Tracking the great Siberian tiger

If you read one nature book this year, make it Sooyong Park’s account of wildlife hell among the most beautiful — and persecuted — animals on earth

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger Sooyong Park

Collins, pp.288, £10.99, ISBN: 9780008156169

Of all charismatic animals, tigers are surely the most filmed, televised, documented, noisily cherished and, paradoxically, the most persecuted on Earth. It is also probably the one wild mammal more people wish to see than any other. In Asia, images of striped cats are indivisible from the modern tourist industries of several countries, especially India and Nepal.

Yet this is not the case for the most impressive of all tiger populations, which is the race found in Siberia. Just to give you a sense of its stature: most Bengal tigers weigh about 150kg, but this relative from south-easternmost Russia can be more than twice as heavy.

The Korean author of this extraordinary book describes a moment when he investigates the claw marks left by one of these super cats, a male called Khajain. The dagger lines carved into the tree trunk stand way over Sooyong Park’s head at more than 3 metres. ‘Khajain’, incidentally, means ‘Great King’.

The other statistic that explains why virtually no one has caught so much as a glimpse of this tiger race in the wild, which has been estimated to number just 500 individuals, is the size of its territory. Once again Khajain illustrates the issue beautifully. By chance Park was able to reconstruct, based on footprints and other physical signs, a sense of Khajain’s movements in one 15-hour period. In that time this animal had covered 92 kilometres, the equivalent distance from the Humber to the Wash.

Park has worked for almost 20 years just south of Vladivostok in four contiguous Russian nature reserves, and estimates that their total land area, which is equal to the whole of Lincolnshire, has a carrying capacity of just 20 to 25 Siberian tigers. When he started the task of trying to film them there was less than an hour’s footage in existence. Today Park possesses thousands of hours of film that document in exquisite detail the lives, loves and fortunes of several Siberian
tiger families.

To achieve this he put himself to more expense and through more personal privation than I have ever encountered in the context of a natural history endeavour, except perhaps the events described in Apsley Cherry Gerrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, when he and other members of the Scott Polar team walked to an emperor penguin colony in the Antarctic winter.

Park’s version of wildlife hell involved not exertion but inaction. His entire summers were spent tracking tiger movements so that he could work out the optimum spots in the forest where he could excavate and establish look-out hides from which to film their behaviour. These shelters were made of wood panelling lined with blankets and cardboard and measured 2×2 metres with a ceiling height of just 1.8 metres.

In winter it could be as cold inside his chamber as the exterior landscape: 30º centigrade below. Yet Park would wait for up to two months at a time, never leaving his underground cell nor his self-appointed task for any reason, until relieved by colleagues. He would subsist on rice balls, seaweed, dried fruit and nuts: ingredients selected to give off the minimum odour and thus the least sign of occupation to his beloved tigers. Even his own excrement was bagged and hermetically sealed and stashed with him in his lair until he was re-supplied.

Centuries of persecution have made this particular population of tigers hyper-sensitive to any kind of human disturbance. Park suggests that poachers routinely put out traps and pre-loaded guns that the cats invariably discover and destroy. All 23 of his own self-triggering cameras had been located and ruined in like fashion by tigers. It is this survival ethic that explains how these animals have persisted, despite so much poaching, and why Park was obliged to go to such lengths to film them.

His documentary footage is one remarkable achievement, but this book is another. Nothing is exaggerated, no achievement is trumpeted, no risk, exertion or challenge is overstated. Instead Park pares everything back to a precise poetry of fact and of patient observation.

He treats both his massive knowledge of tigers and his extraordinary personal story with complete humility. He also captures the soul of these Siberian forests and their wildlife riches in a way that can have few rivals. As a work that attempts to persuade that animals, other than our own species, really matter, it has few equals. As a loving and heartfelt tribute to the majesty of tigers it is peerless. If you read one nature book this year, make it this one.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £9.25 Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments