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Our truck stops, and my host looks in the rearview mirror. Shifting gears, he reverses slowly, peering out his window. A few hours prior, fresh snowfall created a new layer of substrate, ideal for tracking wild animal footprints. Conversing in Russian with my translator, I miss everything except the word “novy,” meaning “new.” For many days I have seen tracks in the snow, but always with the Russian descriptor “stary,” meaning “old.” My body feels electric as I realize what we have found: fresh Siberian tiger tracks.
A female tiger crossed the road two hours before us, leaving a trail that we follow all morning. As space, time and imagination merge together, I feel energy flowing through me — I can sense her lingering presence. Capturing it all with a camera crew for a television show provides an outlet for my excitement. It’s palpable for everyone involved as we find urination spots, tiger feces and a scent tree. I discover a tuft of fur on a tree where a tiger scratched her head, and I cherish it like a little boy. We track the footprints, identifying where she stalked prey and failed to kill. I am so enraptured in the moment and with this tiger that I forget the harrowing journey to arrive here.
Under normal circumstances, visiting Russia would be simple for an American citizen. I am, however, not visiting under normal circumstances. One week prior to my trip, Russia invaded Ukraine, starting the largest war in Europe since World War II. Fear was a part of this journey long before I confront these incredible feline predators.
Loudspeakers crackle with an Arabic language announcement, breaking the 4 a.m. silence at Dubai International Airport. A flight to Kabul is departing from the gate next to us, and it’s time for Aeroflot flight SU 523 to begin check-in. In retaliation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, day 9 of sanctions are beginning to take their toll. My flight is the final international Aeroflot flight arriving into Moscow. It’s as if I am walking into an unknown dungeon with the doors closing automatically behind me. There may be no way out.
My cameraman ‘Emad’ and I look at each other with anxious smirks and raised eyebrows. As if deciphering animal signs in the bush, we are learning from our airport surroundings to determine whether it’s safe for us to board this flight. Bright red passports, blond hair, and Slavic facial features tell me the rest of the passengers are Russian. My passport holder ensures the characteristic American dark blue and insignia are hidden. Only the inside is visible to airport staff, as I’m unsure how welcome U.S. citizens will be.
The only route into Russia is through the Middle East, which is why we are entering through Dubai. In total, transit is 65-70 hours to reach our final destination near Khabarovsk, in Far East Russia. Our destination is closer in proximity to China and North Korea than Moscow or continental Europe.
Back in the United States, media pundits and government officials declare that American citizens in Russia are in imminent danger. The story goes, Putin and Russian officials may arrest U.S. citizens to hold them as political prisoners. My ex-military contacts exhort me to abandon my trip. I wonder if they know something I do not. Most friends and acquaintances are sending their well-meaning concern in a last-ditch effort to prevent me from leaving, but it’s not helping my emotional and mental stability in the situation. As uncertain as the transit is, I feel more alive than I have in years.
And for good reason. I’m traveling to the far side of the world to track the largest wild felid on the planet and immerse myself in its habitat.
The Siberian tiger is the only subspecies habituated to arctic conditions, and individuals can grow up to 700 pounds while measuring as long as 10 feet. It has surgical blades for claws as long as a talon on a velociraptor. There is no animal — not even wolves or bears — that a Siberian tiger can’t kill. Sometimes they kill other predators to eat, and sometimes they kill just to lord over their domain.
This is why the indigenous Udege people of Far East Russia considered the Siberian tiger to be “Amba” — God.
It is this creature, and the awe-inspiring nature of large cats, that captures the attention of my host, Alexander Batalov. Upon arriving in Khabarovsk, we are greeted by Batalov’s smiling face, outstretched hand and camouflage outfit that appears to be from the 1980s or ’90s.
After we collect our camera equipment, Batalov wastes no time in directing us to his 1984 Toyota right-wheel drive truck, which he purchased directly from Japan. It’s old but incredibly reliable. Every morning he warms up the motor in -20 degree Fahrenheit temperatures and uses a broom of straw to remove snow from the vehicle. He is often working, tweaking and perfecting his truck. It’s in great shape for how much it has seen — just like him.
