A Tiger Conservationist in the Urban Jungle

A statue on the main square in Vladivostok, Russia. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

My latest from Scientific American:

For conservation biologists, not all adventures take place in the woods. Sometimes the pathways to be negotiated are hallways, not game trails. Sometimes our adventures are urban.

In March 2015 I went to a clinic in Vladivostok for the first of a three-shot series to vaccinate myself against tick-borne encephalitis. This disease is a serious matter: one bite from an infected tick can lead to seizures, hallucinations, and even death.

Rather inconveniently for me—someone who works deep in tick country in Russia but who spends only a quarter of the year there—none of the few vaccines that exist are available in the United States. The Center for Disease Control somewhat unhelpfully suggests using “insect repellents and protective clothing” when in infected-tick habitat, which is useless advice for a place where I remove upwards of forty ticks from my body a day during the peak season. Eventually, one of them bites. So, when my last vaccination wore off, I had to carefully plan a series of trips to Russia that would also match the wait times between the three vaccine doses.

Arriving in Vladivostok for the start of my 2015 field season studying Blakiston’s fish owls, I located the clinic quickly: an unassuming, hundred-year-old complex of low brick buildings up the hill from the main square in town. None of the doors were marked so I picked one and stepped inside as though into an unknown forest. After guessing my way through a confounding series of hallways I dead-ended at a half-dozen people standing about, looking bored.

It wasn’t clear if I was in the right place, but a man suggested I ask in Room Number Six about the vaccine I needed. The doctor there told me to wait my turn with the others in the hall.

Someone freshly arrived in Russia might walk into a bank or clinic like this and be pleased to find a mere handful of people ahead of them in line – only to discover that as one stands and waits, people materialize out of thin air to occupy positions ahead. Lines in Russia are often spatial rather than linear. The trick is to wonder aloud who is last in line, make eye contact with whomever responds, and then pass this unseen baton to the next person who arrives and inquires as you did. With your link in the chain firmly tethered on both sides, you can briefly leave the waiting area knowing your place is secure.

I asked who was last in line and signed an invisible social contract with a gentleman in an argyle sweater. I was eventually ushered into Room Number Six, which as it turned out was simply a reception area where my request for a vaccine was assessed. The stern doctor behind a desk recorded my name and place of employment before she took my temperature.

Satisfied that I was healthy, she instructed me to find the automatic payment machine in another of the clinic’s buildings, then return with proof of payment for the shot to present at Room Number Eight. I backtracked through the labyrinth of corridors to the outside, where I stared at three unmarked doors wondering which held the ATM-like machine that accepted payments.

Luckily, the sweatered man who preceded me in Room Number Six had done the necessary reconnaissance by exhausting two of the three options. I trailed him through the third door and used the machine when he was done.

With receipt in hand I returned to the first building and found my place in a new line – for Room Number Eight. The sweatered man was already there and we exchanged a curt nod to re-forge our bond in the waiting chain. Before long, a young woman called me into the room, where she instructed me to remove my shirt and tell her my name.

Dzhon-a-tan,” I said with the thickest Russian accent I could muster for the word “Jonathan.” Next she asked for my patronymic—the Russian equivalent of a middle name, which is your father’s name followed by “-ovich” if you’re male, or “-ovna” if you’re female. I replied with a word pretty much impossible to make sound Russian: “Dale-ovich.”

She swiveled in her chair and regarded me curiously. “Tigers?” she guessed, linking the two things she knew about me: that I was (a) a foreigner needing a shot; and (b) someone who spends a lot of time in the forest. Those two things often equal “tiger researcher” in the region.

After my shot the nurse instructed me to wait in the hallway for twenty-five minutes, just in case I had an adverse reaction to the vaccine. I complied and found a spot on a bench, where I watched the clock as a current of people flowed in and out of Room Number Eight.

I noticed that no one else waited after leaving Number Eight as I was doing; I assumed they all received a different kind of shot that did not carry the same dangers as mine. After about twenty minutes there was a lull in traffic, and the nurse emerged from Room Number Eight. When she saw me she stopped short.

“You’re still here…you’re waiting like I asked you to!” She was genuinely taken aback. “No one ever waits!”

Four weeks later I returned to the clinic for my follow up shot, and when I entered Room Number Eight, I recognized the same woman who had given me my shot the month before. She, apparently, recalled me as well.

“I remember you,” she said warmly, “you’re The One Who Waited!”


For tweets about birds, tigers, and Russia, follow me on Twitter.

Tigers & the Art of Persuasion

The forest understory in Primorye can sometimes feel claustrophobic. Especially where there are tigers skulking nearby. Photograph Ⓒ Jonathan C. Slaght

The latest from my Scientific American series, East of Siberia:

THE TEMPERATE RAINFORESTS OF PRIMORYE become dense and green in summer, a vastness lost on those within it. Visibility can drop to almost zero along shrub-crowded game trails, where dew-drenched grasses cling like needy toddlers and spider webs tangle in the unshaven faces of those pushing through. Animals, resting nearby in the daytime heat, crash away unseen, and a discordant symphony of birdsong pulses from the canopy. Everything is immediate and aromatic; a box packed tight with vegetation, dirt, sweat, and humidity.

Not the kind of box you want to be in with a tiger.

Continue reading “Tigers & the Art of Persuasion”

Walking Rivers with Tigers

Sergei walks a frozen river while looking for signs of fish owls in the adjacent forest, and ever-encountering tiger tracks. Photograph Ⓒ Jonathan C. Slaght

My most recent post at Scientific American:

Why do tigers always seem to turn up when I’m looking for owls?

My Russian colleagues and I spent about a month surveying for Blakiston’s fish owls in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve this winter, but mostly what we found was snow, cold, and tiger tracks. In fact, if we had been searching for tigers instead of fish owls, our expedition would have been a resounding success.

Fish owls are remarkable birds. Disheveled and determined, they hunt for salmon in even the coldest of Russian winters. We were expecting to find four or five breeding pairs in the reserve, a 4,000 km2 area of pine- and oak-covered mountains interspersed with clear, cold rivers. On paper the wide river valleys peppered with behemoth old-growth trees looked like perfect fish owl habitat, with good nesting opportunities and rivers roiling with fish. There are three species of salmon here: cherry, keta, and pink—some of the fish owl’s favorite prey.

To survey for fish owls, we spent our days walking along the frozen rivers searching for signs of them—feathers clinging to branches or tracks in the snow near patches of unfrozen water where they may have fished—and we spent our nights listening for their calls.

But in the end, after more than a month of skiing or snowmobiling nearly 150 km of river and pushing through tangles of riverside forest, we only found two nesting pairs. That’s a lot of time in the cold for such a paltry result. The problem was unfrozen water: we found very little. And where there is no flowing water, fish owls cannot fish.

We were accompanied not just by silence and the crunch of snow underfoot in these weeks without owls; we had the shadows of tigers to keep us company.

Continue reading “Walking Rivers with Tigers”