The Siberian, or Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) is celebrated as a national animal of Korea. It is also widely considered to be extinct on the peninsula.
Where at the beginning of the twentieth century the animal’s range encompassed the endless forests of what is now the Russian Far East, Manchuria, and Korea, now it is largely confined to a handful of reserves dotted throughout Primorsky Krai, Khabarovsk Krai, and northern China.
Only around five hundred Siberian tigers remain in the wild, stalking wild boar or roe deer through the woods, or else stalked themselves by avid wildlife documentarians eager to capture the elusive cat on film.
In Korea, absence has made the heart grow fonder. The image of these animals, at least south of the DMZ, has been thoroughly sanitized. Shorn from the memory is their regular predation on livestock and, occasionally, on people, and the tiger is now fondly appreciated as a playful, even cuddly, symbol of national pride.
It is an impression cemented by the stunning remove of the South Korean landscape from the archipelago of small towns and dense forests that preceded it. Seoul, for one, is no longer the same warren of wooden houses and royal palaces that channeled tigers through its gardens, parks, and sewers.
And yet, there remain a few isolated stretches of the Korean peninsula where one might imagine a handful of these animals continuing to eke out a sheltered, if fragile, existence. The forests of North Hamgyong province, composed of broadleaf and pine forests, support boar, roe deer and other ungulate populations – it is an ecosystem that could conceivably sustain a small number of tigers all year round.
It was to find a way to prove this that, in 1997, brought Anatolii Kachur to Pyongyang. As deputy director at the Pacific Geographical Institute in Vladivostok, Kachur had been involved in conservation projects in the region for almost two decades.
The organization had been exchanging data on Siberian tigers with scientists from the DPRK for a number of years, yet without sources of funding, no joint field survey had been attempted.
Only around five hundred Siberian tigers remain in the wild
A pitch to UNESCO broke this impasse. “When the funding was approved, we immediately contacted the Korean side and arranged a meeting,” Kachur says.
The talks in Pyongyang proved difficult; access to the desired survey sites by foreign conservation workers was not a realistic possibility. On the last day of negotiations, however, the mood abruptly changed.
“According to our Korean colleagues, the final decision was made by Kim Jong Il, who personally considered the goals of this project and approved its implementation.”
Before an international team would be allowed into the country, it was agreed that specialists from the North Korean Institute of Geography would conduct their own preliminary survey in the Paektu Mountain Area.
It was there, close to the quasi-sacred sites of the Korean revolution, that all sides hoped evidence of the elusive tiger might soon be discovered.
In the beginning, Hwanung, son of the Lord of Heaven, descended unto Mount Paektu to found a new civilization. The culture prospered, and one day a bear and a tiger prayed to Hwanung that they, too, might be transformed into people, so that they could have human children. He agreed, on the condition that the two animals shelter in a cave for one hundred days and only eat magic herbs.
After twenty days, the tiger could suffer this regime no longer and left the cave. The bear endured, however, and after her hundredth day into the cave transformed into a human woman and married Hwanung. Together they had a son, Tangun, who would establish the kingdom of Gojoseon, the first Korean state.
For centuries, the tiger was considered indivisible from Korean culture: present at its beginning, it would probably remain there until its end, prowling across its hills and forests, its folktales and proverbs.
Throughout, its conduct would remain unpredictable. The Korean word for tiger is horang-I, Ho deriving from the Chinese character referring to the physical animal, and rang meaning “young boy.” According to religious scholar Edward R. Canda, the effect is to portray the tiger in the Korean imagination as childlike in temperament, pointing towards its “ambivalent nature: dangerous, powerful, innocent, harmless.”
This dual state would have proven little comfort to any Korean unfortunate enough to face the animal alone. For much of Korea’s history, tigers were known for routinely killing and eating individuals in the countryside, especially in mountainous areas.
As early as the 14th century, the Joseon dynasty employed specialists to hunt the animals, to guard against further attacks and skin them for fur. These men – accompanied by trained dogs and armed with matchlocks, lances and short swords – were celebrated for their bravery and skill, often having only one chance to bring the animal down lest they, too, be devoured.
“According to our Korean colleagues, the final decision was made by Kim Jong Il, who personally considered the goals of this project and approved its implementation.”
Not all tigers killed in the pre-modern period were killed in self-defense. The animals were, at times, so common that hunts were deliberately organized for sport and the collection of furs. As Canda notes, tiger artifacts were prized for their ability to ‘magically enhance human power.’
Tiger skins were used as luxurious household objects, lain on floors and chairs to assert wealth or nobility. Tiger cheeks and whiskers were sewn into hats worn by the royal bodyguards of the Yi dynasty. Tiger claws were given by husbands to their wives as tokens of their courage, or worn around the neck by children as lucky charms. Tiger bones were broken up and their gelatin extracted, to be mixed with wine and drunk to increase sexual potency. Pictures of tigers were even hung on front doors, to ward off evil spirits.