Alexander is 70 years old, but he seems much younger. He is a Russian-trained conservation biologist and game warden who has dedicated the past 40 years of his life to researching, capturing and protecting the Siberian tiger. For decades, he’s leased approximately 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) from the Russian government; here, he conducts Siberian tiger research and hosts hunting and ecotourism experiences. Located in the the heart of Siberian tiger territory, somewhere between 1-2% of the global population call his preserve home, while 5% passes through annually.
I’m in awe as soon as I meet Alexander. I know little about him, but he exudes the mentor archetype. His passion and commitment to the Siberian tiger are infectious, and his work to preserve the tiger is legendary. In nearby villages, everyone knows the name Alexander Batalov. Their demeanor changes when they learn we are with him.
As a trained game warden, Alexander tightly regulates the hunting on his preserve to ensure a sustainable take without adversely impacting the tigers’ food source, the proceeds of which help to fund his adjoining conservation work. Roe deer, wild boar and Manchurian wapiti are the primary prey for Siberian tigers and humans alike. We will eat like the tigers eat.
Alexander’s son, Sergei, is our camp chef, fueling us with wild game and foraged vegetables every meal. He was raised loving the tiger and all the animals in the wild and has fully bought into his father’s mission, consistently seeking to help him and guests alike. He possesses an uncanny ability to make any food taste good. At the end of a lunch stew, I gnaw on a roe deer bone and Alexander says with a laugh, “Eat like a tiger. Become a tiger.”
Emad and I are in the Russian Far East to shoot a pilot TV show about indigenous cultures and the spiritual practices they employ while hunting, fishing and connecting to the land. It quickly becomes apparent that the star of the show is the Siberian tiger — not me as the host, the fishing scenes or the indigenous people I spend time with.
After 70 years of life, one thing Alexander has learned is how to appreciate the simple things. One of his favorite pastimes is ice fishing, and he invites an indigenous Udege hunter and fisherman named Sasha to teach me. Arriving by snowmobile early in the morning, we start the trek to a frozen creek nearby.
The trees in the taiga are barren this time of year. The snow is thick. Because much of the nature preserve has been logged, young trees emerge straight from the snow at random intervals, most little more than 50 years old. The larger old growth forest that used to permeate the Russian Far East no longer dominates. We spot the occasional old tree — often large linden trees — but it is clear to me this looks very different than it used to. It’s a somber visual.
Preparing our camera equipment for the ice fishing scene made us late, and the sun is already melting the landscape. The sled is heavy behind us, and we start to sweat as we sink in the deep snow every few steps. Sasha has lived in the taiga his whole life, but the depth of it gets to him too. He falls, rolls slightly and laughs.
After I fail numerous times to understand how Sasha creates the perfect symmetrical hole in the ice to catch an Asiatic trout species called lennock, we finally sit down on the overturned sled to have a conversation about his relationship to the Siberian tiger. Shy at first, he begins to tell the story of the time he faced a snarling tiger only 20 yards away. Slowly, he becomes more animated.
“Of course I felt fear. How could I not?” he shares as he looks down. “This tiger had just killed two of my dogs and best friends. It was feeding on one in front of me.”
It’s clear to me this conversation is taking him back to that harrowing moment, back to a place of death and terror, but also of awe and beauty.
“All I could think about staring into that tiger’s face … was how beautiful it was. I could never kill such a majestic animal,” he recounts.
My heart flutters. His ability to see beauty and transcend heartache in this moment is a reflection of his culture’s relationship to the Siberian tiger. The Udege erected shrines in the tigers’ honor. Many Udege myths include tigers taking human wives or husbands. A famed Udege elder once said, “We rely on ourselves, but pray for Tiger to help us. We worship his strength.”
