Upon arrival in Russia in 1992, Igor Georgievich Nikolaev one of the first people I met. However, I cannot say that I quickly got to know Igor Georgievich. He was a shy man, careful with words, and was more than happy to listen rather than be heard. In larger groups, during heated discussions, Igor was seldom likely to join in the fray.
Nonetheless, in a quiet moment shortly after my arrival, Igor handed me a small book, which was a monograph on tigers. It actually took me awhile to understand that this small, quiet man with the kind smile was actually one of the authors of that monograph. And it took me even longer to understand the value of that piece of work. At that time, I only knew that Igor Georgievich had come to Terney to assist in starting up our radio-collaring studies, and therefore he must have had some experience with tigers.
I spent many days and nights with Igor Nikolaev in the field in the early days of our project. In quiet moments he would talk to me – mostly about tigers. There were other, more boisterous voices telling me the “truths” of tiger biology, but slowly I came to learn that this man “knew” tigers, and hi was a voice I could trust. So often, in long-winded arguments about where to work and what to do, I would finally turn to Igor, who had been quietly sitting and listening, and ask, “So Igor, what do you think?” The answer was always illuminating, and usually right and true.
In this way, I felt like we had a special relationship. Together, alone, after meetings or heated arguments with others, Igor would reveal his thoughts to me – things that has been racing through his brain no doubt during a previous discussion. It was seldom I disagreed with him, and always reassuring to know we were in alignment. Igor was never one to argue, but always on the side of truth, as he understood it. For the past 25 years, whenever someone had a question about the Amur tiger, I would provide the following advice: “Go talk to Igor Georgievich. He knows tigers.”
Igor Georgievich was an “old school” biologist. He followed in the long tradition of many Russian field biologists who believed that knowledge is gained in the field, not the laboratory. And he loved being in the field. There was so much to learn from Igor just by being in the field with him. Not only was he my teacher in those early days, but he quite literally saved my life from a moment of my own stupidity in confronting a very angry bear. For that I am forever indebted to him.
Nikolaev and Yudakov his childhood friend and fellow biologist, took the tradition to a new level in their field studies. Understanding a species for these men meant being out in the forest, following the tracks of individuals for days, and months, to understand how they travel, hunt, mate, and fight. This was hard-won information, but Yudakov and Nikolaev committed themselves to their study on tigers in a way that had never been done previously, and will unlikely be matched in the future. Theirs is a study that will stand the test of time because of the amount of information gathered, and their commitment to accumulate hard-won information.
Yudakov and Nikolaev were not only boyhood friends, but close scientific collaborators. A long list of publications of Yudakov and Nikolaev attest to the value of that that relationship. Igor was a slow, careful writer, and therefore Yudakov was an important part of the equation in getting their results published. The early loss of Yudakov was no doubt a tragic blow – a loss for science, but more importantly the loss of Igor’s closest friend and companion. At times, there was a sadness in Igor’s eyes that spoke to the trials he had been through. Despite these trials, I never saw any bitterness or resentment in him – his was a quiet and gentle soul.
When I arrived in the Russian Far East nearly 30 years ago, there was a strong and vibrant community of dedicated tiger biologists. These people were giants in the field of tiger ecology, and the body of work they collectively provided became the foundation for new studies and for current conservation efforts. Igor Georgievich Nikolaev was one of the last of these great people from an older generation, and one of the most important. Our loss is all the greater because I do not see a replacement for Igor or others from this last generation.
Among the many things I learned from Igor, I discovered that giants indeed come in many sizes. For among his peers, though he as a small man, he was giant in his contributions to science, and as a man who spoke softly, but truthfully.
January 26, 2020.