East of Siberia: Shadows of Wolves
A retired Russian biologist tells the tale of a long-ago encounter with a wild canine
By Jonathan C. Slaght
February 6, 2017
[This is the eleventh 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.]
The Old Guard at the Sikhote-Alin Reserve in Primorye — the Soviet biologists now dead or retired — were seriously tough individuals. They lived in the isolated village of Ternei before it could be reached by road: a human enclave besieged by mountain, forest, and sea. Their workplace — the reserve itself — was a true wilderness where, over the years, these men and women endured harrowing experiences as a matter of routine. One of these aging biologists recounted to me once how he killed a charging Asiatic black bear with a hatchet.
So, when one of the Old Guard began recalling his encounter with a Eurasian wolf decades prior, I sat forward. I knew this was going to be good.
It was winter. The fellow was in the forest far from Ternei, and had just wrapped up a long day counting animal tracks in the snow, part of an annual animal survey conducted in the reserve since 1962. The winter sun was not long for the sky and, as the tired man trudged east toward town his eyes caught movement on the tree line then settled on an animal. It was a wolf, watching him from the understory.
When one of the Old Guard began recalling his encounter with a Eurasian wolf decades prior, I sat forward. I knew this was going to be good.
In the Russian Far East, tigers seem intolerant of wolves, meaning that where there are tigers there are no wolves, and the wolves that do show up in tiger habitat are quickly chased away or killed by their striped aggressors. So, a wolf here in the heart of the Sikhote-Alin — a bastion of Amur tigers — was a thrilling sight.
It was also a blood-chilling one. Despite their rarity, wolves are feared throughout Russia. This is an ancient dread dating to the medieval period and fueled by a mid-20th century wave of well-publicized wolf attacks that left more than twenty children dead.
The animal shrunk back into the brush and out of sight under the biologist’s scrutiny. As the man continued home he looked over his shoulder occasionally to see if the wolf would reappear. Every once in a while he saw it: always in the distance, always obscured, but always there.
The man was being tracked.
The biologist’s heart sunk in concert with the sun. By now he was still a good ten kilometers from Ternei, the snow was deep, and it would soon be night. The thought of being alone in a dark forest with a curious predator brought him no comfort.
He decided his only recourse was to eliminate the threat, and unslung his rifle. When the wolf presented enough of itself for a clear shot the biologist pivoted, aimed, and fired. The beast collapsed dead.
The scientist was relieved — his unpleasant death had been averted — but he also felt guilt for the kill and didn’t want this rare specimen to go to waste. As penance he resolved to carry the wolf to Ternei where a mammologist from the reserve could study the carcass and learn more about the ecology of this exceptional predator here. He hoisted the large animal over his shoulders and continued the long journey home, a task harder now with the extra weight pushing his skis deeper into the snow.
The darkness and solitude had tricked the exhausted biologist, he conceded sadly these decades later, into seeing a large dog cast a wolf’s shadow.
It was well past midnight when the biologist arrived in Ternei. He left the wolf carcass on his porch knowing that the freezing cold would keep the animal preserved, lit a fire in his woodstove, and succumbed to sleep.
A persistent banging on the front door woke him the next morning. On the other side he found a local hunter, both enraged and baffled, shouting questions about why the biologist had shot and killed his lost hunting dog, and why he had then gone through the trouble to carry a dog carcass all the way back to town.
The darkness and solitude had tricked the exhausted biologist, he conceded sadly these decades later, into seeing a large dog cast a wolf’s shadow. He recognized now that the animal may have felt as alone as he, and possibly clung to the biologist’s tracks as company home through the forest; this wilderness filled with dangerous beasts.
A Russian translation of this post is available, and a condensed version of this story first appeared on the author’s personal blog. For tweets about birds, tigers, and Russia, follow Jonathan Slaght on Twitter.
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 on February 6, 2017.