A Long Walk through Leopard Country

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First signs of autumn in southwest Primorye, Russia. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

My latest from Scientific American:

In 2011 I was asked last minute to give a plenary talk about Amur tigers at a conference in Ussuriisk, Russia. Unfortunately, when I received this request I was twenty kilometers from the closest highway, and the conference was in only a few days.

I was volunteering at the time at an isolated Amur leopard trapping camp in southern Primorye, Russia, where scientists were putting radio collars on a few of these critically-endangered cats to better understand their movements. I was there as an extra pair of legs to hike up and down the steep slopes to reach the trap lines, and as an extra pair of ears to monitor the trap transmitters through the night in case of a midnight capture.

My boss, through the muffled static of a satellite phone, laid out the plan for the talk: I would walk the twenty kilometers to the highway, where a colleague named Andrei would meet me. The closest town to my location, called Nezhino, was small and only had a few stores. Andrei was to meet me at the one right next to the highway. He’d have a USB flash drive containing the presentation and would drive me sixty kilometers to Ussuriisk in time to deliver the talk.

I woke at dawn on the designated day, zipped out of my tent, and hit the trail early. I was tracing the same route I’d followed to reach the leopard camp so it was familiar, but I hesitate to call it a road. Yes, vehicles can travel on it, but it’s not something I would recommend. Napoleon Bonaparte noted that “in Russia, there are no roads: only directions in which one travels,” an 18th century quote apt in this case. The road was a muddy network of intersecting, waterlogged ruts where, if you didn’t know exactly which fork to follow, you were guaranteed to get your car stuck.

For the most part the road was easy to follow on foot, and as morning turned to day I reveled in this beautiful forest at the tail end of summer. Much of the canopy was still green but the maples were ablaze. I saw a few roe deer and a single wild boar, and my path intersected that of an Amur tiger that left clear and deep pugmarks in the soft mud of the road.

 

There were three river crossings. I’d take off my boots, socks, and pants to cautiously negotiate the smooth river stones with my bare feet, which throbbed from the icy water by the time I reached the far shore. I’d dab my feet dry with my now-muddy shirt before continuing on.

By noon—about five hours after I’d left camp—the forest yielded to field. The moisture had nowhere to hide from the hot sun here as it did in the dense understory, so the muddy track abruptly morphed to a dusty road. Far away I could see flashing reflectance—the sun striking the metal hulls of cars moving silently along the distant asphalt highway.

I surprised a leopard cat—the smallest of the four wild felid species in the region—sunning on the fringes of the dirt road. It darted noiselessly out of sight into the tall grass. I eventually reached the hard, firm surface of the highway, and moved briskly along its shoulder toward the store I spied ahead.

I’d made it.

My water bottle was empty and had been for a while. If I wasn’t so dehydrated I would have been salivating over the cold beer I was about to buy. I paused outside the store in my moment of victory to pull my wallet from my pack, but it was not there. In my hurry to leave camp on time that morning, I must have left it in my tent. I had no money.

I sat on the store’s parking lot curb in silent defeat and looked at my watch. I expected Andrei to arrive around two o’clock, so I had some waiting to do. Not a lot happens in Nezhino on an average day. I spent my time watching two teenage boys practice starting and riding a motorcycle, an exercise in awkwardness and determination. I sat still as periodic cycles of sedans and minivans pulling up to the store, idled while their occupants emerged to buy something, then continued on their way. No one paid any attention to me.

During one of the many long, quiet periods between customers, someone stuck their head out of the store then tucked it back in quickly when I looked up. A few minutes later a woman appeared, standing between me and the sun so I did not have to shield my eyes as I looked up at her.

“Are you ok?” she asked. I was taken aback. Of course I was, and I said as much. She held my eyes for a moment longer then went back into the store.

A minute later she was back, this time clutching a fifty-ruble bank note, enough to buy something to eat, which she extended. “Take it,” she said, “it looks like you need it.”

I was flooded with embarrassment. I regarded myself through the lens of this stranger: unshaven from weeks in the forest, sweaty, mud-caked from the knees down and mud-speckled everywhere else, sitting on the crumbling concrete lip of a parking lot in a pit stop town with my head hung low from exhaustion. I looked, to put it mildly, down on my luck.  I stammered a polite refusal of her money and, after she went back inside, understood that I could not wait there any longer. I was too ashamed.

I stood and, with aching legs and tarnished dignity, started walking toward Ussuriisk. I knew what car Andrei was driving and, with the sparse traffic and long line of sight, it was not difficult to flag him down when I eventually saw his car approach. I made it to the conference venue, showered there, and changed into the clean outfit I’d rolled into my pack to give the presentation.

The shopkeeper’s generosity, however, stayed with me long after that day. The next time I was in Nezhino I stopped in that store, even though I did not need to, because I knew that decent, good-hearted people worked there. People who offer a helping hand to the exhausted and penniless after a long walk in leopard country.

____________________________________

Russian translation of this post is available. For tweets about birds, tigers, and Russia, follow Jonathan Slaght on Twitter.

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