White flakes slip delicately down. Dusting the glow of graceful moss-clad forest relics rotting back into the ground, they illuminate the few giants still standing — majestic Japanese yew and lofty Korean pine. The ancient trees are silent; the only sound is from the hustle of our camouflaged legs on the game trail.
A blister is nagging my heel, but I’m desperate to keep up. The man I’m following, Kolya, moves dangerously fast through the woods. At any moment he could stumble across a lurking carnivore, and then what? A gnash of 10-cm canines and he’ll be history.
Doubts about my own mortality creep into my mind. I glance suspiciously at clumps of long grass. Predators usually take the slow and infirm: of the two of us, that’s definitely me. Am I sweating? Can the monster smell my fear? What happens if it pounces from behind? I’ll never hear a thing, and Kolya won’t see a trace — just a last bootprint and a few spots of blood, swiftly covered by tumbling snow.
This is Russia. We’re in the heart of the Sikhote Alin Mountains, more than 150 km from anyone who could stitch up a flesh wound. And we’re roaming the hunting ground of one of Earth’s most fearsome predators, the Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica).
Kolya is a trapper for the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). His job is to catch tigers and fit them with radio collars so that biologists can study the secretive, highly endangered animals.
“Tigers hardly ever attack people,” says the third member of our party, Dale Miquelle, director of WCS Russia and head of its Siberian Tiger Project. “But they’re dangerous when they’re in a snare.”
I consider my position: I’m out checking snares with Kolya, who according to Dale has snared more tigers than anyone else in the world. We may very well, at any moment, find ourselves face to face with one of these mighty cats that can attain an awesome 250 kg, and, as Dale says, “are always duking it out with bears.” Perhaps my childhood ambition to see a tiger in the wild has gone a step too far.
“Don’t worry,” Dale tries to reassure me. “In a conflict situation we give the animal space. I’ve been here 18 years, and I’ve only had to use these twice.” He passes me a flare. “I remember once we came across a tiger feeding on a kill, maybe 30 yards (10 meters) away. I reached into my backpack, and pulled out what I thought was a flare. Turned out it was a candle,” he says with a laugh. “So keep it in your pocket, where you can reach it!”
I’ve never been to Russia before. I touch down in mid-October, first in Moscow, and then — after a flight spanning 9,500 km and nine time zones across Siberia’s sprawling emptiness — in Vladivostok, with its 600,000 inhabitants the main population center in the Russian Far East.
My first impression: the world’s biggest country is poor. Potholes and traffic jams choke the main roads. The harsh gloss of new Russia — a few shiny shops and aggressive jeeps with blacked-out windows — quickly fades into back streets weary with the decrepitude of Soviet-era apartment blocks. The pervading atmosphere is of power at the top and deprivation most of the rest of the way down.
Alexey, driver and tiger enthusiast, meets me at Vladivostok Airport. Between bursts of vitriol about illegal Chinese immigrants flooding across the nearby border and melting away untraceably into Russia to steal Russian jobs, Alexey proclaims his city’s best asset: the ubiquitous secondhand Japanese car.
“What’s wrong with Russian cars?” I ask, trying to spot a homegrown Lada in a sea of Toyotas.
“You need a full-time mechanic to keep them on the road!”
The cause of the jam we’re in soon proves Alexey right; it’s a broken-down Lada. Pedestrian commuters overtake us with their hands by their sides, purposeful and indifferent, as we inch slowly forward. Women dress to kill in spiky high heels, defiantly strutting the lethally icy pavement. A young man in a suit hurries by, breakfasting on strong beer.
“Our prime minister, Mr. Putin.” Alexey intones, shaking his head.
“Everywhere!” He gestures angrily at the stranded Lada. “Look at this place!”
Alexey says Putin recently introduced a vehicle-import tax rise of 30 percent, effectively choking the Russian Far East’s thriving Japanese used-car market to death.
“Didn’t you protest?”
“Of course! But the prime minister doesn’t like a show. He flew in OMON — riot police — from Moscow. He had to. Our cops drive Japanese cars too; they wouldn’t touch us. But OMON don’t care. They beat up some journalists — some from Japanese TV. Is it called NHK?” He grins. “This country’s controlled by criminals. But don’t worry,” he grips my arm reassuringly. “You’re a tourist. Russians love guests!”
At the coach station, Alexey transfers me to the gruff care of a man in a black leather cap with ear muffs, the conductor of the bus to Terney.
