[Note: The following was first published in the May 2012 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright (C) 2012 Don H. Meredith
The sight of the large cat track placed squarely in the boot print I’d left in the snow that morning sent a slight shiver up my spine. I paused my slow waltz down this trail and once again checked my surroundings, especially what was behind me. Being just under the size of my fist, this track wasn’t left by a local house cat straying from the farmstead. This was the track of a cougar strolling down this well used game trail I was once again following through the woods on my way to a favorite deer stand. Although I knew these tracks could have been made any time in the last six or so hours, every detail of the needled spruce and bare poplar trees surrounding me suddenly grew in importance. Where was the cat going? Where was it now? What was that movement in the clearing ahead?
Cougar attacks on humans are extremely rare. Like most predators, the cats avoid humans when they can. Nevertheless, attacks do occur. However, I believe my reaction to seeing this track in the wild was much deeper than my mind measuring probabilities. My reaction was primal, something my genes had recorded as important to my survival many thousands of generations ago.
According to the fossil record, the first members of the human family (hominids) appeared about 3.5 million years ago in East Africa. At that time, there was much for a small primate to fear walking upright on the savannah, including the progenitors of today’s African big cats. Our ancestors warily gathered food during the day and spent their nights in trees or caves listening to the roars of predators hunting at night. Being wary of large cats in the wild is built into our basic self-preservation system, and did not abate when we migrated to other continents with their own big cat species. This primal reaction is probably no better illustrated than in the modern story of a disastrous relationship between a poacher and a Siberian tiger in the Primorye region of far eastern Russia (just north of North Korea and China). Canadian author John Vaillant documented the story in his award winning book, The Tiger, a True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010, Vintage Canada) [Buy it Now: Canadian $$ or US $$].
On a cold December evening in 1997, Vladimir Markov was walking back to his cabin with his dog after spending the day looking for help with a problem he was having with a tiger he had tried to kill. Tigers are an endangered species in Asia and it is against Russian law to hunt them. However, Markov was part of a community of unemployed forestry and mine workers who were living off the food and fur they could find in the Primorye forest through hunting, gathering and trapping. Ready cash was always an issue and the Chinese, just across the nearby border, were offering top ruble for the hide and parts of a tiger. However, Markov was learning the consequences of hunting an animal the local native people (who had lived in the area for thousands of years) had warned him not to do.
Approaching his cabin after a long day walking many kilometres of roads and trails, he was undoubtedly looking forward to the comforts of home: a warm fire and meal, soft lantern light and perhaps a shot of vodka to warm heart and soul. As the road he followed rounded a bend and the soft moonlight revealed a clearing with his cabin in the distance, his dog most likely stopped, raised the hackles on its neck and back, and growled. The latter was answered by a loud roar that, as Vaillant described, came “from everywhere at once.”
When Yuri Trush and his team arrived at the scene a couple of days later, it was not hard to see what had happened. It was written in the snow. Trush quickly identified Markov’s tracks leisurely approaching his cabin from the south where they were met by the giant paw prints of a very large tiger coming from the north in long bounds of three or more metres (10+ feet). From the collision only the bloody tracks of the tiger walked away to the west where a gaggle of crows circled above the forest.
Yuri Trush was the leader of this unit of Inspection Tiger, a Russian government agency charged with protecting the tiger and its habitat. His team was well known to the members of this forest community, including Markov’s friends who had reported the death and were accompanying the team to the cabin. Trush had had previous dealings with most of them, having charged some—including Markov—with poaching or possessing illegal weapons. Nonetheless, there was begrudging respect between the two groups of men who spent much of their time in these woods.
On inspecting the area around the cabin, the team found many tiger tracks, some fresh and some not so fresh. Much equipment, including a metal wash tub and axe, had been pulled down and destroyed. It seemed anything Markov had touched had been the target of this cat’s anger. But what was most upsetting to Trush was the well melted bed the tiger had made in the snow where the animal could see down the road entering the clearing from the south. This cat had been waiting a long time for Markov’s return.
What they found in the woods where the crows had been circling was no less unsettling. They had arrived at the cabin in mid-afternoon when the winter sun was beginning to sink below the trees in the southwest. It was below -30 C and hands and equipment were getting stiff, but a body had to be recovered. As they followed the bloody trail into the increasingly dark woods, Trush’s tracking dog, who was leading the team, began growling and anxiously pacing back and forth. The team knew this meant the tiger was near. Rifles came off shoulders as the team covered their leader recording the scene with his camcorder.
There wasn’t much to record. All they found of Markov’s body was a head without a face, and a hand without an arm dispersed among the bloody clothing. They also found a paw from Markov’s dog. While Trush recorded and Markov’s friends nervously collected the remains, all activity suddenly ceased as a loud exhale of air was heard coming from somewhere back in the bush. Everyone knew what had made that sound.
The men abandoned their investigation and retreated to their vehicles. Trush knew the tiger had to be killed but it was too dangerous to pursue now and he needed permission from his bosses. He also knew this was no ordinary rogue tiger killing livestock and pets. This was a tiger on a vendetta.
Thus begins an amazing saga skilfully woven by John Vaillant as he relates the plight of the tiger’s survival with that of Russian bush workers after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the ancient relationship these cats have with the local native people. This book is a must read for anyone interested in predator behavior or who has felt that special twinge on seeing the fresh track of a large predator.