Heeding the Sign (Part One)

tigers-3-coat-slaght

Amur tiger. Photograph (c) Jonathan C. Slaght

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.

John had received reports that a radio-collared male tiger had not moved in days. This likely meant one of two things, both of them bad: either the tiger was lying in the forest dead, or he had been shot and his collar removed by poachers to cover their tracks. John collected me in his pickup truck late on an early summer morning and drove us west up the Serebryanka River valley along the only road, a dusty track pitted by ruts and littered with rocks and framed by low, oak-covered mountains.

After ten kilometers we crossed the Serebryanka River bridge and John eased the car off the road and into the concealment of the willows and cut the engine. He had a VHF receiver and an antenna, and was surprised to turn it on and hear the steady beeps of an “active” signal from this tiger’s collar. Radio transmissions are either “active”—meaning the tiger is moving about, or “passive”—meaning that the tiger has been immobile for some hours. It was the several “passive” readings in a row, over a series of days, that prompted field assistants to deem the tiger dead. Clearly they had been mistaken. I looked at John, assuming that this new information meant that we were to call the search off, but he shrugged and pushed ahead. We were now looking for a live tiger.

We followed the strength of the tiger’s radio signal to then up a forested hill, and John paused periodically to reassess our trajectory. Halfway through our ascent, sweaty from the humidity and the climb, the signal weakened significantly then melted entirely into the background static. We looked at each other: how had the tiger disappeared? When we reached the top of the hill it became clear. John located a tiger bed near the ridge–the spot where the animal had been laying only moments before noticing our approach–and the cat had retreated over the hill crest into the neighboring valley. The signal dropped out because we had lost line-of-sight; VHF radio signals are flexible but cannot pass through mountains. John rummaged among the depression of oak leaves left by the tiger’s body and examined it for sign, while I kept my eyes fixed on the ridge line for the tiger that for all I knew might soon return. John picked up stray tiger hairs here and there, holding them to the light, then for some reason knelt closely to the bed and inhaled deeply. He paused, repeated, and then looked at me with astonishment.

“I smell bear,” he began, “I think this tiger killed and ate a bear!” A smile played on his lips as he stood up. “We’ve got a dead bear to look for.”

I stared at him, incredulous. Things had gone from (a) one dead tiger to (b) one live tiger to (c) one live tiger and one dead bear; all in the span of about forty-five minutes. This was the large carnivore equivalent of things starting to get out of hand.

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Concludes here.

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