Coke Smith Photography & Travelogue

Expedition to Primorye: In Search of the Siberian Tiger

Paw print from the Amur Leopard, the rarest cat species on the planet.  Only 34 remain as of 2007!


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Expedition to Primorye:  In Search of the Siberian Tiger in the Land of Derzu Uzala 


Who would have thought I could have ever made it to this part of the planet.  If it weren't for a trip to Kamchatka planned later this same summer, we would have never had two weeks to "kill" in this part of Russia.  Initially Som was asking why on earth we were going to spend time here, but by the time the expedition ended, we both agreed that Primorye was a very wonderful place, filled with tons of wildlife and wilderness.  Although the region is under tremendous human-induced pressure, there still remains millions of acres of mixed hardwood and coniferous forest and a fairly solid prey population based on our observations in the various parks and reserves we visited.

In this spectacular region we had the unique pleasure to track Siberian tigers, Amur leopards and Himalayan black bear in the world’s last vast wilderness areas containing these species.  We spent three days in Kedrova (ya) Phad Zapovyednik where were we trekked with the park’s superintendent searching for the various species found there.  We did very well with reptiles and amphibians such as the Oriental Fire-bellied Frogs, Mamushi snakes and many other species.  We came across fresh kills of Amur leopards and fresh beds used in very recent days.  My four-year old boy surprised all of us (“us” being myself, my wife (both experienced spotters), the reserve superintendent (who has 25 years of tracking experience) and two trackers who do this for a living…) when he noticed a fresh Amur leopard print that went unnoticed by all of “us”.  “Hey daddy – look at this tiger track….”  This was the closest we came to seeing this amazing species but I felt totally satisfied in seeing a fresh print (that morning’s) of one of 34 individuals of that species left on earth.


Siberian Tiger at Victor Ludin's Tiger Reserve in Ussuri, Russia


Another high point in the region was on another trek looking for tiger sign.  We immediately came across fresh tiger scratch marks every twenty or thirty meters.  I noted the regularity of the marks and their freshness.  After almost TWO kilometers of literally dozens of these fresh scratch marks, we came across a very fresh bed.  I noticed the grass on the bed still rebounding from being pressed to ground by a very large tiger.  The ground was still warm!  We also collected many stray hairs that were left by the tiger that had just left, most likely due to our approach.  I asked the park superintendent about how fresh she thought all of the sign was, and she replied, “It’s not a matter of whether the tiger was here today, or a couple hours earlier, it is how many MINUTES ago…”  She even exclaimed that she was very much regretting not having her weapon with her! That strange feeling that something was watching us never left for the duration of the trek.  While there we came across herds of Dybowski’s Sika Deer and other cervid sign showing a healthy prey base for the tigers and leopards.

After three unbeatable days in Kedrova(ya) Phad we spent a week in Lazovsky Zapovyednik where we based ourselves at “Cordon America” and at the north coast ranger cordon along the Sea of Japan near Glazkovka.  We trekked over 100 km during our stay there and did have a fair amount of luck.  The region was absolutely spectacular and we made a real effort to find the Amur goral by spotting every single crag and rock outcropping in the region, but no luck.  It was fun just the same as our goal to see a goral made us scale the tallest mountains in the reserve to get beyond the thick old growth Korean Pine canopy that made seeing the rock outcroppings difficult.  We did get a good sighting of the Ussuri subspecies of the Himalayan black bear and even tracked it for a couple kilometers at a jogging clip… We also snuck up on a huge old-world badger and saw much fresh tiger sign and an old kill.  We once again came upon some Dybowski’s Sika Deer and even heard the distinctive bark of a very close and irritated Musk Deer (Moschus moschiferus) while along the main river.  We did see very fresh sign of the Manchurian Red Deer (Cervus elephas xanthopygos) but no actual sightings.  We did not see much in the way of rodents surprisingly.


Dybowski's Sika Seer in Lazovsky Zapovyednik Reserve, Primorye.


While in the region we spent a few days at Lake Khanka doing some world class birding.  While there we stopped by Victor Ludin’s place to see his semi-wild tigers.  Victor is a very eccentric individual and only allowed me to take one picture of the tigers in wild-like conditions.  From what I was told, this is one more picture than most visitors get to take – I guess he has been burned by photographers in the past.  The cats were gorgeous and it was surreal to see them stride through his patch of taiga forest.  While in his area, we saw a wild Roe Deer (Capreolus pygarus) in an open field.  But when I raised my camera to take a picture of it (the deer was NOT on his property) he got angry and called me greedy…  All in all we had a good stay there and he was impressed by my knowledge of Russian flora (the entire two hours with him seemed like an graduate oral exam on the Latin names of the plants – according to my guide, I passed with an A+, and she informed me that that was the reason he allowed me take one picture…I think it was because he had the hots for my wife who he as ogling and verbally flirting with the entire time…).


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There are more images below!




