Why Sooyong Park went in search of the Siberian Tiger – and what he found

At the heart of The Great Soul of Siberia is not a fear of snapping jaws, but of a broader, deeper terror: that of extinction.

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There is more than one way to lose yourself in a forest. Keeping still – “as still and quiet as a tree” – will do the job as surely as stumbling mapless into the wild, to judge from Sooyong Park’s subtly intense account of filming endangered Amur tigers in south-eastern Siberia.

Sequestered for months at a time in a painstakingly concealed observation bunker, Park finds his ego – if this most self-effacing of writers ever had such a thing – dissolving into the quiet brilliance of the taiga. The biologist David George Haskell, recounting the period he spent alone in the woodlands of Tennessee in The Forest Unseen, described a similar experience: “The practice of . . . sitting in silence for hundreds of hours has peeled back some of the barriers between the forest and my senses, intellect and emotions. I can be present in a way that I had not known existed.”

Much longer shifts – in much fiercer cold and in much greater peril – seem to have given Park a correspondingly deeper sense of oneness with the world around him. The Korean film-maker has spent many winters tracking and filming the Amur tiger; the inhospitable Ussuri region (officially known as Primorsky Krai) on the Russia-China border is a habitat he has come to know intimately. Park’s close engagement with the forest ecology is the most extraordinary element of this remarkable book.

The dust jacket glosses his philosophy: “Nature is to be observed, not directed.” In reality, he goes further than this.

You must have faith. Walking through the woods, you often come across owl pellets . . . When you find one of these, you know an owl is sitting on a branch over your head, looking down at you. You may be overcome by the urge to look up and see the owl for yourself. But the moment you give in and look up, the owl will fly away. I trust the owl is up there and continue on my way. This way, the forest avoids a small disturbance and maintains its peace. Trusting an animal is there by looking at its traces rather than pursuing the animal itself: this is faith in nature.

The tigers for which Park waits and watches are more than just fur and muscle, tooth and bone; they are pug marks on a riverbank, bloodstains in the snow, the stink of urine on a rock where territories intersect. They are, in effect, inseparable from the landscapes that they occupy.

So, too, is Park. “Only when you become part of nature,” he concludes, “does nature reveal the answers to [one’s] personal questions.” The rigour and sincerity of his philosophy distinguishes The Great Soul of Siberia even in the present age of Emerson-inflected transcendentalist nature writing.

The book is also busy with workaday human detail. Park is a pleasant and bone-dry guide to the privations of the Siberian stakeout: the cold, the boredom (“I never used to pay attention to green tea labels . . . but in the bunker, this was entertainment”), the frozen rice balls and the sealed canisters of urine. The tigers of Ussuri are obsessively wary of human beings; Park is obsessively careful about not blowing his cover. Aromatic tea and al fresco urination are out of the question. He acknowledges mixed feelings about his work: “After 15 years of staking out in underground bunkers I felt that ‘routine’ had replaced ‘romantic’ as the more fitting adjective.”

One sensation in particular intensifies Park’s process of identification with the animals around him: fear. The biologist Joel Berger, studying fear responses in ungulates in the Sikhote-Alin range, not far from Park’s bunkers, reported in The Better to Eat You With, “Tiger bait was one thing I did not want to become. I guessed that my self-centred view about entry into the food chain was no different than all dwellers of this planet, human or otherwise.”

We are a prey species, subject to the same terror in the face of a tiger, bear or wolf as any Ussuri deer. One snowy evening, four Amur tigers besiege Park’s bunker; the senior tiger, a matriarch nicknamed “Bloody Mary”, noses through the camera opening. The unfussy prose in which the film-maker describes his panic is achingly effective: “I felt Bloody Mary’s warm breath on the back of my left hand. I was so tense my back was about to break, and my skin was covered in goose bumps. Her breath and her stiff whiskers grazed the back of my left hand. The back of my hand spasmed.” This is real fear and, it is worth being reminded, real danger. In 1996 the photographer Michio Hoshino was killed by a bear while working in the Kamchatka Peninsula to the north-east. Park’s vocation is a perilous one.

He places the lives of men and women starkly, severely, in the context of a waning ecosystem. The Siberian population of Amur tigers has fallen to roughly 350 (at the same time, Park notes, the population of indigenous Ussuri people has fallen to just 10,000). The tigers are magnificent, and desperate. Their kingdom is dwindling. Their
deaths are miserable, bloody and cruel.

Death leaves deep prints in The Great Soul of Siberia and fear is a constant. But the enduring fear one is left with is not the terror of a film-maker trapped and trembling as a tiger snaps its jaws. It is broader, deeper, than that. It is the fear not of death but of loss – of landscapes and ecologies, of connections between species, of time-worn ways of life. It is the fear of extinction. 

Richard Smyth is a novelist, nature writer and journalist

The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger by Sooyong Park, translated by Jamie Chang, is published by William Collins (270pp, £16.99)

This article appears in the 31 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail