Tigers & the Art of Persuasion

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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.

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An Osprey, Until It Wasn’t

 

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This poor bird was fed fish for WEEKS. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

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

In autumn, 2012, hunters found a young osprey wandering the forest of coastal Primorye. Whereas most of these fish-eating raptors had long flown south for the winter this one walked, dragging its broken wing behind it through the fallen leaves. The hunters chased the bird down, put it in a cardboard box, and brought it to Sergei, a colleague of mine they knew worked for a bird-conservation NGO. By the time the raptor reached him, however, the broken wing had fused. The osprey would never fly again.

I saw this bird for the first time a few weeks later when, checking camera traps to monitor poaching activity along the Maksimovka River, I happened upon Sergei at a field camp. He was there guiding a group of Japanese naturalists on a tour of the region. With no one to leave the osprey with at home, Sergei had brought the bird along, keeping it regularly fed with fish. As a keen angler himself, this was an arrangement that suited both man and bird well. In fact, when I arrived, I saw the large raptor sitting on a stump on the edge of camp, minding its own business, slowly devouring a trout Sergei had recently caught and hand delivered.

Ospreys are uncommon in Primorye. I’d only occasionally seen these fish specialists over the years—adults hovering, then diving for mullet or redfin in the brackish waters of river mouths along the Sea of Japan. And I’d never seen a young one before. From my vantage point across Sergei’s camp, it looked quite different from an adult but had the similar, familiar, black-and-white plumage pattern that adults did.

About a week later I saw the bird again, when Sergei’s caravan of naturalists came to the village of Ternei, where I worked at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s research center. I had offered to describe my work with Blakiston’s fish owls to them and Sergei brought the osprey, perched calmly on his arm, inside the building.

I took a look at this bird under the artificial light of the entryway. The bill didn’t seem right—not blunt and hooked like it should have been—and the whole body shape seemed off. As I scrutinized the bird a little closer it wasn’t long before the osprey farce was obvious. This was not an osprey! It bore only the most superficial resemblance to one.

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Walking Rivers with Tigers

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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.

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