A few days with the “guardians” of the Siberian forest

Amanda Ferras

02 Mar 2017

Tracking Siberian tigers with conservationist Alexander Batalov

At first sight, Khabarovsk airport looks too small to receive 777's and the temperature on arrival is minus 11 degrees. Alexander Batalov himself meets us at the airport, which we didn't expect, along with Olga (the ground agent) and Misha, our translator. Alexander is small in stature but beams broadly and compliments us on our choice of boots and clothing, which is a great relief.  

First stop on route is the supermarket for camp provisions and we pick up some of our own food rations (just in case!). After a couple of hours we enter the boundary of the forest for the first time. There is snow on the ground but it doesn’t look too deep. Some way into the drive, Alexander stops the vehicle just over a bridge. Tiger tracks are all around, these are very fresh; as in minutes old. We are allowed out of the jeep but told to be careful as the tiger is likely to be close. It is now pitch black but the excitement level goes up. Alexander is convinced these are the tracks of a female he knows and she is watching us close by. We will find out how close she was tomorrow.

We eventually arrive at the base around 7pm and stop outside cabin 1, which is to be our home for the week. Cabin 1 is wild boar themed, which means skins on the wall and trotters for pen holders! A wall of heat from the ancient stove greets us. Welcome to Siberia and the land of the Amur Tiger!

After breakfast and a tour of the base, we drive into the forest to set the two camera traps we have brought with us, hopefully in prime locations. We discover just how near we came to seeing the female tigress on the way into camp last night. Daylight and the snow provides all the evidence required. We suspected we disturbed her on the road and the tracks into the forest lead us to a fallen log where the tigress had lay down to observe us. This is literally 20 metres from where our jeep had been stopped last night! Alexander reviews the memory card from the nearby camera trap and we get the footage that confirms our theory. Rashell is on camera and was walking in the direction of the jeep as we drove in. We had indeed disturbed her and she left the road for the safety of the dense forest. Bearing in mind we stopped and looked at the tracks before driving on, triggering the camera trap in the vehicle, the time gap was 14 mins! 

This was the first of lots of evidence of tiger movement; this forest is alive with wild tigers.

A typical day in the forest starts with breakfast at 9am (as it doesn’t get light until almost 8am) and will be a form of porridge, with an egg and veg. Weather dependent, you will then head off to various parts of the forest to collect or review camera traps and look for evidence of movement (pug marks, scratch marks, indentations where they have laid down in the snow, etc.). During our stay our main transport was snow mobiles and the longest single trip on them was 5 hours. This location is not for the fainthearted or those who haven’t come prepared with the right clothing. Despite getting a couple of days of constant snow, which increases the temperature but restricts the parts of the forest you can reach, the temperatures got as low as minus 24 degrees. The snow mobiles also work you hard physically, as you need to assist the driver by leaning at the appropriate places; helping to clear many obstructions; walking to lighten the load when navigating steep climbs and even taking a turn in the sledge when the occasion requires it! You also need to be prepared for the odd tumble off the snow mobile! 

Lunch, which is usually some form of hot broth, like borscht, will be sometime around 2pm. You will then be back out in the forest for another couple of hours on activities. Dinner is generally around 6pm and you are encouraged to use the sauna they have built and if you are brave enough to use the birch leaves dipped in water to aid massage (i.e. hit yourself or your partner with!) and improve circulation.

We also enjoyed a couple of BBQ’s in the forest; one literally where everything was set up from scratch and another at a hunters lodge. Given the location, the food is generally wholesome, nutritious and tasty. Sergey is an excellent cook.

No two days are the same and flexibility is the key in this experience.

This is front line conservation work and best laid plans can quickly get changed and at very short notice. You will learn lots about the forest and the work that Alexander and his small team do on a daily basis, mainly as you will be part of the team for the duration of your stay. At this time of year you will not encounter much wildlife but that is not the purpose of the trip. Alexander and the team are very welcoming and warm hosts. The use of a translator is a must if you do not speak Russian. The log cabins are spacious and warm and you can boil a kettle on the stove. There is a basic sink with water provided from the stream but it has to be replenished, so use it sparingly. The toilet is of the bucket variety and the sauna area is the only real place for washing. Not a trip for a first timer but ultimately one that is fantastically rewarding if you have the right attitude and expectation levels. Bringing camera traps will enable you to stay in contact with Alexander and receive footage long after you have departed Durminskoye! 

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Comments

Arabella @ Natural World Safaris

3/3/2017 10:07 AM

I had goose bumps reading this! Wowee. Thanks so much for sharing Amanda and what an absolutely incredible experience that so few people have the opportunity to do. Definitely firmly on my bucket list now! Thanks, thanks, thanks..

Will Bolsover

2/3/2017 10:54 AM

A fantastic write up of a thoroughly unique trip. As you say, not for the faint hearted but a real treat to walk in the footsteps of the largest feline predator walking the earth.

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