Cameraman helps rescue rare cub
Hopes were fading like footprints in a blizzard. The cub - one of an estimated 300 surviving Siberian tigers - would surely be ravaged by hunger by now and weakened by the snow storm which had struck the frozen forests of Russia's Far East.
NHU cameraman Max Hug-Williams was with local conservation rangers on a mission to rescue a four-month-old male tiger, orphaned by poachers and separated from its brother and sister ten days earlier.
Hug-Williams was still dazed from the 30-hour journey from London, via Moscow, to the remote tiger reserve near Vladivostok, but this was an opportunity not to be missed.
As they trekked for miles each day through the snow, he lugged the heavy camera equipment brought in hope - rather than expectation - of sneaking shots of this rare and most elusive of creatures, seen by just a handful of people.Tiger tracks
The cub's siblings had already been caught and returned for their own safety to a rehabilitation centre.
'Every one counts,' Hug-Williams tells Ariel of the endangered species which the Natural History Unit has never managed to film before. 'After the snow storm, we thought the third cub would be dead… but you couldn't have written the script.'
Fresh tiger tracks were soon reported which led the group to a 'mind-blowing' sight.
'This wild, orange tiger was cruising along a ridge,' explains the Operation Snow Tiger cameraman. 'It saw us and hid under a bush.'
One of the scientists approached the predator - already the size of an adult Rottweiler but with teeth and claws to put the dog to shame - armed with a pointed stick.
'The tiger stuck its head out of the bush and roared, before clamping hold of the stick,' recalls Hug-Williams, who caught the scene on camera for the BBC Two documentary series.
The ranger pinned the creature down, while others moved in to anaesthetise it. 'It was skin and bones, and touch and go if he'd make it.'Beautiful landscape
The rescue attempt was a highlight of the two month-long shoots during the unforgiving Russian winter.
'I thought it would be more desolate,' says the programme maker of the region, 'but it was an incredibly beautiful landscape of rolling hills and deciduous trees. You'd think it would be easy to spot an orange cat through the leafless trees, but they're so secretive and so well camouflaged.'
Even the scientists who track them every day struggle to locate the animals, which have a home range of 400 square kilometres and are understandably wary of human activity.
End Quote Max Hugg-Williams Cameraman
People have tried to make films about them before, but have only got the odd glimpse on a six week shoot”
'People have tried to make films about them before, but have only got the odd glimpse on a six-week shoot,' explains Hug-Williams, who credits the expertise of the conservationists for his more impressive haul.
'We came away with about 90 images,' he says. 'Some were better than others and all were down to the Russians who were able to second guess what the tigers would do.'Female makes its mark
Their knowledge enabled the BBC man to position camera traps where tiger activity was most likely. 'The traps are quite small and almost silent to our ears, but the tigers have such amazing senses they clock anything new in their territory.'
At first, they froze tantalisingly at the edge of the frame, but they gradually became more comfortable with the cameras, sniffing around them, sidling up to them and even staring into them.
One female - uncollared and never seen before on the north side of the reserve - came right up to the camera, grimaced and then marked its territory. 'It's an incredible shot,' says Hug-Williams, 'especially as there are so few breeding females in the park.'
As well as the natural diffidence of the tigers, the production team had to contend with temperatures that stooped as low as -40 degrees at times.
It was a constant struggle to keep cameras, not designed to function below -7, insulated from the cold, which also severely curtailed battery life.
'Lithium batteries last for around nine months in tropical areas,' says Hug-Williams. 'If we got two weeks out of them we were doing well.'Frozen fingers
Meanwhile, the team had to manage their own temperatures; they got hot and sweaty trekking long distances, but as soon as they stopped the perspiration would freeze.
Operating the cameras through gloves and down mittens proved tricky. 'You had to take them off and last as long as you could before you lost feeling in your fingers.'
And plans to stay in a camera hide overnight to capture the tigers at their most active had to be shelved ('we'd have been dead from the cold by morning').
They survived the shoot, gathering more material than they'd ever dreamed possible, but what of the orphan cub?
The cameraman, who has spent the last decade filming wildlife for the likes of Frozen Planet and Lost Land of the Tiger, witnessed the conclusion of its story on the day before he left Siberia.
'We watched all three cubs released into their enclosure,' he reports. 'It was two months after the rescue and they were nearly double the size. And despite the fact that they'd been through a huge trauma they seemed happy to see each other.'
Operation Snow Tiger, BBC Two, Sunday 9 June