This semi-permanent state of vigilance among Koreans led to dozens of proverbs using tigers as a jumping-off point for wider illustrations of common sense.
Popular sayings included “Block a hole in a window at the sight of a tiger,” a fatalistic reference to the precautions one must take against imminent danger to life (Korean windows were often made of hanji paper, and would provide little defence against a tiger determined to leap into a house); “the wolf at the front gate, the tiger at the back”, implying a choice between two undesirable outcomes; and “Speak of the tiger and then he appears,” a phrase explaining link between an obsession with danger and its inadvertent invitation. The proverb is almost identical in meaning to its counterpart in English, which substitutes the presence of the tiger for the devil himself.
MADNESS AND SHADOWS
Stepping off the train at Rajin, Dale Miquelle was hoping the devil might appear for him. An expert on Siberian tigers and a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Primorsky Krai, he had spent the first half of the 1990s, trapping the animals in the wild and analyzing their movements.
WCS had worked closely in collaboration with its counterparts in Russian scientific organizations, including the Pacific Institute of Geography, on conservation measures for the Siberian tiger.
When Kachur and his colleagues returned from Pyongyang, it was perhaps only natural that WCS was included in the next stage of the proceedings: a meeting between all stakeholders in Rajin, to present the results of a preliminary North Korean field survey and discuss future conservation measures.
Initially, Miquelle hoped that this would involve a joint Russian-North Korean expedition: “Russian field biologists are exceptional at identifying the species, at least, [from] tracks, and for tigers, sometimes, you can identify the sex of the animal based on the size of the [footprints.]”
Unsurprisingly, given the somewhat obscure location of the meeting, Miquelle and his colleagues were watched at all times, and largely confined to their hotel. It was “unusual for me, as an American, to be in that little corner,” he recalls. “It was probably best that everyone just assumed I was Russian, along with my Russian colleagues, except for the few individuals from the Institute who knew better.”
Eventually, they met with director of the North Korean Institute of Geography Kim Jin Rak. It was an awkward encounter, not least for the director, who Miquelle assumes had not spoken to an American before.
“It was probably best that everyone just assumed I was Russian”
“And to be honest, it was the first time for me to be in North Korea talking to officials,” he admits. “But I think that there was a genuine common interest in the fate of tigers and leopards in that part of the world that allowed us to work through all the differences that exist between the countries, to find a common ground for the discussion of tigers.”
As planned, the North Koreans provided the results of their survey. They had chosen a search area of 6,000km2 of land in Ryanggang Province. Within that, the scientists had trudged along 700km of survey routes, and interviewed over a dozen local people – farmers, hunters, fishermen – about possible sightings. The team also investigated the density of ungulates in the area, to determine whether a tiger population could be supported in the heavily forested landscape.
The report they produced was detailed. In forests near Mudubon and Sandubon, locals had observed the seasonal migration of tigers over the border between the DPRK and China, as they followed roe deer across the porous frontier.
Another villager reported spotting a female tiger accompanied by two small cubs at the foot of a cliff, likely sheltering from the wind. Two or three more were reported to have had overlapping ranges near one mountain, while another local resident, a ranger who lived in Syanyan Town in Pkhekam District, reported finding a dead tiger “with a rotten belly” the previous winter.
That same year, “a tiger appeared in a lonely peasant house.” Fear, the report said, had driven the owner mad.
When he read the report, Miquelle was skeptical. Ultimately, there was little information inside that could be verified. All they had were photos. “We were not able to confirm that any of the tracks, in the pictures that they showed us, were actually [made by] tigers,” he says.
Ultimately, the proof that the Miquelle wanted would have to been provided by a joint survey. The conservationist was hopeful that both sides could come to some form of agreement. But then, after Miquelle and his colleagues left Rajin, the North Koreans broke off communication.
“I have no idea why,” says the conservationist, still perplexed at what happened. “We never got a response when we attempted contact.”
Serious efforts at a joint field survey would not resume until 2005, this time with WWF Russia. After being handed an invitation via the Russian Academy of Sciences, the organization dispatched a trio of scientists to conduct a short survey in the forests outside Rajin and in the steppe-like landscape of the Tumen river valley. Denis Smirnov, then a coordinator of WWF-Russia’s forestry programme, was part of the team sent to North Korea.
“It was quite a short visit,” says Smirnov, comprising several official meetings and three outdoor expeditions. Snow blanketed the forest floor. “The tracks of different animals were clearly visible,” Smirnov recalls, including some the team attributed to either a leopard or a tiger.
