In November 2017, Polly Clark travelled to the Russian Far East area of Primorsky Krai in order to research her second novel Tiger. This remote region of Siberia, 10 time zones from Moscow, is home to the last 500 wild Siberian, or Amur, tigers. They live in the temperate forests, known as the taiga. These are the largest forests in the northern hemisphere and in winter this habitat is one of the harshest on earth. For two weeks Polly lived in minus -35C, without mobile signal, proper electricity or sanitation and learned how to track wild tigers in the snow.
We tracked the tigers to popular sites where they scratch and spray to communicate with each other and set camera traps to see them. The male, or king tiger has a territory of up to 500 square miles and these tigers are vanishingly rare. The king tiger’s territory is so vast that it cannot possibly police all areas at all times. In order to maintain total control, it creates a climate of fear by punishing every transgression it comes across. If you try to kill a Siberian tiger and fail it will remember you and stake you out and devote itself to killing you. It has a memory and capacity to hold a grudge unmatched by any creature except humans. This quality of revenge was important in my novel Tiger, and this is why I had to make the journey to experience the tiger’s world.
Without proper kit the cold is such that you would die swiftly. This is the top of the range western wear, but our Russian hunter hosts laughed at us. They recommend felt, as it is silent in the snow and camouflaged. It was true — we stood out against the snow and the rustling from our clothes was deafening.
Tracking is a science and an art. So much information can be gleaned from a track, right down to the identity of an individual tiger. These tracks were close to the camp one morning, very fresh. It was astonishing to find a wild tiger had passed so close to us while we slept.
This is Arkady, one of our Russian hosts. These men, often ex-miners or other survivors of the collapse in state-owned industry in the area, live in the taiga in groups, making a living by hunting sable, or,in the past, logging. Now eco-tourism gives them a fledgling new opportunity. This is the preferred outfit in the taiga – felt; and the preferred mode of transport – skis. Note the ancient gun – both for hunting and for defence should the catastrophic misfortune of encountering a tiger or bear occur.
A tiger first kills its prey, then drags it to a better location to eat it. This is the drag site of a recent kill of a small deer. This is really only a snack for a hungry Siberian tiger. No sooner has the tiger finished than crows descend and pick the bones clean.
This is a bear track, more oval in shape than the tiger track. This bear should have been hibernating, and it was a concern that it was still out looking for food. This would indicate that it had not been able to eat enough over the summer months to build up fat reserves in order to hibernate. In winter food is extremely scarce. This is partly why the tiger’s territory has to be so huge and why it is so ruthless in defending it.
A Siberian tiger has unassailable confidence and will always take the easiest route to its destination. They will frequently use logging trails or other man-made clearings. These tracks are fresh and show the tiger jogging comfortably down the track.
In the shaman tradition of the Udeghe, the indigenous people of the taiga, the tiger is depicted on the shaman drum and in images as a snake-like figure. Tigers ‘taste’ the air with the tongues like a snake, hiss, and have a third eyelid. It is easy to see the truth of the traditional belief that all natural things are incarnations of each other. In the taiga I felt my connectedness very strongly, my sense of similarity to the natural world around me.
The Udeghe people were nomadic hunter gatherers in the taiga, but under communism that way of life and the shamanic religion were suppressed. We visited the village where they live now, all the relics of their past housed in a museum. The language and the way of life are struggling to survive, but the greatest threat is from intermarriage with Russians. In my novel, Tiger, an Udeghe huntress, Edit, escapes into the taiga to raise her daughter in the wild. I wanted to explore if Edit was more free at the mercy of the forest living as her people did in the past, or conforming to her role in the village as a Russian man’s wife.
The Siberian tiger is the largest cat in the world, but like any cat it likes a nice lie down. Tigers will rest when they are tired, even by the side of a trail. Their body heat melts the snow around their shape, and when they move off it immediately freezes, often creating a perfect ‘mould’ of the underside of their body. Our hosts were concerned about the blood here, but later concluded it was more likely to be from a kill than from injury.
A sable trap is an intricate construction made of branches all interlocked so that when the sable runs up to collect the bait, it is swiftly crushed between them. This kills it without damaging the pelt which is what the hunters are looking for. Sable fur is so valuable it is called ‘Russian gold’, but the numbers of sable have been declining. Sable and all forest animals are intensely cautious and can sense even small changes in their environment. The sable trap is made to seem as much like harmless branches as possible and uses as little as possible in its construction which is not naturally occurring in the surroundings.
This is me firing a WW2 rifle, of the type used by local hunters and our Russian hosts. It has no telescopic sight and requires great concentration to aim. You have to align the target inside a ring, and the ring between two notches. I absolutely loved this, the concentration was like writing, and I hit the target, brushing the bullseye and surprising us all. In Tiger my traumatised zookeeper, Frieda gets to fire a gun, and finds she craves the sense of power it gives her.
**The thrilling new novel by the prize-winning author of Larchfield**
'Passionate, remarkable and uplifting novel' Guardian
'Grabbed me by the imagination and carried me into the wild' Laline Paull
Set across two continents, Tiger is a sweeping story of survival and redeeming love that plunges the reader into one of the world's last wildernesses with blistering authenticity.
Frieda is a primatologist, sensitive and solitary, until a violent attack shatters her ordered world. In her new role as a zookeeper, she confronts a very different ward: an injured wild tiger.
Deep in the Siberian taiga, Tomas, a Russian conservationist, fears that the natural order has toppled. The king tiger has been killed by poachers and a spectacular tigress now patrols his vast territory as her own.
In a winter of treacherous competition, the path of the tigress and her cub crosses with an Udeghe huntress and her daughter. Vengeance must follow, and the fates of both tigers and people are transformed.
Learning of her tiger's past offers Frieda the chance of freedom. Faced with the savage forces of nature, she must trust to her instinct and, like the tiger, find a way to live in the world.