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Living in a freezing hole, watching for tigers that may never come

caption: A Siberian tiger
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A Siberian tiger
Courtesy of Chris Morgan

It’s cold – so very cold. It’s the winter of 2013 in Siberia, on the very eastern edge of Russia before it spills into the sea towards Japan.

Chris Morgan’s mustache is frozen to his face. He’s a tough guy, but nothing compared to the man he’s about to meet.

caption: Chris Morgan tracking Siberian tigers in Russia.
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Chris Morgan tracking Siberian tigers in Russia.
Graham MacFarlane

Sooyong Park is a Korean filmmaker and author who had a singular goal: film Siberian tigers. It sounds straightforward, but had never been done before.

These tigers are a subspecies separate from their cousins in the heat of India, Sumatra and the like. There are only about 500 Siberian tigers left in the wild. Even though they can weigh 700 pounds and measure 10 feet long, they are practically invisible and almost impossible to find.

But Park is creative.

Local hunters say he has learned to “read the white book.” As Morgan is lead through the snowy woods by Park, he can’t shake the feeling of being watched.

“Maybe you can not see the tiger, but the tiger sees you!” Park tells him.

Watch: Siberian Tiger Quest with Chris Morgan on PBS (subscription required)

As part of Park’s work, he set up remote cameras outfitted with motion detectors, a technique ahead of its time. He built himself a “hide” – a hole in the ground with a small structure of wooden planks and branches on top.

He crawled into his hide and waited: alone, silent and still in the Russian winter.

And, of course, it was cold: “Outside, minus 30 degrees. Inside, minus 30 degrees,” Park said.

Over five years, Park patiently waited in his hole for months at a time. He captured 1,000 hours of tiger footage – 1,000 hours more than anyone before him.

caption: One of Sooyong Park's hides: a tiny hole in the ground, barely high enough to sit upright in.
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One of Sooyong Park's hides: a tiny hole in the ground, barely high enough to sit upright in.
Anatoly Petrov

It was emotional work for Park, not just because the tigers he was passionate about sometimes got killed by poaches. Just spending that much time alone, away from loved ones takes a toll.

But ultimately Park’s struggle with utter solitude lead to a richer insight into these tigers.

“They can kill me. They make me humble. When I was humble, I can see nature more deep. In the city humankind think they are God, but in the forest we don’t feel like that. We are same with another animal,” Park said.

On this episode of THE WILD, you’ll hear the story of Park’s time in the great alone, including the tragic story of Bloody Mary, a tiger he came to know more than any other.

THE WILD is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan and The UPROAR Fund. It is produced by Matt Martin and edited by Jim Gates. It’s hosted, produced and written by Chris Morgan. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker. Produced for the web by Kara McDermott.

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