March 2012: Over the course of my travels, I have always been obsessed with seeing wild tigers. Tigers are not a sole mission of min in traveling but sometimes they fall pretty close to the top of my priority list. I have tracked them either bu jeep, foot or by boat in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and Sumatra. I finally saw one when in India in Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore National Park.  This wasn’t enough for me, however. I needed to see one on foot and I wanted to the biggest of all cats, and so my journey in search of wild tigers brought me to the Russian Far East.

The whole purpose in visiting Siberia, the Russian Far East to be exact in the winter was to increase the chances of seeing a wild tiger… not just any tiger Tigers but the Siberian Tiger, the largest and most fearsome tiger in the world.  The problem however is that Siberian Tigers are few and are very elusive and can easily blend in with their surroundings. With this in mind I chose to visit in winter despite the bitter cold because there is less vegetation allowing more visibility and any tiger tracks left in the snow could potentially guide us to their whereabouts. The main tiger reserves in Siberia are Sikhotte-Alin Biosphere Reserve, Ussuriisk Reserve and Lazo Reserve. I chose Lazo Reserve because it is the closest tiger reserve to Vladivostok, the main city in the far East of Russia.

About Siberian Tigers

Siberian Tigers are the largest of the tiger species and the most northerly found tigers. There are 600-700 wild Siberian tigers remaining in the world. They are found mostly in the Russian Far East with some populations in Northern China and in North Korea. They are incredibly rare but despite this conservation efforts and the remoteness of their habitat have helped their population rebound trememdously and encounters with them are becoming more common. When I was researching for the trip, I found a video that a Russian man took from the highway outside of Vladivostok of a tiger threatening to attack his vehicle. The encounter caused a traffic jam. Also, when I informed the receptionist at my hotel that my purpose was to track tigers, her response was, “I don’t like tiger. One time with family having  picnic in taiga, tiger eat my dog.” 

Where wild Siberian Tigers are found

Taiga Forest-tiger habitat in winter

Lazovski (Lazo) Reserve

Lazo Reserve is a wilderness paradise. According to tiger researchers I met in Russia, it is one of the best places to observe the Siberian Tiger in the wild due to the higher concentrations of them in the reserve. Lazo is a place of vast forest clinging to rugged and pristine coastlines where tigers, giant brown bears, mountain goats and wild boar roam. There are few places as adventurous as Lazo. It was set aside as a scientific reserve during Soviet times as a place for scientists to study wild animals with extra benefit of conservation. Most reserves in Russia were not historically created for tourists and because of their isolation and the old habits of the Soviet Union of denying access, it can be difficult to visit some of these reserves. In order to do so, you need to find a well-connected fixer that can organize the permissions. In my case, I found a fixer in Vladivostok that organized the stay of my friend and I in Lazo with a Russian tiger researcher, who was living in a rustic cabin in the reserve. My friend and I would use the cabin as a base to track tigers in the reserve on foot. I initially requested permission to sleep in tents but the reserve denied us this permission based on “a risk of un-predictable results.”  To reach the reserve, we would need to drive a full day from Vladivostok and the driving in Lazo Reserve would require a 4wd vehicle.

 

Lazo Reserve location

Vladivostok

Day 1: To start the trip, I flew into the capitol of the Russian far East, Vladivostok from Beijing, China. Vladivostok is the largest Russian city on the Pacific Ocean, the terminus of the Siberian Railway and the home of the largest Russian navy fleet. During the Soviet Union, Vladivostok was completely closed off to foreigners and the entire region along with North Korea, where cloaked in secrecy. 

When I arrived in Vladivostok, the weather was wintery and frigidly cold. The ocean was frozen over, and hundreds of fishermen were spread out across the sea ice, seated in the open on buckets while fishing into a small hole carved into the ice. 

I stayed in a Soviet era hotel-Amursky Zaliv, located on the waterfront. The hotel had a discotheque and strip club in the basement and an adjoining casino. Vladivostok is a fascinating city to explore. There are lots of remaining Soviet era legacies, Lenin statues, brutalist architecture, World War II monuments and my favorite a giant submarine that is open to the public. Additionally, you can visit the terminus building of the Siberian Railroad-Tsarist architecture.

