2014 was a bumper year for pine nuts in the forests of Primorye; the enormous Korean pines of the region produced then dropped countless cones dripping with resin and packed tight with nuts onto the soft forest floor. In response, droves of shishkari, pine cone collectors, mobilized and descended on the forest with massive white sacks that entered empty and left bursting at the seams. The activities of the shishkari were not as evident during daylight hours, when their camps were hidden behind veils of willow and birch that lined the road, but when driving at night the dark forests twinkled with shishkari campfires with such regularity that it gave the impression of steering along a lighted pathway. By the end of the season, the forest floor had been as though vacuumed of its cones.
In autumn, I spent a night at a friend’s hunting cabin on the Takema River north of Ternei, and discovered that a team of shishkari had made camp nearby. I spoke to the crew leader, who revealed he had sixty men working that river drainage alone. These were ne’er-do-wells from all over eastern Russia—some from as far away as central Siberia—drawn to the Korean pine forests of Primorye for the easy profit they could squeeze from its cones. The team had been there six weeks already and in that time had amassed 4,000 sacks of pine cones; each sack would sell for about six dollars each. I did the math quickly in my head: $24,000.
I voiced my amazement and the crew leader shrugged, then commented:
“There are sticky, aromatic bundles of money just lying on the forest floor. All you have to do is go pick them up.”
I learned that approximately 125 pine cones could fit in a single sack, meaning that the 4,000 already collected represent a half a million pine cones removed just from that narrow river valley. As I write, this harvest is making its way from Primorye to China then onto the world for pesto sauces and whatever else people use pine nuts for; half a million pine cones that would otherwise have helped bears fatten up for hibernation, allowed wild boar and chipmunks and birds to survive the winter, or simply grown into pine trees themselves. There is a direct and fragile link between a Korean pine forest, wild boar and red deer numbers, and healthy tiger populations.
A representative of the Ternei County Forestry Department recently disclosed that the Takema River crew I’d encountered in October did not pull up stakes until the end of December, and estimated with some weariness that 500,000 tons of pine cones had left Ternei County alone in 2014.
If continued apace, this form of exhaustive, methodological, and unregulated resource extraction will eventually purge this iconic species from the forest. Western shoppers will complain about the rise of the cost of pine nuts, Chinese middlemen and Russian villagers will focus on another natural resource, and the once-mighty forests of Primorye will be devoid of pine, wild boar, and tigers. And in their place, like gravestones marking the passing of this great resource, we will find the weathered stick frames and faded blue tarps of abandoned shishkari camps.