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.
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.