Caixin
Mar 12, 2016 08:11 AM

In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger

Siberia doesn't seem to be an obvious home for tigers – the jungles of South and Southeast Asia, perhaps, but not the forests and frigid winters of Asia's north. And yet the wilderness of Russia's Far East is home to a subspecies of this elegant animal. Subject to poaching and competition from humans, there are now only hundreds of the Amur tiger, or Panthera tigris altaica, left, but they still roam Primorsky Krai, with some spilling over into neighboring China and Korea.

Korea is not the first country that comes to mind when one thinks of nature conservation. This, however, might just be Western, English-speaking ignorance. The Great Soul of Siberia, part memoir, part reportage and nature travelogue, is a slice through Korean filmmaker Sooyong Park's two decades in the Ussuri forest tracking and observing tigers. The prose, while not always elegant and occasionally overwrought, is evocative, heartfelt and vividly descriptive particularly when Park dwells on the forest in winter.

The tigers are elusive animals, and they ought to be, given that humans on the whole want to hunt them for skins and body parts. Park is convinced that the tigers have learned about men, their machines and their behavior and have come to understand them and avoid them. As a result, Park spends most of his time, months on end, sitting in camouflaged bunkers. Yet interactions with tigers amount, on the whole, to glimpses. But when they come close, they come very close indeed, to within – literally – a hair's breadth.

The book's pace reflects this. Park will engage in long diversions about the ecology of the tiger, the beliefs of the indigenous peoples, references to Kipling, side notes with such details as "viagra" being "tiger" in Sanskrit, the impact of modernity, the history of conservation – followed by pages of furious activity as the tigers show up, sometimes in just a fleeting glimpse. Park's northern forest is also populated by other creatures: deer, owls, and not least an incredible two-meter, 100kg trout and a sturgeon five times as heavy.

There is a narrative running through the book in which a tiger, somewhat unfortunately called "Bloody Mary" due to the manner of her hunting, is a central character. Park, and the reader, come to know Bloody Mary very well, almost too well. I won't spoil the plot by summarizing it, but there are parts in which Park's heart beats very fast, and some others which are terribly, terribly sad. In between, there are periods of considerable boredom dominated by mice.

Siberia has generated few books relative to its size, at least in English. No one book can cover the region. As a memoirist, Park doesn't compare with the philosophical Sylvain Tesson and his Consolations of the Forest. Jacek Hugo-Bader is a better travel writer and observer of humanity and Anna Reid a more exacting ethnographer. But Park brings, first, a non-Western perspective: Korea is after all right next door and shares some ecology and heritage, including tigers, with Primorsky Krai. And Park spent longer in Siberia, it would seem, that all these other writers combined. He brings extraordinary patience and communicates a sense of belonging.

While The Great Soul of Siberia should not perhaps be read solely on its own, it is a valuable addition to growing, but still a far too small, corpus of books on this obscure, yet fascinating and ecologically crucial region.

And it's hard to deny that there is something irreplaceable about the tiger, even – or perhaps especially – one that roams the snowy north. When one dies whether due to a poacher's wire or the harsh vagaries of the wilderness, something in us dies too.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.

Reprinted with permission from The Asian Review of Books

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