Operation Snow Tiger: A rare glimpse into the wild

Camera operator

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When I first got the call to film for Operation Snow Tiger I knew we were in for a challenge. Siberian tigers are something of a wildlife holy grail, as almost no one has filmed them in the wild before.

Often when you think of tigers it conjures up an image of an Indian safari with a tiger basking in the shade of a tree, these days typically surrounded by jeeps full of tourists snapping away on their cameras.

Siberian tigers live in a spectacular and brutal landscape in the Russian Far East

With Siberian tigers it’s a different ball game altogether. They are eking out an existence on the very edge of a tiger range in one of the harshest environments on the planet.

In the Sikhote Alin reserve, 12 hours’ drive north of Vladivostok, temperatures can drop to -40C, which makes filming almost impossible.

We had to keep cameras outside at night so that lenses didn’t fog up and freeze with the temperature change and batteries would last just a matter of minutes unless we kept them warm with heatpacks.

To make matters even more challenging, each tiger can range over an area the size of a small country, and we were trying to keep up on foot so it really was like looking for a needle in a haystack!

You would think that looking for a huge, bright orange cat in the snow would be easy, but I can assure you it is not.

Luckily for me I was teamed up with a crack team of Russian experts - tiger tracker Kolya Rybin and biologist Svetlana Soutyrina.

In a scene you’ll see in episode two, we were soon hot on the trail of one of the last females known to be living in the reserve, who the team had called Varvarra.

Kolya had identified that she was in the area by tracking the radio collar that had been put on her a year previously by the research team. Our mission was to find out whether she had cubs - precious information for this critically endangered species.

Mothers with cubs are even more elusive than usual, as they stay away from major trails and marking trees to keep their cubs safe from potential predators.

After discussing the options with Sveta and Kolya, it seemed that the only chance to get a glimpse into the world of a first-time mum would involve getting a bit too close for comfort - snow-shoeing to within 100m of Varvarra and deploying our camera traps.

Varvarra makes her entrance, caught on the camera traps

The thought of walking up to a mother with cubs, who was more than likely guarding her deer kill, sounded a bit like suicide to me but I was handed a flash flare and told that if a tiger came charging towards me I should light myself up like a Christmas tree and I would be fine.

As we donned our snow shoes and set off into the Sikhote Alin forest I began to try to calculate how long it would actually take for an angry mother to cover 100m, given that tigers are considerably faster than Usain Bolt! 

The second thought that popped into my head was that the only time I had actually deployed a flash flare, the polar bear that I was trying to keep at bay seemed to think that I had put on a quaint indoor fireworks display and continued towards me. 

My third and final thought was the parting words of my mother as I left the UK.

“You’re not going to get too close to those tigers are you?” she asked. 

“No, mum” I replied. “It’s a Siberian tiger, we’ve got no chance of seeing one.”

We were privileged to get a glimpse into the world of these incredible animals by stepping into the lives of some amazing Russian scientists working for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the AN Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution.

They know the tigers better than anyone else, and they can second-guess what they’re going to do next.

Developing this knowledge takes a lifetime of work, and without people like Sveta and Kolya we would never have got the footage we did.

Max Hug Williams is a camera operator on Operation Snow Tiger.

Operation Snow Tiger begins on Sunday, 9 June at 8pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD, except in Northern Ireland where it starts at 9pm. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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