disagree with him. In their own country, the Chinese have long since exterminated the game, almost every living thing. All that is left to them are crows, dogs, and rats ... The Primorski-Amur country, so rich in forest and wildlife, awaits the same fate." Even now, he reports, the Chinese were "ransacking" the land, hunting the sable, wapiti, and musk deer (for its precious musk gland); gathering ginseng, roots, and oils; cultivating the wild poppy for opium; collecting pearls, seaweeds, crabs and lobsters, and trepang (sea slugs) along the coast; even scraping the tasteless Parmelia lichen ("stone's skin") off the rocks. "On every side one sees nothing but robbery and exploitation. In the not-distant future this land of Ussuria ... will be turned into a desert."                       In the decade after Dersu's grim prediction, the tiger was heavily hunted as a sport by naval and army officers at the great eastern military base of Vladivostok, and in the chaotic early years of the Russian Revolution, both White and Red soldiery, living off the forest and shooting everything in sight, drove the animal to near-extinction. In the 1920s, when the Soviet Socialist Republics were established, the surviving tigers were hammered hard by Communist Party nimrods, who might bag eight or ten on a single outing, and from the 1930s until the 1950s, when it was realized that the animals were disappearing, there was urgent collection of young cubs for the world's zoos, a practice that often involved shooting the mother.     By 1935, when the Manchurian Chinese were driven back across the Amur and the Ussuri, the tiger had already withdrawn from its northern and western range, and the few that remained in the East Manchurian Mountains near Ussuria's borders with China and Korea were being cut off from the main population in Ussuri Land by new roads and railroads that served agricultural settlement of the Ussuri Valley. Meanwhile, its former habitats in Manchuria were ruthlessly deforested and settled by Han Chinese, brought in to displace the ethnic Manchurians, much as the Han are displacing the Tibetans of today. (In China, the Amur is called Heilongjiang, which means "Black Dragon River," and Manchuria has become "the Northeastern Provinces" of Jilin and Heilongjiang.) Within a few years, the last viable population of P. t. altaica was confined to Ussuri Land in Dersu's magnificent country of pine and hardwood taiga, mountains, and blue sea.     In 1936, when the Sikhote-Alin Reserve was established on the north Primorski coast, perhaps fifty scattered animals remained; four years later, tiger authority K. G. Kaplanov would estimate that but twenty were left in all of the Maritime Province. However, during World War II, with Russian hunters off in Europe shooting at other members of their own species, P. t. altaica made a small recovery. In 1947, shooting tigers was officially prohibited in Russia, and in 1962, the last altaica in Heilongjiang, across the Ussuri River, received protection. Within the decade, special permits were required for collecting cubs, and in the mid-1980s, with continuing state protection (the wildlife reserves or zapovedniki had remained closed to the public), researcher Dimitri Pikunov of the Russian Academy of Science's Far Eastern branch would estimate a population of 250 Amur tigers--a significant recovery that justified the hope of reestablishing a viable wild population.     Then, in 1989, in the chaos attending the quickening collapse of the Soviet Union, law and order broke down almost entirely. 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 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, but inside, too, 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 Pacific Rim economy ever more inflated by globalization created an increased demand for traditional tiger medicines throughout East Asia, as Siberia's once-rigid borders were laid wide to smuggling for this 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. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Peter Matthiessen. All rights reserved.