In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger

Will Bolsover

17 Mar 2015

an expedition to russia with hope of a glance of the siberian tiger 

Natural World Safaris MD, Will Bolsover, heads to the Far East of Russia in search of the biggest cat in the world ... the Siberian tiger.

Day One

Slightly fuzzy eyed, I have arrived for my first time ever in Russia. With a 4 hour flight to Moscow and then an onward 8 hour flight to Khabaravosk and the Far East of Russia (Siberia), I suddenly get an idea of the true scale of this monster of a country. As we arrive into Khabaravosk I look out of my window to see miles and miles of snowy tundra stretching out below me and my search for the elusive Siberian tiger begins… or so I thought…

The first news on arrival is that it has actually snowed SO much that it is not even possible to get to the reserve, a 4 hour drive away, today. Instead we are to set out early in the morning with the help of snow mobiles to get to the remote reserve that is home to approximately 70 of the world’s remaining 400 critically endangered Amur (or Siberian) tigers.

After being met at the airport by the lovely Olga and the head conservationist Alexander, we head across town to my hotel where I have a chance to settle in and prepare for the hopeful adventures ahead. The journey is enlightening as Olga translates my questions for Alexander, a man who must be in his sixties and who has dedicated his last 20 years to the survival of the Amur Tiger. Both good and bad news greet me on the way through town as I am informed that unfortunately Alexander can’t be with me for the first few days as he has to attend a conference in town which focuses on the recent census figures that are being published on the Amur tiger. The good news however, is that by all accounts, in the Khabaravosk region the numbers have stabilised and possibly even increased providing a glimmer of hope for one of the world’s most elusive big cats. The area surrounding Vladivostock, located further south east of where we are, still remains the largest habitat for these big cats hence the importance of the upcoming conference to get an idea of how the overall population has fared over recent years.

To be clear from the outset, I do not expect to see any of these endangered felines up close and personal as they truly are elusive. The main aim of my time here is to understand the work that is going on behind the scenes, spend time with Alexander and his son who work tirelessly to protect this hidden corner of Russia, and to set up and monitor camera traps to see if we can get a glimpse into the world of these rare beasts. 

I have been told however, that due to the recent heavy snowfall, our chances are not looking good as the depth of the snow literally means that the wildlife of the region stays in place and waits it out and with more snowfall forecast it is going to be tough … but watch this space!

Day Two

In remote Russia Will is continuing his blog via satellite phone SMS messages.

AM: After a four hour journey with snow plows clearing the way through the heavy snow we arrived at the reserve. Conditions here are very basic; a group of log cabins in the middle of the woods where hardcore conservationists are doing their best in tricky conditions. The snow here is waist deep which will make it hard to see very much but there is news that a tiger has killed a goat in the nearby vicinity so this afternoon we are heading out to check the camera traps to see what if they managed to catch any footage.

PM: This afternoon was spent out and about trying to reach the camera traps through waist deep snow! Our first attempt ended in getting the snowmobile stuck and having to dig it out - they haven't had snow like this for years and it makes it very hard for both humans and wildlife to move around. This also results in there being fewer animal tracks to follow. 

We head out again later in the day and this time manage to access one of the cameras but no joy today. We reset the trap and hope for better luck tomorrow. The snow should be harder which will make it easier to get around and plan to head to an old hunting hut where I've been promised a wild boar BBQ! 

Tonight I've been through plenty of old footage of tigers in the camera traps. There are about eight individuals directly in this area and March is the prime month for mating. Whilst seeing tigers in the flesh is unlikely, my best friend is a flare gun that I carry in my jacket pocket the whole time ... although I think there is more likelihood that I will need it in the long drop toilet rather than anywhere else.

Day Three

AM: This morning we headed out back into the cold to set up some more camera traps. Now it is a case of waiting in anticipation to find out what, if anything, they manage to capture. Unfortunately there is only a slim chance they will be successful as the snow is so deep that no wildlife is moving round. It's waist deep on humans, which makes it head height for wild boar, the staple diet of tigers.