 

Soviet era hotel-Amursky Zaliv

Exploring a Soviet Stalinistic Era S-56 Submarine that was launched in 1939 and decommisioned in 1959. 

World War II Memorial

Me inside the Soviet Era Submarine next to a portrait of Stalin

Lenin Statue

On one memorable night we had a traditional Russian dinner with our fixer’s family. Their apartment unit was located deep inside a row of Soviet era block apartment buildings. Our fixer’s father, a retired ship captain, shared many of his adventures with us. The dinner was great but became a little awkward as more vodka was poured. 

Family dinner with our fixer, Inna and her family

Driving to the Lazo Reserve

Day 2: In a Soviet era, jeep van, we drove all day enroute to Lazo Reserve. Along the way we passed rolling hills of snow-covered Taiga forests.  We passed through depressed looking wooden villages that looked like they had changed very little since the 1800’s. Most of the village residents are descendants of the rugged Cossack people from the far west of the country. The Cossacks were responsible for helping to settle and open up much of Siberia and Russia’s Far East. 

In one town, we saw a bar and asked our driver about stopping to have a drink there and he strongly cautioned us against it expressing his concern for our safety. He explained that in most villages, the youth have few jobs and are prone to alcoholism and fond of fighting. Our appearance would invite a guaranteed fight, since fighting a foreigner would be something very new and exciting especially if that foreigner is an American. The only signs of industry we observed, were abandoned industrial complexes that looked giant concrete skeletons forgotten and crumbling away in the winter snow. 

Sadly, many of the jobless villagers have turned to poaching of tigers and other rare wildlife in the reserve. The cost proximity to China provides a strong market for tiger as well as other wildlife parts. 

We checked in with the Lazo Reserve headquarters in the village of Lazo and registered our passports and met the reserve warden. A local woman from the village joined us to handle our cooking while we were in the cordon or cabin. 

Russian man pumping water manually from a water well

Hunting Kujo dogs tied to a chain are a common sight in Far East villages

Typical Village

Official Entrance into Lazo Reserve

Lazo consists mostly of 4wd tracks and a lot of driving on the beach. Lazo was insanely beautiful, clear turquoise waters and rolling forested hills that give way to long sandy beaches. World War I era concrete bunkers built to ward off the Japanese line the beaches. The reserve is incredibly wild, and we were amazed by its rigged beauty. Our driver dropped us off and left us at a wooden cabin on the beach where we would be staying for the next few days. Alexander, a Russian tiger researcher in his 60’s greeted us and welcomed us. His English was perfect, and he showed us around the cabin. There were no safety rules. Alexander did mention he has seen tigers walking on the beach on occasion and around the cabin, but he wasn’t concerned for our safety. We were free to walk around as we wanted. A highlight of each day for Evan and I was drinking a bottle of locally produced vodka on the freezing beach while watching the sunset. 

Our Van Jeep driving into the reserve along the beach

Lazo Reserve Beach

Research cabin

Tiger Vodka

Sunset Vodka

The cabin didn’t have any electricity. It was as rugged as it gets. Heated by a wood stove and lit by candlelight. We brought sleeping bags since we were warned that the cabin can get cold at night. 

Cabin at night

Breakfast coffee in the cabin

We woke up early in the morning boiled some water and had coffee and oatmeal. Alexander described our day. The plan was to walk through the reserve looking for tiger tracks. There were no trails. Instead, we would follow frozen creeks, the coastline looking for any signs of tigers. Once tiger prints or pug marks are found in the snow, we would attempt to follow them to hopefully get a glimpse of a tiger. Alexander, who had lived in the reserve for years by himself constantly searching for tigers was very frank with us about our chances of seeing a tiger. 

Alexander, Russian Tiger Researcher and Our Guide

He said that researchers have to come to the reserve for months living in a hide in the forest without seeing a tiger so the odds of us being anywhere near one was extremely unlikely. Alexander himself has seen tigers on foot and from the cabin. So, he claimed it is possible but extremely unlikely. Alexander was a wealth of information and knew all the scientific names for trees, plants and small animals and bords we encountered. 

