TO MEET A DREAM
Winter is a season which divides people into different categories. Most people fall into two categories: either those who despise the cold and look for excuses to stay in warm spaces while wishing for summer’s quick return, or those who find joy in the cold season, participate in various winter sports, yet still dream of summer’s warmth. But there is a third, small group of people, for whom winter is the most active and favorable time to work, a time when many exciting things happen. These people are called field workers.
Thus, the snow that fell in the Southern Primorye in December of 2009, which caused so much inconvenience for city dwellers, allowed us, the field workers of the Far Eastern Leopard Project, to collect much important information about our subjects (the leopards), and, more importantly, it resulted in a meeting- of a sort that happens once in a lifetime, but of which all researchers dream… But we’re getting ahead of ourselves!
Each winter for several years now, we look for fresh leopard tracks in the snow and follow them, attempting to discover different characteristics of each animal (where and how it traveled, where he rested, laid down, slept, etc). This process is called Winter Snow Tracking. The most interesting part of tracking is discovering kill sites- prey carcasses left by a leopard. With sufficient numbers of such finds we can obtain information about the leopards’ diet. It is preferable to use very fresh tracks, which enable us to more accurately understand and describe what happened, but nevertheless keep our distance, in order not to “breathe down the leopard’s neck”- if it realizes it’s being tracked by a human, its behavioral patterns will not be typical.
Now imagine this: you’ve spent several years studying the Far Eastern Leopard, constantly thinking and reading about this curious and extremely rare animal, until it becomes an integral part of your life, like your close kin. Naturally, you would like to see it, the way it is in the wild. Unfortunately, you are a human, and the leopard is an animal with a highly secretive lifestyle, and the chances of realizing this dream just aren’t very great.
So here you are, going along fresh leopard tracks, and although you are still at a sizable distance from it, there’s always the glimmer of hope inside you: what if this time, today, a miracle happens, and I will see him! And then, completely unexpectedly, you hear a sound of breaking branches from behind some rocks, and the crunching of footsteps in the snow… Your imagination is already drawing an image of him, that incredibly beautiful beast, emerging from around the bend. You hold your breath, your heart skips a beat, and… a tiny mouse scurries away under the rocks… And you’re left saying to yourself “next time it will definitely happen”, and keep walking along in the snow. This happens all the time, and your disappointments and frustrations grow and mount.
This time, on a truly beautiful, warm sunny day, we were tracking a leopard- our long-time acquaintance Ivan. Much like tigers, Far Eastern Leopards are territorial animals, and use the same territory year to year, and because of that we already know from our studies where each leopard is located. Additionally, our knowledge is drawn from data obtained from camera traps, which Ivan constantly visits. Thus, having discovered a fresh set of tracks and having measured them precisely, we can assume with a high degree of probability which animal has left them. But let’s not get distracted with methodology, and instead let’s get back to that beautiful, sunny day and Ivan’s tracks. We’ve tracked him for several days in a row, and it was evident that the animal would have made a kill in that time, and this meant that we would soon discover a kill site.
And that is exactly what happened. The kill has been discovered literally 3 meters away from the forest road, and there were many signs of human presence around. The leopard’s prey was a sika deer, the gender and age of which it was impossible to determine, because we’ve discovered nothing but bones. All the bones were completely stripped of flesh, and more than likely, people have “helped” the leopard finish off this carcass. Having described the kill site and filled out the necessary data sheets, we started to make our way to the car, so imagine our surprise when on top of our own tracks we discovered very fresh tracks left by a large male leopard, but definitely not Ivan, because we knew that he went in the opposite direction. Our hearts beat loudly in our chests, but we were still a little sad that once again he was near, he was probably observing us, he saw us, but we didn’t see him- how unfair! When will the miracle finally happen?! When will we meet at last?!
Slightly disappointed, we got back into the car and drove home. But we haven’t gone more than one kilometer, when our sad silence was disturbed by one of our colleagues, Aleksey, who exclaimed “It’s a leopard!” And truly, literally 50 meters away, on a clear expanse of a frozen river, there he was - our dream. He was a fairly large and heavy male, in his bright, multicolored winter coat that shone in the winter sunlight. We caught him off guard, and he stood seemingly at a loss as to what to do, shifting from foot to foot, while intently watching us for about 10 seconds (which is a very long time for watching a wild animal). This entire time, our minds were clouded, and we were in a state of mild shock, because we’ve waited for this meeting for so long, and now it was happening in reality! Our surprise was so great that we forgot about the camera. Despite the fact that there was an extremely rare animal in front of us, and we could have made very unique pictures, this realization dawned on us only when the leopard started moving away into the bushes with big bounds. The camera was at the ready, but our meeting seemed already over. However, he didn’t move very far. He sat behind a tree and started looking out from behind it with curiosity. This scene was very amusing, and was reminiscent of the behavior of a small kitten who hides behind a corner during a game. The only thing was, ours was an impressively large kitten. We exited the car and only then did he run off into the heart of the woods, drowning in the deep snow. Yet for another half a minute we witnessed that rare image of an incredibly beautiful forest cat, lit by sunlight, running over snow banks, periodically turning and looking back at us. The pictures which we finally managed to snap, unsurprisingly came out very poorly, but the image of this meeting has clearly embedded itself in our memories. It’s just too bad that we have no way to project those images, and that beauty, except with these inadequate words.
Judging from his behavior, this male is still likely very young and inexperienced, since he spent so much time looking at us with such curiosity. How lucky it is for him that it was us, and not some poachers with guns, who saw him that day! Let’s hope that for this trusting young cat, this meeting with humans was the first and only in his long, happy life. And as for us, well, we have finally met our long-awaited dream!