We want to share the story of a remarkable man. A student of literature turned nature documentary producer, researcher and conservationist. Sooyong Park has become the voice of the Siberian Tiger, also known as the Amur Tiger.
Led by an indomitable passion for the Amur Tiger, he set out for Northeast Russia to spend five years in the Siberian forest studying nature and the tiger. He filmed over 1,000 hours of the lives of three generations of a family of tigers; captivating moments of mother and cubs playing together, of a majestic male tiger scanning the Pacific Ocean from the edge of a cliff, and also heartbreaking and enraging scenes of unnatural deaths caused by poachers.
How did he do it?
There are only 300 to 400 wild Amur tigers covering an area of approximately 250,000 square kilometers (96,500 sq. miles). Moreover, Siberian tigers are constantly on the move, looking for prey; they roam up to 10 times farther than their southern cousins. It is thus practically impossible for anyone to spot a tiger.
Sooyong Park – a researcher and documentary film-maker, he has studied Siberian tigers for the past twenty years
Except, perhaps, for one man. Someone who would push the limits of endurance and ingenuity. Sooyong left wife and children in Korea, and stationed himself in a 1.20-meter (4-foot) hole in the wilderness with a roof made of wood planks covered by leaves. And then he waited.
He waited for months. Temperatures of -30°C (-22°F) outside his hide. And inside the hide: -30°C too. As time went by, he learned to “read the white book” of the forest. He followed the calls of the crows, the tracks of deer on the snow, and relocated his hide and positioned his cameras to optimize his chances of seeing the elusive cats. He had to learn to think like a tiger.
Even then, he had to wait months at a time before seeing the majestic creatures. He would never leave his hide, and survived with a diet of packets of cooked rice (2 per day), nuts, and salt. He had an assistant that would deliver these items every couple of months.
“So I named them. The son of the Bloody Mary: Sky White. First Daughter: Snow White…”
Sooyong’s first encounter was with an adult male that he named King Big. He was in his prime and was the dominant tiger of the region. Sooyong followed crows to a kill, positioned his cameras, hid, and waited. The footage of King Big is unparalleled.
King Big with his kill
Several months later, in snowy night illumined by the moon, Sooyong met a tigress (Bloody Mary) and her three children. “So I named them,” he said, “the son of the Bloody Mary: Sky White. First daughter: Snow White. Second daughter: Moon White. I named like that. Very beautiful.”
Bloody Mary and one of her cubs
Bloody Mary and her cubs became Sooyong’s family. From his hide, he would see them every now and then, watch the cubs grow and become adults.
But one day, Sooyong’s assistant radioed him with a tragic message. “One tiger was killed by a rifle trap.” When Sooyong arrived to the scene, his heart sank. It was Bloody Mary. She had stepped on a tripwire that triggered a rifle. In this sick world we live in, poachers hide guns in the underground. A dead tiger is worth $50,000 US Dollars.
Even to this day, Sooyong’s eyes grow damp when he recalls this episode.
But there was hope. Bloody Mary’s cubs were young adults by then and able to fend for themselves. Sky White and his sisters split the territory and, several months later, Park captured breathtaking images of Sky White scanning the edges of his domain: the Pacific Ocean.
Sky White and, on the background, the great Pacific Ocean
Sooyong hoped that, one day, this magnificent tiger would replace King Big as the ruler of the kingdom but, like his mother, Sky White was murdered by poachers. He left us too soon. “Very sad,” he remembers, and it is evident by the way he speaks that there are no words to describe his sorrow, “when he was dead I was very sad, it was like my baby was dead.”
Moon White was later seen in the same region with a cub of her own. The little tiger injured his paw and became infected. In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, Moon White waits for her son, who is unable to follow her. She waits and waits, until she finally has to give up and leave him behind. We sometimes wonder if Sooyong could or should have done something to help the cub.
Hansel and Gretel
One day, while filming a frozen stream (and after waiting six months in this location), two cubs, a boy and a girl emerged from the forest and come to play on the stream. A magical must-see moment. Only the cubs, the forest, the stream, and the snow falling. Two stray cubs without their mother, so Sooyong named them Hansel and Gretel.
Hansel and Gretel, brother and sister, lost in fairy tale woods
And later, what joy to realize that their mom was no other than Snow White. She had survived and, with her, our hopes of seeing many more generations of wild Amur tigers.
I’m trying to find Sooyong’s contact info. Once I do, I’ll share it with you.