This corner of northeast Asia is the only place in the world where tigers and brown bears live in the same forests, and the prospect that John and I had stumbled upon evidence of a direct and fatal encounter filled me with oscillating waves of exhilaration and trepidation.
John unholstered his canister of bear spray—a concentrated dose of capsaicin that presumably worked against tigers as well—and passed me a Russian hand flare. These devices, shaped like a runner’s baton and designed for use by distressed sailors, ignite when a string is pulled to release a meter-long, blindingly-bright flame accompanied by two minutes of smoke and a monstrous roar. It is the last line of defense in a large carnivore attack. John suggested I remove the lid and have the ignition string handy; if unexpectedly charged by a tiger or bear it would be unfortunate if my last act on Earth was the frenzied unscrewing of a flare cap.
In June 2006 I was asked to help find a dead tiger.
At the time, I knew almost nothing about those beasts. All of my prior research had been focused on birds—mostly songbirds—and I was frankly a little cowed by tigers. This is, I’m sure, a sentiment shared by many non-carnivore researchers: there’s something intimidating about massive, toothy predators that like to hide from things then later jump out and kill those things. Even the transition to Blakiston’s fish owls from songbirds had made me a little nervous—fish owls are big and have talons: talons can pierce your skin! But a tiger…a tiger can gnaw its way right through you.
I had been a friend of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Siberian Tiger Project for about six years at that point but had not taken part in many of their activities. Over evening beers I’d hear the experiences of those biologists—about the roaring but unseen tigers in the dense brush, the charges by incensed brown bears, and tales of rappelling out of helicopters to reach the tigers they’d just darted in the forest below. It’s one thing to walk through the woods knowing with certainty that tigers are nearby—I was at peace with that—but to purposefully seek them out seemed a little…reckless.
So when John Goodrich, then the field coordinator for the Siberian Tiger Project, asked me to help him find a dead tiger, I figured it was a fairly safe introduction to that world.
In autumn 2014 I found myself in a pickup truck on an overgrown forest road in northern Primorye with a biologist and a hunter; it was long after dark and we were far from where we needed to be. I knew of a cabin nearby, on the bank of the Maksimovka River, where we could get a few hours of sleep before continuing on. The biologist was behind the wheel and I advised him that we head that way.
It was well past midnight when we opened the cabin door to reveal a cold, single room. The biologist started the wood stove for heat and dinner while the hunter found an empty bucket and headed into the darkness toward the sound of the river for water. The stove resisted an easy light as the firewood was freshly cut and still full of moisture; it hissed in protest and burned grudgingly. Eventually the biologist coaxed a pot of water to boil and began to cook rice. Next, he dripped some oil into a pan and added a sliced onion.
The hunter meanwhile removed an unlabeled tin from his backpack and sunk his knife into its yielding surface. With a ratcheting motion he revealed the can’s contents: cooked meat of some kind, which he said was bear. When the rice was nearly ready, the hunter shook the bear meat into the pan of caramelized onion with a few brisk flicks of his wrist. I asked him where he acquired the meat. He replied that a brown bear had repeatedly raided some apiaries near Ternei, smashing hives and causing a nuisance, and he had been tasked with shooting the offending beast. The biologist then added that he’d examined the bear carcass for trichinosis—the parasitic disease that can cause one’s eyes to bleed—and noted that he’d never seen a more infected animal than that one.