Bloody Mary: Tigress in the Basin of Skeletons

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from the book “Great Soul of Siberia” by documentary filmmaker Sooyong Park . The book follows his journey into remote Russian mountains to observe and document a family of reclusive Siberian tigers. Park’s story is also featured in the award-winning film “Siberian Tiger Quest”, available above (U.S. and territories only.)

Soaring, majestic swells of dark blue raged toward the shore. The breeze was cool. Winter was finally coming to an end. Nearly all of the snow had gone, except on the mountain peaks. The forest and hills were cloaked in gray and mustard yellow, the dreariest palette of the year. Dark and light swatches stretched on like a rag patched and mended too many times, and the ice in the brooks and rivers cracked and broke apart as the muddy currents carried it away. The arctic warbler had not begun to sing yet, and there were no flourishes of green, but the tremendous energy of life heaved just beneath the surface of the faded earth as it pushed through its final toil.

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Steep coastline of the Sikhote-Alin mountain range. (Courtesy of Greystone Books Ltd.)

The perilous Tachinko Cliff towered over the sea that threatened to pull the onlooker into its dizzying waves. An eagle circled the sky and landed on a peak on the other side of the cliff. Heat shimmers rose in the warm sunlight amid azalea buds ripe and ready to burst.

Click, clack. Click click clack.

A couple of stones rolled down the cliff on the other side. The eagles were alight. Two Ussuri deer carefully made their way down the steep cliff. In Korea, they’re called plum flower deer for the white spots that blossom on their red coats in the early summer, but at this time of the year, their coats are as shabby and yellow as the lifeless skin of the Ussuri forest. The two deer looked scraggly and weak. The largest of the sika deer species, Ussuri deer once also lived throughout Korea and northeastern China, but their population has diminished over the years and they are now found mainly in Ussuri in the southern panhandle of Russia more commonly known as Primorsky Krai.

Every year, the Ussuri deer that have made it through the winter come down to the shore in the early spring. Before the first new leaves, when food is still scarce, the deer survive the last push by filling their bellies with seaweed or kelp. This also replenishes their salt intake, which is typically low during the winter. Their trips to the shore begin when the snow starts to melt and peak around May when the deer give birth to their young, as pregnant deer need more sodium to keep their growing fetuses strong.

More stones rolled down the cliff, then a heap of rocks crashed to the bottom. One deer fell off the cliff in the mess of rocks. It hit the cliff once on its way down and fell into the ocean. When the deer surfaced again, it could hardly move. With only its head above water, the deer was caught in the waves. It was a young stag that had just begun to grow antlers.

When I approached the stag, it was struggling to climb onto a rock. It used every drop of strength to push itself up, only to be swept under again. Stefanovich, the forest ranger I was traveling with, and I pulled the deer onto the rock, where it sprawled and gasped for air. It looked at us with pleading eyes.

Eagles were perched on every peak along the cliff. Like locals well versed in the ways of these parts, they lay in wait, looking off into the distance with an air of indifference.

The deer was still wide-eyed and gasping for air, but there was no hope for its survival. Stefanovich raised his gun to put it out of its misery, but I stayed his hand. I didn’t like the sound of gunfire. Perhaps this came with the territory of moving soundlessly in search of tigers—I didn’t want to disturb the quiet flow of nature. The deer was in pain, but it wasn’t our place to intervene. In the end, the birds perched on the peaks would get to him.

One branch of the Sikhote-Alin Mountains stretches south along the eastern coast of Ussuri through the Lazovsky District. Tachinko Shore lies in the middle of this coastal range. To the left and right of the shore are steep cliffs where wild goats live; over the ages, the powerful waves of the East Sea have dug out a crescent beach. About one kilometer down this beach of coarse sand and pebbles is a vast, thick valley of cork oaks.

We found deer tracks on the beach covered with tiger pugmarks. It looked like the tiger had pounced on the deer. Their tracks led to a spot where the sand had been churned up during the struggle. The tiger had hidden on the edge of the cork oak forest and caught the deer in just three tries. While the tiger pounced three times over a mere fifteen meters, the deer had managed to take only one leap. This was unusual. Such swift hunting is normally only possible when the deer is lying down to rest very close to the spot where the tiger hides in wait.

But there was no evidence of the deer lying down. It had been headed for the beach, but even then, could take only one leap for its life. It had been a perfect stakeout and a clean attack. The tiger had demonstrated cunning camouflage and agility rather than brute force.

Male Ussuri tigers use tremendous power when they hunt deer, boars, bears, and other large animals. But the relatively small and sensitive female tigers use a more effective weapon—trickery.
The sand looked rusty. The deer had bled profusely. The blood in the sand had not yet congealed. The deer must have died the previous night or early that morning. The tiger had dragged it into the cork oak forest. After killing their prey, tigers typically take it to a secluded area where there is water to drink. The tiger had eaten its deer by a small brook in the forest. There was a great deal of blood by the brook as well. It dawned on me that this was the handiwork of Bloody Mary. The locals named the tiger Bloody Mary for her habit of soiling the earth with blood whenever she took down a deer or boar.