“How far is it?” I ask.
We’re heading into the Sikhote Alin, a low-lying mountain range stretching over an area the size of Honshu. For several hours all that’s visible through my window are trees. I do the math in my head: There’s around 760 million hectares of forest in Russia — that’s 20 times the total land area of Japan, covered in trees.
Every hour or so the Korean-made bus shudders to a halt in poorly lit small towns. Everyone except me gets out to smoke, stomping their feet to ward off cold. At one pit stop, around midnight, a police jeep pulls alongside. The conductor shakes the police lieutenant’s hand and points inside the bus. Four Chinese passengers who have remained aboard look petrified. I ask someone what’s going on.
“They’re probably illegals.”
The police quickly corral the Chinese and their belongings and jam them into the jeep. There’s no space for the police. They unpack, and try again. Finally the jeep careers off into the night holding police, prisoners and all. The conductor looks relieved. The show over, the audience finish their cigarettes and climb back aboard into the warm.
We crawl into Terney before dawn. Some 800 km north of Vladivostok on Russia’s shore of the Sea of Japan, this small, sleepy town is home to Dale, the WCS director. It’s also the headquarters of a federal biosphere reserve in whose remoter, wilder regions the risky business of tiger-trapping takes place.
Dale picks me up and delivers me to a spare room in the WCS building. I crash out on a tiger-print bedspread. After sunrise, I wake to burnt autumnal forests creeping toward cliffs overlooking a deep-blue Sea of Japan.
A quick cup of tea later and I’m on the road with one of Dale’s biologists. “Tigers have big territories here because prey-density is low, so we need to drive a long way to find them,” says Sveta, a red-haired young doctoral student from Irkutsk in eastern Siberia who’s been with the WCS for eight years.
During that time Sveta has set up beam-triggered cameras in camouflaged boxes all over the Sikhote Alin Reserve on trees where tigers pause to mark their territories and communicate with other tigers — scented messages telling them to stay clear, or come closer if they’re ready to mate. Over the course of 5,600 camera days (operating up to 20 sets of cameras simultaneously), Sveta has captured 134 images of tigers — just one every 40 days.
But despite their mind-boggling elusiveness, the tigers in Sveta’s photo album provide the most statistically robust estimates of population densities ever obtained for the Siberian tiger, data vital for the tigers’ conservation. Unfortunately, her data confirms a downward trend.
Together we walk a long trail toward the sea. Sveta unfolds a metal aerial, plugs it into a radio set and points it inland, first panning and then twisting it until she gets a signal. It’s a steady blip-blip, the rhythm of a heartbeat. Sveta pulls out a compass to take a bearing.
“She walks so much!” The regularity of the blipping is from Sveta’s favorite tigress, Galya, who she helped to collar seven years ago as a cub.
Sveta switches off the radio to take notes. The distant roar of a truck loaded with logs thrums across the lake. I’m impressed that so much woodland remains.
“Oh no, it’s all been logged,” explains Sveta. “Korean pine is a really valuable tree for tigers. The pine nuts feed squirrels, deer and wild boar, which the tigers hunt. The tree provides cover in winter, when the deciduous trees are bare. It’s the root of this environment. No pine, no tiger.” I look around — everything, with few exceptions, is birch. “They log selectively, taking only the best trees from our animals.”
The sound of the truck recedes. Its cargo is bound for the nearby port of Plastun, from where each year the Sumitomo Corp.-financed logging firm Terneiles ships around 500,000 cu. meters of high-quality, broad-diameter Korean pine and other timber directly to Japan for use as flooring and other expensive interior carpentry. Despite Japanese import restrictions requiring this timber to be certified by the international nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council, the new logging trails used to extract it open up the last few precious swaths of old-growth forest. This then creates ripe and easy targets for illegal loggers supplying ready markets where no one cares about certification.
We rejoin the road, skirting the perfect blue sea. Suddenly we emerge onto a treeless plain. “What’s your handicap?” Sveta asks, smiling. I look closer. It’s a golf course. “The only one between here and Moscow; the logging firm built it to impress their Japanese business partners,” she explains. The course is empty. In July 2009, Japan’s Consul General Jun Yamada and Sumitomo General Manager Nobuo Kitagawa flew in to open a new wood-processing plant in Plastun, built to avoid new Russian raw materials export taxes.