After Miquelle and his colleagues left Rajin, the North Koreans broke off communication
“With such a short visit, it [was] unfeasible to get direct evidence,” says Smirnov. Even so, his colleague Mikhail Kretchmar considered prey density good enough for tigers to survive in the forest, and found tracks that the team attributed to either a leopard or a tiger. Interviews with local residents were also encouraging.
One forester said that he had spotted a tiger in 1998 and in the previous year the carcasses of several wild boar that could only have been mauled by “a large cat.” Another man, a hunter, testified to the presence of boar carcasses that very same year, and felt the leopards and tigers did live in the local area, albeit in low numbers.
The team left the DPRK shortly thereafter. Smirnov would visit the country again over a year later, this time to sign a memorandum of understanding, before officials from the Peoples’ Committee of Rason visited Russia to learn how the country’s system of protected reserves was managed. After that, however, any hope of further collaboration ebbed away.
Smirnov believes it had something to do with the lack of available manpower WWF Russia could have devoted to a full-scale survey; the forester spent a period of time himself overseeing four provinces after one colleague resigned. Looking back, he attributes his enthusiasm for greater involvement in North Korea to youthful exuberance.
“Probably I underestimated the possible problems… which we could meet starting work in North Korea,” Smirnov says. He does not believe, for one, that the DPRK’s institutional knowledge of Siberian tigers was sufficient to allow meaningful scientific collaboration with WWF Russia.
After three years spent navigating a maze of government bureaucracy to combat illegal logging in Laos, he also appreciates how difficult it may have been to guarantee prolonged access to the desired survey sites closer to the Sino-Russian border.
“The results of most conservation projects in Laos are very modest,” he says. “I could imagine how long it would take in North Korea to reach some solid results.”
The decline of Siberian tigers on the Korean peninsula is popularly assumed to have taken place in the first half of the 20th century, roughly coincident with the Japanese occupation.
In truth, it is more likely that their numbers began to fall by the 18th century, thanks to organized extermination campaigns ordered by the Korean state. Records of the time regularly boasted of dozens, sometimes up to a hundred tigers killed in a single hunt. Given the detrimental impact the hunting and human disturbance has on the reproduction rate of big cats, it was small wonder that they quickly became endangered.
Hunting expeditions during the Japanese occupation served to depress numbers even further.
Villagers continued to look towards the state, as they always had, to defend them and their livestock against tiger attacks. Yet, by the 1930s, the only confirmed cases of the animals being captured or killed were taking place in North Hamgyong province.
It was only with the ejection of the Japanese from the peninsula in 1945 that some of the first conservation measures were enacted. In 1947, the DPRK banned any unlicensed hunts of tigers, along with bears and leopards. It was a short reprieve.
“I underestimated the possible problems… which we could meet starting work in North Korea”
Bombing campaigns by both sides in the Korean War decimated forests up and down the peninsula, severely restricting available habitat for tigers. This effectively left isolated northeast of the DPRK, close to the Sino-Soviet border, as the only plausible area where the animals might continue to survive.
One last sighting is reputed to have been made in the late 1950s by a team of Soviet and North Korean scientists in the area of Mt Paektu. Another Siberian tiger was gifted by the DPRK to the Prague Zoo in 1967, although it is possible that this animal originated from the Soviet Far East.
Thereafter, the presence of tigers on the peninsula devolved to the realm of informed speculation. In 1979, the Fauna Protection Society received a letter from a correspondent in North Korea asserting that conservation measures taken around Mt Paektu had resulted in about 50 tigers living in that area, “a considerable increase on the estimate of 10-20 when the republic was established.”
Even if they are not currently present in the DPRK, Miquelle believes that making the border areas readily accessible to tigers could enhance the recovery of the species.
“The thing that’s important in terms of tiger conservation in this part of the world is that tiger densities are extremely low,” he explains, concurrent with the low numbers of ungulates present in what has always been, historically, the most northerly part of the species’ range. An individual Siberian tiger therefore roams over a huge area in search of prey, with males known to have territories of over 1000km.
“Korea represents another landscape where more tigers could exist.”
By demarcating new reserves in the Russian Far East and northern China, conservationists like Miquelle have successfully brought the Siberian tiger back from the brink of extinction. In his opinion, a similar recovery of the population might be possible if the North Korean government institute basic protective measures. Then, he says, “tigers will naturally move across the Tumen river back into the Korean peninsula.”
There is a small chance that they may have done so already. In 1991, tiger tracks leading from the North Korean border were discovered outside a Chinese village. In 2015, it was reported that a female with two cubs was spotted crossing the Tumen River into the DPRK from Russia by local border guards.
While the sightings are not evidence of a permanent population living on the Korean peninsula, it is certainly gratifying to think that, many years ago or yesterday, new tigers may be treading both sides of the riverbank, searching, perhaps, for a new home in an old kingdom.
Edited by Oliver Hotham