Bloody Mary killed by delivering a fatal bite to the neck like any other tiger, but she always added an insurance bite. She would clamp down on the neck of an already dead deer and give it a hard shake, boring large holes into its throat with her long conical fangs. The arteries would tear and blood would spill. She had a cautious, tenacious personality and liked to be sure she’d done the job right.

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Bloody Mary (Courtesy of Greystone Books Ltd.)

Nobody in the area had ever seen this tiger, but it was assumed by the bloody remnants of her hunts that she was ruthless and cruel. That’s how she’d earned the same nickname given to Queen Mary I, the British monarch who executed countless Protestants in the sixteenth century. But Bloody Mary the tiger was merely vigilant, not ruthless, when it came to humans. I had never heard of anyone being harmed by her. Rather, thanks to her persistence and her diligence at keeping her distance from humans, she had been able to stay safe and raise her young well. She excelled at detecting dangerous contraptions laid by man and was a skilled hunter more than capable of feeding her young, even when she had a large litter.

She was as keenly wary of humans as she was deeply attached to her territory. So elusive was her presence that nobody had seen so much as her shadow, but when she sensed someone in her territory, she furtively circled the area and kept an eye on them until they left. While we were there, she had been patrolling her territory on the Tachinko Shore in southeastern Lazovsky. She had likely watched us observing the Ussuri deer and the wild goats. She had never once revealed herself to us, but often left traces nearby. Like a suspicious mother bird who senses a threat to the eggs she is brooding and circles the nest to investigate, she was lurking around our expedition. Maybe we had crossed paths in the forest. I couldn’t see her, but she could see me. She would have learned to tell me apart from other humans and knew that I was not a hunter. She was, after all, an Ussuri tiger. And Bloody Mary at that. If she had been any other tiger, I would not have had the nerve to wander the forest. A patch by the brook was littered with tufts of deer fur that Bloody Mary had ripped out with her front teeth. It was just like a female tiger to pull out the fur so meticulously before eating. The deer’s head was cast aside pathetically, its nose stuck in some leaves and its filmy dead eyes staring at nothing. The clouds in the sky and shadows of trees faded in its pupils. I looked closely and saw that its molars were yellow and ground down. It was an old stag. Its entrails strewn about the ground did not contain much. It seemed the stag had fed mostly on dried oak leaves, but not enough of those either. Its face looked haggard. Even though it was a scrawny deer with not much meat on its bones, Bloody Mary had left bits of it uneaten. She hadn’t even touched its head, and there was meat left here and there on its ribs and legs.

The brook had thawed almost completely, and clean water babbled along. The parts of the ice that were still frozen had air bubbles growing under spots of sunlight; other parts were full of round holes. Bloody Mary had drunk from the brook after feeding on the deer. Prints of her two front paws were stamped neatly and cleanly in the damp earth by the brook. Tigers’ size, age, and sex can be determined by their pugmarks and the lengths of their strides. The width of the front paw pads is an especially important indicator. If the width is greater than 10 centimeters, the tiger is most likely male. Few females have pads that wide. The paw prints by the brook were 9.7 centimeters, large for a female tiger, but the depth of the prints suggested the tiger was light. It was a smart, sensible female tiger, small but good at raising her young.

After a drink of cool water, Bloody Mary had crossed the brook and gone into the cork oak forest, a snug basin with Tachinko Shore to the southeast. Deer have to pass through this forest to reach the shore. Some get to the shore by climbing down the cliffs to the left and right, but those paths are too steep and not popular among the deer.

The large basin is densely populated by cork oaks. The yellow- brown leaves on the ground, the dark bark of the cork oaks, the dry blades of grass, and the field of reeds on the edge of the basin provide perfect camouflage for tigers stalking and hunting prey. Some of the deer that feed on the dry oak leaves in the basin on their way down to the shore meet their ends here. The ghostly white skulls and bones of deer that tigers have preyed on over the ages are scattered throughout the forest. On a sunny day with a gentle breeze, the forest is inviting. The dry leaves cover the ground like a cozy blanket and create a languid, sleepy atmosphere. It is a soporific place. But on days when the fog rolls in from the shore, the dank bark of the wet cork oak and deer bones look eerie in the milky darkness.

Sometimes it seemed the bitter ghosts of the dead deer were rising from the ground and gazing out through the thick fog, and other times I expected Bloody Mary to approach soundlessly from behind and pounce on me at any second. In those moments, the forest was transformed into a ghostly, wet swamp I did not want to cross. It is probably worse for the deer that have to pass through the basin every year—hence its name: the Basin of Skeletons. I found at least two skulls from deer that had died within the previous month or so. I imagined they were Bloody Mary’s kills. Only then did I know why she didn’t have to lick the meat clean off the deer bones. Spring was a terrifying time in Tachinko for the deer.

The spring that felt slow to come finally arrived, but the fallen deer did not live to see it. The southeastern region of Lazovsky, including the Basin of Skeletons, was a harrowing place for the deer, but perfect for Bloody Mary to raise her cubs, especially in the spring. Her choice territory was another reason she was known for being a good mother. I started to wonder what she looked like.

I didn’t know then where this journey would take me. Never could I have imagined that I would one day feel the warmth of her breath and her long, stiff whiskers on the back of my hand, and that I would be there, as well, to witness her death.

© 2015 Greystone Books Ltd.