Tiger Country

No electricity, only stars... Living like frontiersmen for the past two weeks.

When we arrived in Terney, we were greeted by a scruffy, dark-eyed man, who invited us in, to our temporary home. Dmitry Gorshkov, the Director of Sikote-Alin Zapovednik Nature Reserve, asked us (in Russian) if we spoke Russian. Dave and I gave our generic response: "Chut-Chut", as in, "very little". [All my Russian translations are phonetic. Don't use this as your Webster's Dictionary, seriously]. "Then I will speak in English" he replied..., in perfect English. Already, we knew we had made a wise desicion. 

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Our time here has been full. We have blazed two trails, hiked roughly 40 miles, and have become part-time volunteers for the Sikhote-Alin Reserve and the Wildlife Conservation Society. And, we have been scared out of our minds once --- well, Dave twice, when a rotten old tow-line snapped and sent him slidding down a cliff. 

During a night hike, along the coast, under the stars, we were reminded as to why Dmitry gave us flares...

Setting out to the beach to set up a night time-lapse, we push our courage and began to follow the coast north. There are a series of pinnacles standing tall out of the water, and a small gathering of Common Seals barking, beyond the wave break. As we make our way north the beach becomes narrow, pinched by the high tide and a cliff that marks the entrance to a dark oak forest. The cliff rises and rises until it is high above us. At it's peak the stars begin to find openings between the chaos of the wiry tree trunks. The stars seem like eyes, looking down upon us. We make it past the pinch, to the safety of steeper walls and rockier shores. I admire the smooth rocks that make up the ocean floor, illuminated by my headlamp, their colors and shapes dance like a backlit mosaic.

Arriving on the other side of the bay's northern wall, we admire the stars. The Big Dipper has sunk low to the horizon. And after a long exposure, I notice a small boat out at sea. It's orange light moves slowly across the black horizon. As we head back, my boots wade through shallow water. I begin to think about the connectivity of the oceans and how the water I now stand in is the same water that breaks on the shores of Japan, some 400 km away. [Japan, an island. I move past it towards the island of Midway and further East until I pass over Hawaii and eventually hit the cliffs of California, and America, home.] Rounding back to the pinch, we walk with a steady pace, knowing that the eyes in the forest are only stars.   

I stop. Dave stops.

Two eyes that are not in the forest above, big and bright, weave smoothly amongst the boulders, cat-like. The eyes stayed fixed on us, not stopping but approaching. My headlamp is fixed as well. I stare steady on the eyes as they disappear and reappear, behind uneven ground. My world has become the circle of light my headlamp creates, like a campfire, everything that surrounds it goes pitch black, with no detail. My perception begins to fail me. I can not tell if the eyes are 50 feet away or 500. Dave scans the nearby cliffs for any signs of a get away (unlikely) or Mama. [Earlier that week the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Russia told us that a female tiger had been identified in the area, with several cubs.] It continues to approach, and both of us have pulled out our flares (thanks to Dmitry). We start to walk towards it, still unsure of its proximity. We walk slowly. It finally stops, lifts it's head high and stares for a few seconds. As we continue, it gets smaller and smaller. It was, indeed, a cat -- a house cat. Wanting to do the same thing, just seconds before, the tiny tigress turns and heads for the saftey of a cliff. Dave and I didn't say much after that. The stars in the forest became eyes again. 

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We just returned from dinner with Dmitry, and are reminded again of the hospitality and generosity of the Russian people. Tomorrow we head into the northern reaches of the 1,000,000 acre Reserve to aid a graduate student with her study of musk deer.   

There are over 60 Inspectors' cabins and outposts throughout the Reserve. A 28 year-old Inspector, Evgeni, cuts brush from around a cabin that overlooks several points of the highway, which bisects the Reserve. From here, the Inspectors can listen for gunshots and see if there are any suspicious vehicles on the road.

Concealing his cigarette, Evgeni examines a decaying skull of a wild boar. The Sea of Japan is to his back.

Surrounded by several feet of dry leaves, a single track in the sand makes me think - How quiet the predators must be, in the fall foliage.

 

Dave pours plaster in a tiger track, to make a mold.

 

A few days before we arrived, a small deer was shot and killed, right here along the main road: a first sign of the poaching season. Standard practice for poachers is to "spotlight", using a flashlight. The animal's eye shine and become visible. And the animal is stunned, by the light.

Without enough funding, for more state-of-the-art tactics (mechanical deer bait; cameras), the Department of Environmental Protection has devised a primitive roadside deterrent [as seen here]:  a reflective eye-shaped tape is stapled to the tree,  giving the animals a decoyed-camouflage, forcing "spoltlighters" to misfire or get discouraged and move on. 

Dmitry guides us along the coast; low clouds create a nearly invisible horizon.

Dave and I on top of "The Tower", one of the Reserve's highlight hiking destinations. The Education and Tourism Departments are working together to attract more tourist to the Reserve. Annual federal funding that enters the park is 53 million Rubles (1.62 million USD) and the salary for employees alone is 33 million Rubles ( 1 million USD). Without other sources of income the park struggles to fund important conservation efforts.

Dimitry Gorshkov became new Director in September. He says he feels very lucky to have entered the Reserve when he has, there are a lot projects to look forward to.

Common Seals

Setting up my homemade camera trap.

Big Dipper rising over the Centeral Sikohte-Alin Mountains.

Tidal zone waves, along the cliffs, wash over a smooth pebble floor. Illuminated by a headlamp the green and gold stones shimmer and move as if they are a backlit mosaic.

Trash litters the coastline; refrigerators, plastic bottles and hundreds of meters of old towing rope. Along the way we came along a group of 30 to 50 foot cliffs that edge right up to the water. A series of short lengths of rope were anchored and set as guidelines for the few that hike the beach. When Dave was ten feet from the bottom this line snapped, clean, sending him sliding down. Thankfully he was not hurt. 

Andre, an Inspector, takes a smoke break, dwarfed by tall pinnacles erupting out of the shallow water. 

Climbing in rubber boots, Andre scrambles above the jagged coast

We spent two weeks living like frontiersmen without electricity, plumbing or gas. We cooked all our meals on a wood fire stove-top. Fishing is illegal within the Reserve so this is store (back of a tuck) bought. Like we could catch a fish this big anyway

David contemplatively looks over a fallen tree where exactly 36 hours earlier a female tiger and cubs had scratched, played and crossed. Russian government has shut down and banned the use of snares for trapping tigers so WCS's only way to monitor the population is through the use of motion triggered cameras.

David and Wildlife Conservation Society scientist, Nicholi, look at a recent image that a trail camera captured of a tiger cub. The cub, his mother, and sibling(s?) passed in front of this camera a day and a half earlier.