The Old Guard at the Sikhote-Alin Reserve in Primorye—the Soviet biologists now dead or retired—were seriously tough individuals. They lived in Ternei before that village could be reached by car; a human enclave besieged by mountain, forest, and sea. Their workplace was true wilderness where, over the years, they endured harrowing experiences as a matter of routine. One biologist recounted how he once killed a charging bear with a hatchet.
So, when one of the Old Guard began recalling his encounter with a Eurasian wolf decades prior, I sat forward. This was going to be good.
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.
Toward the end of “Across the Ussuri Kray,” a book written by the explorer Vladimir Arsenyev, there is a description from 1906 of a cabin in Primorye, Russia. Called Myaolin and inhabited by an elderly Chinese man, it was famous for its moonshine. The Chinese and native Udege hunters all across the vast Iman River basin offered meat, pelts, and ginseng in trade for the grain alcohol distilled there. Myaolin was one of the oldest cabins in the region; the old man had settled that place some fifty years prior when the territory was still part of China.
By the time Arsenyev stumbled up to Myaolin it was early winter and it was dark. The Russian was cold and weary; he and his team were achingly close to the end of a six-month expedition to explore that region’s wilderness. All they wanted was a dry, warm place to rest before pressing their calloused feet to the trail once more.