Hiking along Lazo Beach

Day 3-5: For the next few days walked about to 8 hours a day, sometimes in knee deep snow in freezing sub-zero temperatures, crossing frozen creeks and climbing cliffs overlooking the ocean. In addition to tigers, we were looking for other wildlife like wolves, bears and more.  We commonly would spot deer but they seldomly stayed put long enough for me to get a photo. Along the sea cliffs, we saw a rare mountain goat and we observed a rare mole that Alexander was very thrilled about. My favorite was the Spock eared squirrels.

We came across tiger pug marks in the snow and we would follow them until the snow would disappear or the tracks would disappear. We saw the occasional tiger kill remains including one fresh deer kill that was just outside of our cabin. After hiking all day, we would return to our cabin, cook dinner, drink some vodka by the ocean and warm up in the sauna.

We didn’t really expect to see a tiger and we were just thrilled to be in their habitat where the chance existed. Then on our last full day in the reserve, we had an incredible change of luck.

Hiking along Lazo Beach

World War I Bunker on the beach

Crossing frozen creeks

Rare Mole

Spock eared Squirrel

Old Tiger Kill

Fresh Tiger Kill by Our cabin

Me Walking through the forest

Beaches of Lazo Reserve

Tiger Encounter

Our guide Alexander chose to take us to a valley where he suspected some tigers might be. We hiked straight up a ridge, crossed a frozen river and after 5 hours of hiking we arrived in an area littered with the tiger tracks of a male, and a tigress with two cubs. There were also brown bear tracks. The guide suggested that the tigers might be hunting the bear.

 

Pug Marks

Alexander, determined to give us the best chance to observe tigers, led us for hours to thedistant valley, where he said a lot of tigers have been spotted recently. We followed the tracks of the tigress and her two cubs. Alexander suspected the cubs could weigh as much as 200 pounds. After a period of time following the tracks over a ridge and into a pine forest with deep snow, we decided to stop and eat lunch. Unlike most other areas in the reserve with decidious forest that has lost its leaves allowing great visibility, we were in a thick pine forest and our vision was severely obstructed.

 

Following Pug Marks

Tiger pug mark in snow

While in the middle of our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we heard the distinctive roar of a tiger that sounded like it was no more than 100 yards away. This was repeated by other tiger calls coming from the other direction. Alexander perked up with excitement and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Alexander whispered it was the tigress and she was calling for her cubs, likely because she sensed our presence. He then whispered for us to get low and follow him. We were in a thick grove of pine trees with a limited view and we knew somehwere nearby was a group of wild Siberian tigers and we hoped to see them. Alexander assured us we would be safe but we knew that at any time an angry tigress could emerge from the forest and ambush us. This may not be the smartest thing I have even done. We didn’t have a rifle or any means to protect ourselves but we were so overwhelmed with adrenaline and excitement that we were willing to take the risk. Afterall we traveled all the way here to see a tiger and for me I have spent the last decade in search of the majestic tiger.

 We hiked into the forest and up a ridge following new fresh tracks that our guide said were just minutes old. We rounded blind curbs ideal for a tiger ambush and arrived to the top of the ridge where the tracks became difficult to follow and seemed to go in different directions. The tracks according to Alexander were minutes old. In one area where the snow was flattened, our guide suspected the cubs were playing maybe just minutes before. Then in the far distance at the bottom of the ridge I saw two animals that possibly looked and ran like two tiger cubs and in a second they were gone. We attempted to follow some more tracks but it became apparent that the tigers were gone. I never did see the tigress but I’m sure she was nearby. It was getting late so we returned for our warm cabin.

This was the closest we made it to a tiger, to our knowledge. Ideally we would have seen a close up view of a tiger, close enough to rifle off several photos, but considering that we were on foot in the forest tracking wild elusive tigers each with a roaming range of 100 square miles, I guess I have to be pretty thankful for what we did get.

The Tigress we were following photographed by camera trap 

Day 6: On our way back to Vladivostok, we visited the Lazo Reserve station and reviewed photos from the camera traps in the reserve. The warden was shocked that we were so close to a tiger, and he showed us a photo taken from a camera trap of the tigress that we likely encountered. 

Day 7/8: We spent a few more days in Vladivostok exploring the city before departing. I continued on to meet my uncle in Tokyo for our trip to Okinawa. 

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