The spectacular grasslands surroundinng Lake (Ozero) Khanka in Primorye & Ussuriland were where Akira Kurosawa actually filmed the famous Derzu Uzala.  While we were there however the temperature was gorgeous and balmy, a far contrast to the frozen tundra that nearly killed the "Capitan" until Derzu saved him by building a structure made of these same grasses.                                



Our Lazo guides Svetya and Roman showed us some of the most amazing places in Primorye.  In all we spent about a week trekking daily sometimes nearly 15-20 km through trail-less wilderness with these two expert trackers and naturalists.  Roman was born and raized in the wilderness of Lazovsky and knew every nook and crany of the reserve.  He showed us much of the region's flora and fauna.  With he expertise, we were able to see such amazing species as Himalayan Black Bears, Dybowski's Sika Deer, European Badgers and many more.  And thanks to his dog, "Beem", who followed us everywhere, we avoided being bitten by the many Mamushi vipers we saw in the wilderness.



Cokie pretending to be a Roe Deer holding up its skull found at an old Siberian Tiger kill.  While we saw tons of sign for the elusive cats, we were unable to see any individuals in the wild.  When I planned the trip, I knew there would be little to no chance of seeing a wild tiger, but that didn't stop us from looking for hours every single day we were in Primorye!



One day while trekking the vast forest of Kedrovaya Phad in the far south of Primorye (just a few kilometers from North Korea), we came across a series of tiger scratch marks that were so fresh that when I asked our guide, the park's superintendent, how recent the sign was, she replied, "it's not a matter of if these tracks were scratched today or even a few hours ago, it's a matter of minutes!"  We were literally only a few very short minutes away from a wild Siberran Tiger!  Both Som and I sensed we were being watched the entire time we were in that forest.



Cokie taking a rest in a bed that where, just a FEW MINUTES before, a wild Siberian Tiger was resting.  The sign was so fresh that the grass blades were still rebounding from the weight of the animal who had just left, most likely due to our approach.  Knowing how rare these elusive animals are, I was so touched by the close call we had with this Siberian Tiger.  Our guides told us consistently that many of them had worked their entire lives in the forests of Primorye yet had never seen more than sign of these massive felids!




Cokie with a new friend, a nymphalid butterfly, who seemed to enjoy walking all over Cokie's face lapping up his sweaty salt.  I enjoyed watching my son's reaction to this invasion of space.  Initially he was a bit terrified of having this butterfly walk on his arm.  He wanted to swat it away, but after I assured him that it was totally safe, Cokie enjoyed having the butterfly walk up his arm and neck and finally find a salty patch on his forehead where it spent several minutes absorbing nutrients.  I always relish watching my son's first reactions to strange and new natural events.  The look of amazement that follows the initial nervousness is a fascinating transition.  I am watching my boy absorb the natural world around him and that gives me tremendous happiness. And then there was the time when he first saw fire flies!


Taking a brief break on one of the peaks of the Sikhote Alin mountain range.  For nearly a week we would trek up to 20 kilometers a day exploring the wilderness and looking for wildlife.  At this rest stop at a spectacular limestone outcropping, we spent time looking throughout the region for the elusive Goral mountain goats that Lazovsky Zapovyednik is famous for. 



Time to hit the road again after a good rest looking for Gorals.  During the days in the region, we trekked most of the mountains in this view plus numerous others.  Lazovsky Zapovyednik is filled with great habitat and tons of prey to support one of the largest populations of Siberian Tigers left anywhere in the Russian Far East.



Cokie with an exfoliated Mamushi viper skin found along the trek in Lazovsky Zapovyednik.  One of Cokie's problems is that he has no fear of anything! 



This lepturine cerambycid beetle, most likely genus Leptura, was one of the literally hundreds of insect species spied in the Primorye wilderness.  The forests of this region are famous for their insect fauna and are an entomological paradise!



For our last two days in Lazovsky Zapovyednik, we spent time at the ranger's huts on the wild coast of the reserve.  An amazing 4X4 journey to the area, the coastline was a spectacular conclusion to our stay in Lazo.  We spent our time trekking the vast coastal forests and rock outcroppings looking for Gorals, deer and Himalayan Black Bears.  We had good success!



Not only in Lazo, but all over Russia, we off-roaded using these amazing 4x4 vans that were capable of handling basically any road conditions, ranging from mussel sand to deep rivers.  Here we are almost NOT getting stuck in some very fine sands outside our base camp on the Lazo coast.


Base Camp Lazo!  Taking a break just after a downpour at our basecamp in Lazo.  Svetya and the head ranger relax at the dinner table.



An Amur Leopard den in Kedrovaya Phad Zapovyednik.  While trekking through the leopard's habitat, we came upon this rock out cropping where some of the scenes of the famous "Planet Earth" series were shot highlighting the rarest cat in the world.  Cokie showed us our only glimpse of fresh sign of the cat when we found a gorgeous paw print (above) of the cat that was created just hours before our arrival.  What a feeling! 



