From the tight, conical confines of the blue-and-silver helicopter, I delighted in the view outside the thick porthole glass. We floated above the rippling rolls of bare oak and dull-green pine of the central Sikhote-Alin Mountains, and although it was already mid-April, winter still lingered. These mountains held snow where I expected to see the timid offerings of early spring.
My companions on this journey did not share my sense of wonder, however. Rather, they gazed introspectively at the metal floor or distractedly out the other portholes, silently analyzing their recent failures. We flew empty-handed to the village of Ternei after several hours unsuccessfully trying to locate and dart tigers for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Siberian Tiger Project.
These were tigers already outfitted with radio collars; transmitters that allowed the researchers to monitor the movements of these endangered animals, but now the batteries powering those devices were nearing the ends of their lives. The collars needed to be replaced.
We located two tigers rather quickly but one of them–a cautious female–never left the cover of a dense pine stand. We only knew she was there by the shifting signal as we hovered impotently above. The other animal trotted away from the approaching helicopter under cover of a thick oak forest. This allowed us to see his striped coat below the lattice of branches but prevented a clear shot with the tranquilizer gun. Eventually we ran out of time–fuel dwindled past the point of safety and necessitated a retreat to Ternei–so the endeavor was aborted. If the batteries on those old collars failed before the tigers were recaptured, these long-term study animals would likely be off our radar forever.
I was just a guest on this adventure–invited to observe–I had no research hinging on those captures and no grant coffers depleted from five hours of burned helicopter fuel and pilot time. So I looked out the window again at the passing mountains, wishing that the roaring rotors overhead would dissipate the heavy air of defeat in that small space several hundred meters above the frozen ground.