As is the case with many indigenous people, gods do not have the same benevolent nature as the Judeo-Christian God. For many with animist beliefs, gods are both loving and also malevolent. The term “Amba” in Udege refers to the tiger as a god, but also a dangerous spirit one must be humble to propitiate. When broken down to its root etymology, “Amba” simply means “great.”
On our way home from ice fishing, I collect the camera traps set up to photo- graph the wild tigers. My first sighting of a Siberian tiger on a small Browning game camera in Alexander’s preserve is more than great – it electrifies my whole body, imprinted on my soul and brought out my curiosity and excitement.
Retrieving and setting up camera traps is of heightened importance this year because the Russian government is funding a census to determine how many wild tigers remain in the country. At last count, there were 540. Seeing a tiger with the naked eye is possible, but it requires incredible luck. Finding a tiger on a game camera is a far more effective way of locating and monitoring these elusive felines.
Sergei excitedly waves me over as he sorts through the camera footage and points to a large tiger gliding through the dark. She’s beautiful, and well-known to Alexander by the stripes on her skin. Having a sense of closeness and intimacy with this animal, Alexander shares her name: “Zholta boka” (yellow back), a reference to her unique striped pattern.
He explains that the stripes of a tiger are part of the animal, occurring on her skin even if all the fur is shaved off. A tiger’s fur pattern is the only way to accurately identify them in the wild. A footprint can look the same from one tiger to another.
As “Zholta boka” walks out of view of the camera, another tiger appears: a two-year-old male cub nearly as large as she was. Over time, as the affection and friendship between Alexander and myself grows, he tells me, “We are going to give Zolta boka’s son your name.” And so Mansal, the tiger cub, becomes part of the family.
There is something about naming a wild animal that makes it impossible to disassociate from it. Each animal that I hunt, I name. To name an animal creates a deeper connection to it. I’ve never met another person who names wild animals except Alexander, and it’s one of those small signs that this is a man I can trust, a person with an aligned guiding light in the wilderness.
In seeing Zholta boka and feeling naturally bound to this animal, it becomes even more challenging to learn about the myriad of threats to the Siberian tiger.
Poaching and land-use change — specifically natural resource extraction — are the two major threats to the Siberian tiger of the Russian Far East. Near the large port city of Vladivostok, poaching remains a serious threat, with the Chinese medicinal trade creating economic demand for
nearly all parts of the tiger carcass – hide, bones, meat and organs. In the 1990s, during the hardest economic times in recent Russian history, a full tiger carcass could sell for $50,000. Today, that number is far greater, and some organized crime profits off this niche export.
Traveling north to the province of Khabarovsk and Batalov’s reserve, the major threat is resource extraction. Although Alexander has a lease on 50,000 acres of tiger habitat, it comes with strings attached.
Just down the road from his main camp, loggers are removing old trees on the land he cherishes. I am incensed, but I learn from Alexander’s steadfastness. He shows me what it looks like to dedicate his mind, body and spirit to conservation without becoming triggered by outcomes.
In one instance, a logging truck blocks our route on the main road. Alexander gets out of his truck and visits with the loggers, all of them seeking to shake his hand with a slight bow. He asks about their families, shows them kindness and an open heart — and they give him clear respect in return. In private he expresses his frustration at the constant logging, but he is a walking embodiment of my favorite Russian proverb: “Hope dies last.”
And this hope isn’t only for Russians or tiger lovers. The Siberian forests represent an arboreal subcontinent for a quarter of the world’s total wood inventory and more than half of its coniferous forests. It remains one of the planet’s biggest carbon sinks. John Vaillant, author of The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, waxes eloquently: “While tigers were being stolen from the forests, the forests were also being stolen from the tigers, and from the country.”
In reflecting out loud to Alexander about the felled old growth forests, he reminds me where they typically end up: in my homeland of America. We are often unaware of the corners of the planet we touch when we outsource extraction. By the time the affordable hardwood furniture makes it to an American family’s home, the source is obfuscated. Out of sight, out of mind.