The Oriental Fire-bellied Toad was a common amphibian species in the ponds and streams in Kedrovaya Phad Zapovyednik.  While we were exploring the forest galleries of this reserve we came across more amphibians than any other group of animals.  The humid and wet nature of the forest ecosystem provided great habitat for these critters.  This one is toxic!



The potentially dangerous Mamushi viper was another common species in the grasses of Lazovsky Zapovyednik.  Thankfully Roman's ever-present pup, "Beem", was great at sniffing these reptiles (and many others!) out before they could pose a danger to us.  This one was particularly vulnerable as it was in the middle of its molt.



While in the land of Derzu, our omnipresent issue was the tick problem.  This area if famous, or infamous, for tick-induced encephalitis, and we had literally hundreds of ticks latch on to us during our stay in the region.  Notice this tick with its very own tick! That's right, this tick is being parasitized by other tick.  Luckily we found out that the season we were there (summer), the ticks are largely nonpathogenic, so we were good.



Primorye is known to be an entomologist's paradise!  We found many species of insects while on our treks.  This spectacular Luna Moth was seen on the trail during one of our treks in Lazo.  While he was a bit tattered with age, he was a marvelous speciman.

 The summer bloom was in full force while we were in Primorye.  These Chinese Globe Flowers (Trollius chinensis) were commonly bloomers in the Ketrovaya Phad National park. 


Campion (Lychnis fulgens)


We trekked for hours in the trail-Less wilderness of Lazovsky Zapovyednik.  While we were blazing our way through the mainly fern undergrowth, we were picking up dozens of lovely ticks.  Luckily they were not pathogenic that time of year.


During our miles of treks in Lazovsky Zapovyednik, we came across numerous reptiles and amphibians.  This spectacular Patterned Chicken Snake was seen along the Lazovsky River edge.  Roman's dog, Beem, was instrumental in finding this herps! 


The Amur Long-tailed Lizard measured in excess of a foot!  At first, it was very difficult to see him in the brush but I finally trained my eyes on the beautiful reptile long enough to snap a few images.


As we were in Lazovsky in the middle of the peak of the rainy season, we had a lot of rivers to cross.  I knew we were in for a bit of a wet expedition when our 4X4 van drove directly through a flooded river and the water was streaming in to the vehicle and quickly rising above our feet!  Luckily I was fast enough to grab our bags quickly enough to prevent them from becoming too wet!  Here is Roman helping Cokie across a submerged suspension bridge.  Som and I found it easier to strip down and wade across.  The cool water felt good anyway.  What a wonderful place to spend a few days!


Cokie being helped across another flooded river in Ketrovaya Phad Zapovyednik by the park's superintendent, Irina Maslova.  We were extremely fortunate to have her as our own personal guide during our stay at Ketrovaya Phad!   She was needless to say an expert in all areas of the reserve's natural history.  She was an accomplished entomologist as well. 


The park superintendent, Irina Maslova and our guide, Ekaterina (Katya) Nenya, resting after a long trek up the side of a mountain to get some excellent views of the Ketrovaya Phad.  While on this hike, we were able to see several Amur Leopard kills and some dens, as well as some fairly recent sign. 


The Oriental Fire-bellied Toad of Ketrovaya Phad


While on our treks throughout the region, we came across large numbers of thess massive Far-eastern Common Toads.  They were sometimes difficult to see in the forest debris.  But once they moved, they were pretty much in your face!


This Siberian Common Frog was nearly missed until it moved.  This is perhaps the most well camouflaged critter we came across in the field!



The stunning hardwood forest of Ketrovaya Phad.  I loved this view, and while I was there, I constantly thought of the 34 or wild Amur Leopards that were still precariously roaming this beautiful forest gallery.


 Another recent paw print left earlier that day by one of the 34 remaining Amur Leopards.


A few hairs left by a resting Siberian Tiger who had left his bed literally minutes prior to our arrival!  You just don't get close than this!


A spectacular Lake Khanka sunset.  The mountains in the background are in China!


Som enjoying a splended Lake Khanka sunset.


We were basically cutting new ground for the tourist industry when we somehow worked out a trip in to an off-limits bird sanctuary near the China border.  We had a local "Capitan" take us severa miles in to the remote areas of Lake Khanka.  And then we located a ranger who was deep in to the wetlands reserve and bribed him to take us deeper.  For the next several hours we motor-boated around a spectacular wetland to do some world-class birding in a slowly sinking rusty old boat.  We had to stop every so often to bail the water from the rusty boat.  All in all, we had a blast!  Cokie loved the several spots where we had to dismount the boat and trek through the muddy bogs.


A beautiful Great White Egret taking flight upon our approach in Lake Khanka.



Be sure to visit our Russia Galleries!

Primorye Landscapes Gallery

 Russia Species Lists