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.

This, however, is exactly where Martin Gilbert found himself a few years ago. Martin, a veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society now finishing up his PhD at the University of Glasgow, spent several field seasons in Primorye trapping and releasing small carnivores. He ran a field project collecting samples from the badgers and leopard cats and raccoon dogs of the region. He catalogued the infectious diseases they carried to understand how those afflictions might impact Amur tigers.

The stout, pale Scot led a quiet field life sharing a cabin on the Sea of Japan coast with a ranger who spoke as little English as he did Russian. Martin spent his days wandering trap lines in the Lazo Reserve to draw blood from any creature tempted by the stinking piles of salmon heads he used to bait his traps.

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Martin Gilbert baits his cage traps with stinking salmon heads. Photograph Ⓒ Jonathan C. Slaght.

One morning, three weeks into the monotony of the 2013 field season, Martin was nearing the end of his farthest trap line. He’d been walking along the Tachingoza Creek—more a trickle than anything else—with the valley floodplain on one bank and a steep slope of oak, maple, and birch on the other. The trap line drew him about forty meters into the valley when a commanding roar on the far side of the creek snapped Martin from his thoughts.

Sometimes when a hidden animal chuffs or hisses in the understory my mind conjures a large predator, only to see a deer or badger come into view. Unknown noises can be intimidating. When it’s a tiger, however, there are no questions. The belly roar from these animals pokes a primitive corner of the brain to produce an instant understanding that this is no drill. It is the end of the world.

Martin looked across the creek and saw flashes of a striped juggernaut crashing toward him downslope, birch trees swaying in its wake. He was sure the tiger would stop at the creek.  The sounds of splashing water and slipping river stones told him it did not: the animal did not even slow down and had not stopped roaring. It would crest the bank and be fully within view in seconds.

Martin is no field novice. He’s captured snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan, chased vultures in Cambodia, and trapped giraffes in Zimbabwe. He lunged toward the closest tree for protection, pivoted behind its laughable girth of several inches, and pulled a hand flare from his pocket. The meter of fire and smoke this device produced would be his only defense if the tiger attacked.

Martin recounted to me what happened next:

“She was roaring throughout, but seemed momentarily disorientated, having lost sight of me in the strides it took her to clear the creek. She came to a stop barely five meters away, standing poised and side on, her ears back and adrenalin eyes wide. I have no idea how long that moment lasted: I with my flare ready to ignite and she, caught in the indecision of whether to renew her charge, or move off.”

The Scot was defeated and the tiger decided its point had been made. Turning with a trot, the lithe body of orange, black, and white moved upriver among the trees until disappearing completely. The tiger never looked back.

Martin continued: “The worst aspect of the aftermath was the realization that she had departed in roughly the direction of my last cage trap, and that it still hadn’t been checked. I waited an inordinately long time in fear that she might loop back and renew her assault, but all remained still. Slowly, and with hyper-caution, I edged forward to a patch of fallen trees that concealed my trap, just close enough to be sure it was empty – then made a quiet, watchful, and hasty retreat to camp. I didn’t see her again.”

Martin returned a few days later with Linda Kerley, a tiger biologist with the Zoological Society of London who had been monitoring a tigress nicknamed Sabrina in the area. They found the rotting remains of a sika deer on the slope opposite of where Martin was charged, suggesting that Sabrina had fed there for a few days, and had certainly observed Martin pass several times before making herself known.

But why did Sabrina decide to charge him when she did?

Linda examined images from nearby camera traps and discovered that Sabrina was traveling with three young cubs. She explained that mother tigers typically stash their small, vulnerable offspring away from a kill site, then approach and nurse when it’s safe to do so. A likely scenario is that Sabrina hid her cubs somewhere near the creek that day and, hearing Martin splash through the water, decided to push him off. Her persuasion worked.

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A camera trap image of Sabrina, taken a few days before she charged Martin. The photo shows she is lactating. Photograph Ⓒ Linda Kerley, Zoological Society of London

Most human-tiger interactions in Russia are one-sided. Given the dense understory and a tiger’s near-magical skill of self-concealment, the human usually never knows the tiger was even there.

Typically when tigers make themselves known it’s to warn, not attack, such as the case with Martin, and there are only about twenty recorded fatal attacks on humans in Russia over the past century. These facts may or may not provide comfort as you push through the lush, humid forests of Primorye, wondering if that sound you heard was a deer or perhaps a tiger.

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Follow me on Twitter: @JonathanSlaght

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