I first came across Peter Matthiessen's writing 13 years ago, while trekking in the Himalayas. The custom was for travellers to trade books with one another, and so it was that - in the foothills of Dhaulagiri - I wound up with a dog-eared copy of The Snow Leopard. I don't recall which book I gave up in exchange but, whatever it was, it was worth it. Published in 1978, The Snow Leopard is a poetic and meditative account of Matthiessen's Zen-like journey through Nepal in search of the elusive, eponymous creature. As a contemplation of the plight of one man - and of humankind - within the natural world, I have read nothing better.
Matthiessen's life as an author, naturalist and explorer has taken him to the wilderness of every continent. Even now, in his seventies, he still ventures into the most inhospitable places to champion the cause of what might loosely be defined as conservation biology: the study and protection of endangered species and their habitats. He knows his subject. He knows how to write. And, importantly in these days of sexy news, he knows how to communicate in a way that most scientists do not. Which is why he was invited to chronicle a joint American-Russian effort to save the Siberian tiger. Tigers in the Snow is the result. Nearly ten years in the making, this beautiful book is at once a celebration of the tiger, a lament for its decline and a warning that, without action, all tigers - not just the Siberian - face extinction.
In the 20th century, the world's total tiger population fell from an estimated 100,000 to fewer than 5,000. Even this figure is thought by many experts to be optimistic. In Matthiessen's lifetime, three geographical subspecies of Panthera tiger have been wiped out - the Balinese (c1939), the Caspian (c1968) and the Javan (c1979) - and others are in imminent peril. The map at the front of the book, which traces the shrinkage of the tiger's range, is chillingly eloquent.
More eloquent still are the photographs that so captivatingly illuminate the text. They were taken by Maurice Hornocker, a leading authority on big cats and co-founder of the Siberian Tiger Project. His shots of the tiger are still more poignant in the knowledge that pictures and zoo specimens may soon be all we have left of this magnificent animal. The Siberian - aka the Manchurian or Amur - once ranged across north-eastern China, the Korean peninsular and much of southern Siberia as far west as Mongolia and Lake Baikal. Today, it is confined to a tract of mountainous forest 600 miles long by 200 miles wide, above Vladivostok in the Russian Far East. By the early 1990s, fewer than 200 tigers remained in the area; there were fears of their extinction within a decade.
In common with its cousins in the Indian subcontinent, China and South-east Asia, the Siberian is a victim of malicious, reckless or insensitive encroachment by Homo sapiens. Illegal poaching - for skins, ingredients in traditional medicine, sport or as "pest" control - is only part of the problem. Other critical factors are the depletion or disturbance of habitat for development or for industries such as logging and mining, and excessive hunting for food of the animals on which the tiger itself preys. National and international protection measures have been largely negated by ineffectual enforcement, by the economics of corporate profit and of basic subsistence of the poorer human communities living alongside the tiger. Until recently, Chinese dealers would pay $10,000 for a single tiger to be smuggled out of Siberia - equivalent to five years' earnings of an ordinary Russian. That a small, tenuous recovery of the Siberian is under way is largely thanks to the work of the research team in addressing the cultural, economic, political and zoological issues of conservation. One hopes that this project may provide a blueprint for tiger salvation elsewhere in Asia.
Matthiessen describes the passionate dedication of the people seeking the solutions. There is drama in the efforts to track and monitor the tigers and to combat poachers. And there are moments of magic: "The plane banked . . . crisscrossing the valley, it made a wide turn over a logging track, and there I saw the first wild tiger of my life, bounding across the white expanse in bursts of powder. With the low winter sun glancing off the snow, all I could see was that black, bounding silhouette."
In this book, as in his others, Matthiessen succeeds in combining a robust ecological pessimism with the constructive optimism that, so long as humankind shares a sense of awe at this planet's beauty, the embers of collective will to avert its destruction shall continue to be fanned.