How A Photographer Captured The Beauty of Siberian Tigers
All it takes is an ability to tolerate the loneliness of living for six months in a concrete bunker in the sub-zero temperatures of Siberia.
The Korean photographer and naturalist Sooyong Park spends six months per year in an underground concrete bunker in Siberia, battling loneliness and temperatures of -20 F to study one of the rarest and most beautiful, creatures on the planet: Panthera tigris altaica or the Siberian tiger. The king of all tigers, measuring as much as 10 feet in length, the Siberian tiger is also one of the most valuable to poachers. Park’s new book, Great Soul Of Siberia: Passion, Obsession And One Man’s Quest For The World’s Most Elusive Tiger, is both a declaration of love and a clarion call to protect these elusive felines - before it is too late.
Talking from his home in Seoul, he explains how he entertains himself in the wilderness by reading the labels on canned goods; why male tigers make good fathers; and how the Russian mafia is helping push the Siberian tiger towards extinction.
You studied literature for 17 years, and you write like a poet. How did you end up studying Siberian tigers? What is it about these tigers that draws the muse out of you?
For a long time I have been drawn to the beauty of living things and while literature is useful for explaining humanity, it is not enough for explaining nature. Science is more useful, but science is very dry. So I always wanted to fuse science and literature. To do that, I had to immerse myself in nature and observe living things with my own eyes and become one of nature’s species.
I focused on Siberian tigers, which are endangered and elusive. It was a challenge, and the difficulty in finding them led me deep into nature. After many years of study, I could identify individual tigers and recognize their family members. Understanding tiger families allowed me to peer more deeply into their lives: how they love, how they are born, how they live and die. They are not so different from human beings. Knowing that inspired compassion.
You spent six to seven months alone in a bunker during the long Siberian winters in hopes of filming Siberian tigers. Describe your bunker and how you survived the isolation and cold.
We called our bunkers ‘hotels’ to make them seem more comfortable. But in reality they were cramped, underground spaces measuring six feet by six feet by five. I had to stoop when standing up, but I spent most of my time sitting: waiting and watching for tigers with my camera. Outside it was -20F and snowy. I was unable to shower or turn a light on, and had to remain very quiet so as not to scare off the tigers, even though sometimes I wanted to shout. I felt as though I were in solitary confinement. I would read the labels of food containers for entertainment.
But it was worth it when a tiger appeared, with its beautiful orange and black fur stark against the white snow. Waiting for tigers in the bunker is also how I find myself. At first I observe and ponder things outside myself: mountains, trees, grass, wind, snow, ocean, and so on. But before long that becomes tedious. Then I come back to myself and explore my inner life. Who am I? But exploring myself soon becomes tedious too. Humans can’t live alone—we need to live together. When we don’t have any relationships, it’s possible to truly see the importance of relationships. Being in the bunker granted me this understanding.
I also understood that the life outside, whether grass, insect, or tiger, is the same as I am: dust in the vast space of eternal time. And in those moments, I could renounce myself and give my full compassion to the natural world. In the city, human beings think they are god. They forget their relationships to other living things. When I follow the tracks of tigers, I feel happy, and humble, because I know at the end of those tracks there is a tiger that can kill me—but a tiger I love.
You follow the matriarch, Bloody Mary, and her three cubs, for several years. Tell us about your experience with this wise tigress and how she got her name.
Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows each dog has a different character. Some dogs are gentle, while others are wild and hard to control. Tigers also have different personalities. Bloody Mary was very cautious and tenacious and extremely watchful with her cubs: a very good mother.
She was so thorough with her kills that the bloody remains left behind were always a sure sign she had been there. This is how she earned her name. But those gory scenes were actually proof that she did her job right and ensured her cubs were well fed. Her nature extended to how she treated humans. One time, I was camping with other researchers and we rose in the morning to find her footprints. She had circled our tents, sniffing for the metal that signals the presence of guns. She could tell we weren’t hunters because she didn’t smell metal, which meant we weren’t a threat. But when we departed the next morning we could still feel her watching us from the forest.
Another time, I made a big mistake when I built a bunker on the migration route of deer, as tigers follow deer. When she caught sight of my camera lens aimed at her cubs, she came at the bunker head-on. In that moment I understood the strength of a mother who will fight the whole world to protect her babies.
