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Bits of fur and a claw from a brown bear scattered among oak leaves in Primorye, Russia. Credit: Jonathan C. Slaght

By Jonathan C. Slaght
March 14, 2018

[This is the 15th post in an ongoing series, “East of Siberia,” reprinted from Scientific American, in which Dr. Jonathan C. Slaght of WCS writes about owls, tigers, and fieldwork in the Russian Far East.]

This is a story that starts with a tiger and involves a bear or two, but if I had to choose I’d say this is a story about a crow.

In June 2006 I was asked to help find a dead tiger. I’d just completed a field season studying Blakiston’s fish owls and had a few extra days in Ternei, a coastal village home to WCS’s Siberian Tiger Project. There, I’d join tiger biologists for evening beers and hear tales of roaring tigers, charging bears, and other high-adrenaline adventures.

These were stories told with matter-of-factness rather than bravado, as though the encounters were with livestock not mega carnivores. I’d sit back and listen, pleased that these incidents did not involve me. While I was comfortable working in forests with tigers nearby it seemed reckless to actively seek one out. There’s something inherently intimidating about massive, toothy predators that like to hide from things then later jump out and kill those things.

One morning John Goodrich, then the field coordinator for the Siberian Tiger Project, told me that a radio-collared tiger had not moved in days. This likely meant one of two things: either the tiger died a natural death, or had been shot and his collar discarded by poachers to cover their tracks. John was looking for an extra set of eyes in his search for the carcass, and since the tiger was presumed dead this seemed pretty safe to me. I agreed to go.

We drove about ten kilometers from town, where John eased his pickup off the road and activated his VHF receiver, surprised to hear the steady beeps of an “active” signal. Radio transmissions are either “active” — meaning the tiger is moving about, or “passive” — meaning that the tiger has been immobile for some hours.

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Brown bears sometimes bury their food for future consumption under piles of dirt they scrape together. Credit: Jonathan C. Slaght

It had been several “passive” readings in a row, over a series of days, that prompted field assistants to deem this tiger dead. It now appeared they had been mistaken. I looked at John, assuming that this new information meant that we were to call the search off, but he shrugged and pushed ahead. We were now looking for a live tiger.

We followed the strength of the radio signal up a forested hill, with John pausing periodically to reassess our trajectory. Halfway through our ascent, sweaty from the humidity and the climb, the signal weakened then melted into the background sea of radio static. We looked at each other: how had the tiger disappeared?

When we reached the top of the hill it became clear. John spotted a tiger bed near the ridge: a spot where the animal had been lying only moments before. When the tiger sensed our approach he quietly retreated over the ridge and down into the neighboring valley. The signal disappeared because VHF radio waves cannot pass through mountains.

As John investigated the tiger bed I kept my eyes fixed on the ridge, half expecting a tiger to explode back across at any moment. After all, I’d heard stories that started just like this. I fumbled to unclip the canister of bear spray hanging from my belt: a terse blast of capsaicin was our only defense should the tiger decide to roar its way back into the story. John, oblivious to my concern, picked up a stray hair here and there, then knelt closely to the bed and inhaled deeply.

“I smell bear,” he began, “I think this tiger ate a bear!” He stood up with fire in his eyes. “We’ve got a dead bear to look for.”

I stared at him, incredulous. Things had gone, first, from one dead tiger, to then one live tiger, to now one live tiger and one dead bear — all in the span of about 45 minutes. This was the mega carnivore equivalent of things getting out of hand.

This corner of northeast Asia is the only place in the world where tigers and brown bears live in the same forests, and the prospect that John and I had stumbled upon the aftermath of a direct and fatal encounter washed me with alternating waves of wonder and trepidation.

We began a methodological search for bear remains, moving in an ever-widening circle emanating from the tiger bed. We occasionally stumbled into an area heavy with the aroma of death. Scents of decay can drift from the point of origin; sometimes collecting far from a carcass itself. But, try as we might, we could not pinpoint its source.

John and I spent the better part of an hour in our search, and eventually sat on a log to admit defeat. Hearing wings, I looked up to spy a crow flying in our direction above the canopy. When it reached us the bird cocked its head, peered down, and croaked a curt caw. Then it wheeled in the sky and flew back from where it had come. John and I watched silently then resumed talking.

A minute later the same bird (or one just like it) returned and repeated the action: flying toward us, looking down, calling, and then flying back. John’s interest in our search was renewed: he recalled stories about ravens leading hunters to deer and boar, hoping to feed off scraps once the hunter was done. John wondered aloud if this crow was doing something similar. We stood and pursued, following the crow east. About a hundred paces later the stench of death grew stronger.

The forest unexpectedly opened to a small clearing about ten meters across and at my feet lay the severely-decomposed hind leg of a bear. This was a horror of a thing that shared a striking resemblance to a human leg. John moved ahead to discover a similarly-ripe forearm: pale bone and fetid flesh camouflaged among the detritus of the forest floor.

Then John found a skull. Judging by the tooth wear this had been a very old brown bear. The stench here was indescribable.

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The decayed foot of a brown bear in Primorye, Russia. Credit: Jonathan C. Slaght

Only then did I notice our surroundings with more clarity. It looked like a grenade had gone off. Everything was devastated: shrubs were stripped of their leaves, branches were broken, and the soil had been scraped from the forest floor and piled into a massive mound in the middle of this space. I had no idea what I was looking at but of course John did: this was a bear cache. Brown bears sometimes bury their kills for future consumption, and they do so by hiding the meat under a pile of dirt and debris they scrape together.

The exact sequence of events was unclear, but what we did know was that an old brown bear had died, and was then buried by another bear. Whether it had been killed by that bear, or a tiger, or died of some other reason we would never know. But at some point a radio-collared tiger had discovered this cache and spent several days digging up and consuming various bear bits.

This was why the tiger’s collar had transmitted a number of “inactive” signals across a protracted period: the tiger was lazing about in a bear-induced food coma.

I noticed a few crows bustling impatiently in the canopy, and was reminded of how we found that place to begin with. Were the crows waiting for us to dig up more bear? This is why I think this is a story about a crow: despite all we know about tigers and bears from radio-telemetry and other technologies, ultimately it was a crow that helped us fit the puzzle pieces together.

It’s a gentle reminder to sometimes filter out the static, heed the signs nature leaves in plain sight, and to always follow the crow.

Jonathan Slaght performs a version of “Heeding the Sign” for the WCS’s storytelling series, The Bison.

A Russian translation of this post is available.

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Jonathan C. Slaght is the Russia and Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He has been traveling to (or living in) the Russian province of Primorye for nearly twenty years, and is currently working on a project for @fsgbooks about researching Blakiston’s fish owl in the Russian Far East. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanSlaght.

Originally published at blogs.scientificamerican.com.

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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