Terneiles is active right across the Sikhote Alin, as I discover later while searching on the Internet. Its Japanese ownership (Sumitomo Corp. has a 45-percent controlling stake) means this region, whose old-growth pine forests contain a greater diversity of plant and animal species than any temperate zone on the planet, is almost single-handedly feeding Japan’s taste for high-quality timber. But at what cost?
Dale explains that Terney and other towns all over this vast, wild area depend almost entirely on Terneiles for their income. Consequently, few people will criticize the logging operations in public, no matter what that means for the tiger.
Waiting for permission to visit the tiger-trappers’ cabin, I hitch a lift with Dale back to Vladivostok. On the way we visit a memorial overlooking the town of Arsen’ev, so named after a czarist military officer, explorer and ethnographer.
Vladimir Arsen’ev traveled before the 1917 Russian Revolution on repeated missions to map the Sikhote Alin. His surveys were preparation for the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, but grew into a lifelong passion for wild places that Arsen’ev transcribed into an early classic of nature writing.
“Dersu Uzala,” Arsen’ev’s account of life in the taiga (Russian for “forest”) was an instant hit when first published in the early 1920s. The book includes an account of Arsen’ev’s unlikely friendship with a native hunter named Dersu, who repeatedly saves his life. A recurrent motif in the book is the ever-mysterious tiger — amba in Dersu’s language — stalking through the trees.
In 1973, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was invited to Russia to shoot a film based on “Dersu Uzala” on 70 mm — the biggest and most expensive film format then available. Kurosawa’s ambition was to transmit Arsen’ev’s nature-conservation message to the public through a dying form — the cinema epic.
As Dale and I stretch our legs by graffitied statues of Arsen’ev and Dersu, young wedding parties fall drunkenly out of limousines, music blaring, to pose for photographs. A local journalist moonlighting as a wedding photographer offers me his card.
He seems embarrassed at having to keep such uncouth company; ironically even though Arsen’ev was a passionate early environmentalist, his work surveying this area made opening it up all the easier for the logging concerns that came after him. Today, although everyone seems to know who Arsen’ev was, Russia doesn’t seem to care what he stood for. Kurosawa’s film met with a similar fate. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film on its release in 1975, but the critics panned it, and today it ranks among his least-known works.
In Vladivostok — whose coat of arms shows a Siberian tiger — Dale’s flat has a panoramic view of the historic Golden Horn Bay. Unfortunately there’s no time for sightseeing; I’m due in the small town of Roshino in the central Sikhote Alin. Nine hours later, a man with an unfeasibly thick white beard meets me off the bus. Feodor Kronikovsky, director of the fledgling Udege Legend National Park, is responsible for 90,000 hectares (900 sq. km) of prime forest.
“Illegal logging. Big problem,” Feodor admits outside his office, where confiscated trucks and caterpillar equipment stand rusting, still holding illicit loads of valuable pine. “Since perestroika, people have less work. Forest is protected — but everyone needs money.”
Over a bowl of borscht (“Russians like wet food. Strong for taiga!”) in an otherwise empty restaurant, Feodor reels off figures: a cubic meter of unprocessed pine fetches the equivalent of ¥2,100; a truck carries 25 cu. meters of pine, each load delivering a profit to the logging chiefs of around ¥170,000. A truck driver can expect a bribe of around ¥9,000 for each illegally cut load; a trucker’s average legitimate monthly salary is just ¥45,000, which makes it clear where the incentives lie.
The punishments for illegal logging are daunting: fines of ¥300,000 and two years in prison. “But so far no one is convicted,” says Feodor as he pays the bill, wistfully blaming otgat — a uniquely Russian concept of routine, institutionalized corruption.
We drive into the forest along logging trails. As we cross a fast-flowing river on a rough-hewn, floating bridge, Feodor recounts a rafting expedition with a Japanese friend who loved the region because it reminded him of his native Hokkaido. They fished and camped for days along wild rivers, even coming across evidence of a yeti. “But that a long story,” he grins mysteriously through his beard.
Manchurian roe deer with spotted rumps bound away into long grass nearby. “Food for amba!” smiles Feodor proudly, going on to tell me of a spot where he once saw the antlers and lower legs of a full-grown stag bitten off in the snow. The tiger, which had been there just seconds before him, had leapt away up a near-vertical slope with his prey in his jaws. “That awesome power!”