Luckily, one of the cubs’ feet came through the ceiling and that scared them, as pits are used to trap tigers. They backed off, but I knew she was outside watching for me to come out. I did not move all night. I knew if she heard me even shift, she would come and kill me. She continued to attack the bunker for three straight nights. And during those three nights I shivered with fear whenever she came back. But when she didn’t return on the fourth night, I felt empty and missed her.
You discover that “king tigers”—the father of cubs—check on their families. They play with the cubs, catch food for them. Talk about your new research on tiger families.
Before my research, there had not been much information about the family ecology of wild Siberian tigers. It is very difficult to observe the relationship between a mother tiger and her cubs, and especially difficult to observe that between the father tiger and his family. Staying in the bunker for long time allowed me several opportunities to observe tiger family dynamics.
When one tiger father I was observing, Khajain, returned from a long patrol, he and the mother, White Snow, brushed their cheeks against each other and licked each other. They looked like an old married couple! It had been a hard winter and Khajain brought prey to feed White Snow and her cubs and played with the cubs. It is normal for a mother tiger to take care of her cubs. But it was new to discover that fathers remember their cubs and come back to take care of them. Before this observation, we thought male tigers disappeared and never came back after mating with a female. But that’s not true. Tigers have families, like us.
Tell us about the people who worship tigers: the native Ussuri people. You formed relationships with these people, who also face an endangered way of life.
Today, there are only about 15,000 Ussuri people scattered throughout their traditional land, where they catch fish, hunt animals, and gather ginseng and medical roots. Many of their cultural traditions are similar to those of the First Nation people of North America.
The Ussuri have two totems. One is the tiger, the other is the bear. Long ago, people who lived in northern Siberia worshiped the bear or the wolf, since at that time in northern Siberia there were no tigers. Bears and wolves were the strongest animals they had seen, and thus made the most obvious totems for worship. But when the Ussuri achieved dominance, they worshiped the tiger. Nowadays, two shamans perform a mask ceremony. One shaman dresses as a tiger, the other dresses as a bear, and they pretend to fight.
Bloody Mary’s murder by poachers and the cruel death of her son White Sky had me in tears. Speak about poaching. What can we do to halt the export of tiger bone?
Large, wild male tigers are sold for $50,000 in Ussuri. They sell every part of the tiger: bone, flesh, skin. The buyers are mostly Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. In Ussuri, $50,000 is big money, so it is military people, the Russian mafia or specialist poachers who hunt wild tigers, using rifle traps and landmines.
With Dr. Galina Salkina, I run the Siberian Tiger Protection Society to protect wild tigers in Ussuri. Last year we caught a poacher. He killed a tiger that we knew very well. We took photos where the poaching took place. There was a murdered tiger in his jeep. We took him to a Russian court. But he was connected to the Russian Mafia, and they threatened to kill Dr. Salkina unless she retracted the charge. She did not retract, and she and I continue to receive threats.
To halt the export of tiger bone, I think the best method is to enlighten consumers in China, Korea, and Japan—but mostly China, since they are the biggest consumer and still believe in the old folklore that tiger bone is an aphrodisiac.
In a documentary on PBS with ecologist Chris Morgan, you see footage of Bloody Mary’s granddaughter. How did it feel to discover her alive? How old was she?
The name of Bloody Mary’s granddaughter is Gretel. After Bloody Mary was killed, we kept observing her cubs and following their tracks. We know Gretel’s territory and her behavior, much of which is like her mother’s and grandmother’s—that is what a good mother Bloody Mary was. She taught her cub to be a good mother, and so their family has survived despite poaching. Last year, Gretel gave birth to her third batch of cubs (one boy and three girls). We have pictures of Gretel’s den and her babies. She is 13 years old!
What do you love about Siberian tigers? And why is it important to preserve them?
I hold the lives of all living things in high esteem. But especially the Siberian tiger, since it is an endangered species at the top of the food chain.
I love their character. They avoid contact with humans at all costs and live secretive lives in vast mountain ranges. But when we do happen to see Siberian tigers in the wild, their talent for hiding, their wisdom to gauge the situation and know when to back off, and their bravery to fight to the end if they must are wondrous to observe.
When I follow the tracks of a Siberian tiger in the wild, I can sense when a tiger is nearby. I can’t see him, but he can see me. Of course, he can kill me. But he doesn’t. He watches me. I carry no gun and do not smell of metal or death. I love Siberian tigers because they make me feel humble. And when I am humble, I can let go of my ego and love all living things. When I feel compassion for other lives, I am happy.
This interview was translated from the Korean.
Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.