Later, we visit a stunning Hansel and Gretel style hut 6km out in the forest, travelling on skidoos spotting boar tracks along the way ... although with no evidence of tigers in pursuit. We settle into the hut where we cook up a local delicacy - wild boar fat cooked over open fire, the equivalent of pork scratchings along with some tea stewed from the bark of a lemon tree. Not bad for Siberia!

The hut is entirely self sufficient with its own fire pit outside, wood burning stove and covered fresh water stream. You could survive here for months without a worry in the world. We return back to base for mid-morning before setting out along another track to a different base 10km away, setting another couple of camera traps along the way. At this base I meet the fifty-nine year old caretaker who looks after the six cottages built for school students (although they no longer come here). I take the opportunity to quiz him on life here. Aside from the fact that he is keen to fill me in on his thriving sex life he also talks effusively about tigers.

I tease him that everyone says there are tigers here but I haven't seen any and I've been here for at least 24 hours! He says I should ask his dog ... to which I say "What dog?". He responds, "Exactly, the tigers bloody ate it. Not one but five of my dogs have been eaten by tigers". The conversation starts to feel a bit like the Clouseau sketch "that's not my dooog".

This evening I was treated to my first Russian steam room (yes they only have long drop loos but they have a cracking steam room). I am taken through how to use it and spend the next 20 minutes in my very own private steam room and sauna, beating myself with a bunch of sticks which is meant to be soothing - unless they just made this up to see what I would do? Either way, it was great fun!

Tomorrow morning we will set out to check three camera traps that have been set up around a recent tiger kill of a wild goat. We have tried to access it a couple of times but keep getting stuck in the snow. Fingers crossed tomorrow we will be lucky as this is the best chance we have of catching any sightings at the moment.

Day Four

AM: We set off early again this morning and finally manage to get to the three camera traps that have been set up along a narrow forest track in the vicinity of a recent tiger kill. We collect the cameras via skidoo, skis and crawling on all fours; the snow is very deep here but we have seen some wild goat on the nearby hill (spotted by my own eagle eyes) so hopes are high.

I'm told that the snow here is the worst it has been in at least five yrs. This makes moving around nigh on impossible; at best it is waist deep and in some places up to my neck. What would humans do if snow was this deep? Stay in one place of course! So it is not unusual, just frustrating, that the animals are doing the same with the result that we are not seeing as much wildlife, or even evidence of wildlife, as usual. These are very difficult circumstances in which to see anything at all.

Despite the harsh conditions we were eager to view the camera traps from the kill area. As well as the wild goats on the hillside, we had also seen plenty of trees with territorial scratch markings from tigers passing through, admittedly not fresh fresh, but evidence all the same. We return to base eagerly anticipating what may have been captured on the traps. And there I have it, my first Amur tiger! The camera was set just a few days before I got here and is not the best of pictures (this tiger was obviously on a mission!) but it's an Amur tiger nonetheless!

The excitement of this trip is tricky to explain, with a lot of effort going in for small returns, but to be in this habitat with evidence and stories of Siberian tigers all around is fantastic. To think that I was walking in the footsteps of the largest cat on earth (of which only 400 remain) only a few days later is hard to put into words. I only have a few days left but we have more camera traps to collect so fingers crossed ... and more updates to come.

PM: A quiet afternoon as we bide our time waiting to check on the camera traps we have set up. There has been more snow today which hasn't helped but tomorrow we plan to drive out 10km to a rock nearby which every tiger in the vicinity visits to mark its territory. Alexander, the head conservationist, describes it as a tiger post office where they all leave messages for each other and check up on how they are all doing. We have three cameras set up there so fingers crossed.

As I write this update I'm sitting on my little porch, looking up at the clearest night skies imaginable, surrounded by thick snow and the tigers prowling around the forest that surrounds us. Hopefully we will get another glimpse of one on the camera traps in the morning.

Day Five

As promised yesterday, we set out this morning with Alexander to the rock known as the tiger post office. It's about an hour drive along the forest track. We arrive, strapping on our skis while Alexander bangs and shouts to scare off any tigers that may be on the rock. Standing below the rock, knowing that this is the favourite haunt of tigers and you are about to climb up to it with the help of deerskin skis in waist deep snow the adrenalin starts pumping ... 