The next day, Feodor arranges for me to join park wardens on antipoaching patrol in a fast riverboat.
The wind is perishing. I take photographs to try and stay warm while the wardens spend hours catching Arctic grayling and Taimen trout. Three fishermen without permits are stopped and receive a fine of ¥3,000. It feels a shame the fines aren’t bigger, but the real surprise is how badly the state pays; park wardens receive around 8,000 rubles, the equivalent of ¥24,000, per month. They go fishing to survive.
On the way back to Terney, I pause in Vladivostok to meet Vladimir Arsen’ev’s biographer, Amir Khisamuditnov. He walks briskly; being a professor at three different universities, including Vladivostok’s Japanese Studies Institute, Amir is an extremely busy man.
“Vladivostok is Russia’s window on the Pacific, but I have another theory,” Amir says quixotically as we pass the former Far Eastern headquarters of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. “Inside,” says Amir, “Arsen’ev’s wife was executed for spying. 1938. Her trial lasted 10 minutes.”
I ask about his theory.
“Vladivostok has always resisted Moscow. Before the revolution, China, Japan and Korea were a threat to this region. Under the Soviets, Vladivostok was closed to foreigners because Moscow was afraid it would fall to the “yellow” powers. Arsen’ev’s wife was not a spy. Her husband had been friendly with Ri Watanabe, the Japanese consul, that’s all. But how do you control a country the size of Russia? Paranoia.”
Beside the old NKVD HQ stands a newer building: the offices of the FSB, Putin’s own secret police.
“How many people work in there?” I crane my neck at the looming gray structure, wondering if Amir is the kind of person its occupants follow.
“It’s big, don’t you think?” he says with a smile. “Nowadays, Moscow is worried because our oriental neighbors are more powerful. Sometimes Vladivostok is a window, sometimes an arrow-slit. I think the window is closing again.”
Leaving Amir, I get a call from a veteran environmental journalist named Anatoly Lebedev, who runs a small NGO publishing an investigative magazine with the somewhat satirical title Ecology and Business. There’s bad news.
“Feodor (Kronikovsky, director of the Udege Legend National Park) got the sack.” According to Anatoly, the logging firm wanted him out, but the call came from Moscow. “In Russia, business rules,” he says. Later Feodor tells me of rumors that the new director has had a house bought for him in Roshino by Terneiles. The implication is that, unlike Feodor and his team, the new man may turn a blind eye to continued illegal extraction of timber.
Back in Terney, Dale arranges for me to visit Kolya’s trapping site. Keen to get into the field himself, he leads our long walk into old- growth woodland. We come across paw prints by a riverbed: a young male tiger.
As Dale measures the prints, I notice the forest is truly quiet. The silence feels claustrophobic, alien, threatening, and I feel small. The vastness of Russia’s wilderness is just beginning to hit home. I wonder if this feeling is what makes people want to cut down trees. Looking around, I feel suddenly ashamed of myself — I should be celebrating the forest, not afraid of it.
Next morning, as I struggle to keep up with Kolya, I recall a line from Arsen’ev: “In the taiga one must expect to meet with a wild beast, but the most dangerous is man.”
The Sikhote Alin’s deadliest foe certainly has teeth; these days they belong to chain saws.
Kolya pauses by a circle of twigs arranged beside a tree. Obstructing most of the trail are branches, arranged so that any passing animal has to step into the circle to get past them.
Crouching, Kolya deftly flicks a couple of loose twigs out of the way. As he does so I see the snare — a half-cm-thick steel cable set above a spring with its end snaking around the tree trunk. If anything steps on the snare, it will be staying there until Kolya arrives with his tranquilizer gun.
But this is the last snare, and its emptiness means I’m not going to see a tiger. Kolya’s used to this. He spends three months a year out here trying to catch tigers, unwilling to go home even for one night in case he misses a trick. His obsessiveness feeds the WCS project — collared tigers mean Sveta’s and other researchers’ data-collecting can continue. And data leads to conservation policy.
I may not have seen a tiger, but I’ve learned something. It is that predators, prey and the conservationists of the Sikhote Alin all need each other in the fight against Russia’s and other nations’ unrestrained urges to exploit these forests for their economic worth. I can’t resist a last check — is something watching from behind those bushes? Fortunately, with people like Kolya on the case, there’s still a chance there could be.
Patrick Evans is a writer and filmmaker based in Cornwall, southwest England.