Aside from logging, a new threat has emerged on Alexander’s doorstep. In 2019, American mining expert ‘Thomas Bowens’ visited the village of Durmin on the outskirts of Batalov’s preserve to understand and develop a gold and silver mine. Wary of natural resource extraction, but eager to see the small community of Durmin thrive, the ethnic Russians and native Udege gave the miners an opportunity to explain their intentions.
“After they visited the village, I knew they were not here for anything but money,” says Alexander over a cup of ubiquitous Indian black tea. “They filmed Thomas Bowens and other agents giving out gifts to local children to show how they were giving back to the community. They took the gifts back after they were done filming, if you can believe it.”
The mistrust runs deep here, and for good reason. Native Russians in the area are against the mine. According to court documentation, many politicians and government officials vetoed the mine. The indigenous Udege didn’t want it either. Eventually, the mining project and permits were rejected in order to maintain prime, pristine tiger habitat.
But as with most things in Russia, politics overruled the preferences of the people. The old governor was removed in 2020 and the new one thought a mine with $860 million in silver and gold was more valuable than the health of the ecosystem around it.
Far East Russia is one of the poorest and least developed regions in Russia. During the Soviet Union, it was the most neglected part of the empire. After Perestroika and the fall of Communism in the 1990s, the neglect escalated. Today, the region faces another wave of economic challenges as international sanctions cripple the country after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the lack of development might be part of its saving grace — the obstacle becomes the way.
Alexander opines on the success he sees in American conservation programs. He wonders fervently why African countries can bring in so much money from ecotourism and hunting, but Russia has struggled to do so. In the United States, eco-tourism is an approximately $14 billion industry. In Kenya, it is $450 million. In Russia, it’s $11 million. With a war of aggression being waged in Ukraine, it’s no wonder Russia has not garnered the attention other ecologically rich nations have. Wildlife tourism is a renewable resource — one that offers hope, awe and inspiration — but only if people feel safe enough to visit.
In 1947, Russia became the first country in the world to declare the Siberian tiger an endangered species, and it continues to reinforce conservation efforts today. How these efforts may be impacted by current global events, global sanctions and the war in Ukraine is impossible to say.
Alexander ends a conversation with a poignant reminder: “This isn’t a Russian animal. It’s a human animal. We all have a role to play in preserving it.”
Therein lies the great truth about conservation the world over. Each species that disappears due to human encroachment is part of the collective human legacy. It is all of our responsibilities, yet courage is required to take on that duty.
For Alexander, courage means commitment in the face of far greater and more violent forces. When threatened by unsavory Russian organized crime figures in the past, Alexander retorts, “I’m not afraid of the tiger. Why should I be afraid of you?”
His courage gives me courage. I need plenty of it on my departure from Russia. We cut our trip short when Russian banks stop accepting American dollars that aren’t in perfect shape — we’re running out of money. According to Russian ex-military contacts, border patrol is far more intense on Americans than when we entered two weeks prior. After mulling over and evaluating thoughts of smuggling ourselves out through Kazakhstan, we decide to test our luck through the Moscow airport.
It is fitting that the greatest danger I feel in searching for Siberian tigers is not the animal itself – it is the forces of man, beyond my control. The last day before my departure, a woman at my hotel in Khabarovsk says, “Wow, you’re brave to be in Russia right now.” An hour later, a waitress at a downtown eatery reflects with surprise how she’d never imagine meeting an American in Russia.
As Emad and I pack our gear on the eve of our departure, we spend hours reasoning through every angle. Will Russian authorities hold us as political prisoners? Will the fact we were Americans filming in Russia be considered espionage? Ultimately, no matter how much we rationalize the situation, we are in the hands of forces greater than us.
Now, writing this from the safety of home, the powerlessness that we felt is assuredly what faces Siberian tigers today. As capable as they are, the forces of humankind put them in a precarious position, one where their survival is in our collective human hands. A combination of luck, good will and humanity gave us an opportunity to leave Russia unscathed, and those same forces will be needed to ensure wild Siberian tigers roam the taiga for generations to come.
Fire & Fear on the Middle Fork