Alexander hands me an axe and I’m momentarily concerned, wondering if I'm meant to fight off a Siberian tiger with just an axe? I’m somewhat relieved to learn that the axe is for clearing away branches when setting the camera traps. We climb to the top of the rock and immediately I understand why the tigers come here. The views look out on the reserve and the surrounding countryside and hills, the perfect tiger lookout. 

At the top we pose for a few pictures and then set to work setting up the camera traps. There is no way anything will come through here without triggering our cunning camera trap ambush! 

Whilst we are there Alexander points a few things out: A tree that the tigers rub up against. Upon closer inspection I can see the tiger hairs stuck in the bark ... deep black and orange hairs caught in the bark as they leave their mark, tree trunks rub smoothed from them pushing up against them, and on close inspection, the strong smell and stickiness of scent marking as the resident tigers leave their mark at the tiger post office. 

We carry on up over the rock and halfway down the other side (myself colliding with the odd tree on the way down - my deerskin ski skills are not quite up-to scratch) where we cut back under the rock face where visible tiger tracks can be seen. We find dark patches on the rock face where more scent marking has taken place. We change three camera traps that have been there for the last couple of weeks and replace them with fresh memory cards. 

Making our way back to base we are satisfied we have covered everything; we have set two fresh camera traps named “Will's Traps” which will be left there for a week or so with the findings emailed to me at the end of the month, and removed three cards from already present camera traps, replacing them with fresh memory cards. 

Tonight we are to look at the cards we recovered today to see what they may have captured. This afternoon is set aside for a bit of down time after our morning exertions. We are making the best of a bad situation at the moment; the unusually heavy snow is entirely debilitating limiting us to accessing only a small area around the base. Usually we would be out for most of the day, exploring different areas and setting and clearing fresh camera traps but unfortunately in this amount of snow it is just not possible. 

However, it is Alexander and his tigers that is really the story here. Setting up the reserve 20 years ago, he has dedicated his life to the tigers of Khabarovsk. His son, Serge, follows in his footsteps. Whilst the base is basic to say the least, I have been nothing but welcomed here every step of the way. Alexander and Serge share the frustration of not being able to get out and about more to show me more of the Reserve and their beloved tigers. 

With only a day to go, I feel sad that I cannot see more, but then this is what we do every day for our clients. We put them in the right place at the right time and the rest is up to nature. This place is a true harsh wilderness that few even get the privilege to come and see. I have felt the scratch marks of claws on tree trunks, I have smelt the scent of passing carnivores, and I have walked in the footsteps of tigers. What more can I ask for... well I still have my camera traps so let's wait and see. 

Well today we are in luck! Viewing the footage we have recovered from the camera traps we find that we have caught a healthy young male as he approaches the rock and leaves his mark. 

Day Six 

Today is the final day and it is sad to see the end of my time here. Whilst a tough place to visit, this is frontline conservation working in extremely difficult circumstances. The tree fellers are a real threat to the extent that Alexander himself is often paying them to not chop down the oak trees, the main source of food for the wild boars which in turn are the main source of food for the tigers. This one mans’ battle against all odds is amazing to see but at the same time sad as the survival of the worlds’ remaining 400 Siberian tigers hangs in the balance. 

As I leave the Reserve, I hope for their survival and also look forward to the end of the month when the camera traps that I set at the "tiger post office" will be retrieved and hopefully show our feline friends walking in the footsteps of…me.

Please get in contact with us if you'd like us to speak to one of our destination specialists about tracking rare Siberian tigers in the wild.

Comments

cheryl

18/4/2016 3:29 AM

Fantastic commentary and incredible untold story. I visited Khabarovsk in 1994 and never heard a word about tigers!

Jo

22/7/2015 5:45 PM

I have read about this tiger tracking organisation too - they have a website and I have been very tempted to visit! Lovely to read about your experiences!

Kate

20/3/2015 5:30 AM

Sounds very intrepid Will. Looking forward to hearing about the outcome of the camera traps!

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