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In the Footsteps of an Unknown beast, or How a Tiger Ended up in Yakutia

Siberian Tiger

Would you, having only a primitive weapon, be brave enough to go in search of an unknown creature so bloodthirsty, that it strikes fear in the whole neighborhood?  Now imagine that you found yourself in South Yakutia in 1905. Something is killing the livestock, villagers have found traces of an unknown beast, and someone saw a strange animal, which had only been seen before by the old-timers in the old days. So now you have to neutralize the creature using the scarce tools and resources available.

 Imagine someone is asking you to go catch “the Alien,” or “Predator.”

There is an item exhibited in the main Yakutsk museum for more than a hundred years now – a large stuffed tiger killed by local hunters near the village of Ust-Maya (now a district center) in 1905.  Ust-Maya is located in the south-eastern portion of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), near the border with Khabarovsk Territory.

The story goes like this: in mid-November of 1905, local residents found that their horses were butchered. The Yakut horse is a special breed that is well adapted to search for food under the snow, so it can spend all winter free-grazing in the forest. The owners of the horses noticed unknown tracks of a large animal around the slaughtered horse remains. A group of six hunters decided to go and watch for the beast. Only one of them had a rifle, the rest were armed with axes and palmas (Yakut spears).

Having followed the fresh footprints, the hunters stumbled upon the still warm remains of a horse. Realizing that the beast was near, they divided into two groups and began to scour a small thicket where the traces were leading. Having noticed the group, the tiger crouched and lunged at one of the hunters who stepped ahead. The animal first struck the hunter with its paw, and then began tossing the man in the air. The second hunter approached the tiger from its side and hit the beast on the head with an axe. However, the hit was not very accurate and did not cause much harm to the tiger. The tiger, in turn, threw the attacker away with its front paws. At that moment the second group of hunters arrived, and they had a rifle. While hunters with spears were distracting the beast, the hunter with a rifle took careful aim and made a lucky shot.

The tiger immediately fell to the ground and was finished off by a few spears. The killed tiger and wounded hunters were afterwards taken to the village on a sled. The hunter who was tossed by the tiger’s paws died a few days later; another one who received a blow from the tiger became disabled for life. The tiger turned out to be a male weighing 576 pounds (262 kg).  Local residents sent the frozen tiger body to Yakutsk. At that time a member of the Russian Geographical Society was in the town; he was a skilled anatomist and stuffed the tiger for the Yakutsk Museum. Since then, for more than a hundred years, the stuffed tiger remains one of the major exhibits of the museum.  A few years later, an article was published in the Russian Geographical Society Proceedings about a tiger in the Yakutia province. The hunter who shot the tiger was alive until the mid-1960s. A local newspaper published an article at that time based on the recollections of that hunter. Evidence was discovered in the archival documents of several cases of locals encountering tigers in the XIX century. In particular, one of such references can be found in the diaries of an exiled Decembrist Alexander Muravyov, he mentioned a tiger that was killed in the south of Yakutia in the 1840s.

However, this march ended tragically for one of the hunters. The footprints of an unknown beast that killed the horses and cows were found by Evenks of the Ezhansky kin.  Eight hunters from a village called Ezhantsy, armed with guns, spears and axes, decided to track the animal down on November 21, 1905. They came across the tiger in the Tenke area, 80 versts (86 kilometers) from the village of Ust-Maya down the river Aldan. Traces of the animal were found six miles (10.6 km) from the dwelling. Here is what one of the brave hunters, Pyotr Zakharov, told half a century later:

"Suddenly we came upon the traces of a large animal. They say that in the old days, in the days of my grandfather’s father, khakhai used to come to our land. Thinking that this might be it, we got scared, but continued the pursuit anyway. The beast went into the forest. We found the tufts of hair from the beast’s sides on the branches. At first we wanted to set a trap, but it turned out that the beast was too big for the trap.

We then decided to run the beast down and kill it. After a few miles, we saw the footprints of the horses that got scared and ran away. Then we found the remains of a slaughtered horse. Judging by the footprints the beast made exactly nine jumps. Looking closer, we found out that this beast pulled half of a horses body up a tree and ate it there. It was then that we realized what a big, strong animal it was. I suggested setting a trap on that site, but my friends decided to continue pursuing the beast. We walked another three miles. Seeing a small forest, we divided into two groups and decided to enter it at the same time from either sides. Mikhail Zakharov and Chakyr Pyotr stayed, and we started scouring the woods. At that moment we heard spine-chilling screams of a man: “Help! It’s killing me!” We ran towards him and saw the following scene: a large cat-like animal was savaging Chakyr. It was tossing Chakyr up and catching him with its teeth and paws, and tossing him up again. I shot at the beast’s side with a Berdan rifle, but the animal just started. Sergey Atlasov hit the beast in the forehead with an axe, but the monster cowered away, caught the axe with its teeth, tossed it back, and attacked Atlasov. Then I started beating it with a rifle butt in its face. The tiger released Atlasov and, growling, started falling to the ground. Afanasiy Konyukhov shot at him again.

We built a fire. Chakyr Pyotr was very badly hurt. There was no uninjured spot on his body. We brought him home six miles from the hunting place.  The brave hunter only lasted four days.

The Soviet power appreciated the work and courage of simple hunters - for hunting down a rare wild animal, I received a reward."

After so many years the brave hunter must have forgotten: he was rewarded not by the Soviet regime, but by the tsarist one. Yakutsk Territorial Statistical Committee went to the expense of over a hundred rubles (very big money at that time!). Twenty-five of those rubles were spent on the delivery of the animal to Yakutsk. Another 25 were given to the family of the deceased hunter. Remaining fifty rubles were shared between the injured hunter Sergey Atlasov (his arm was paralyzed) and his more fortunate associates.

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It is believed that the wandering tigers were driven from their natural habitats by the Russian-Japanese War.  Did the striped predators visit Yakutia later?  History is silent about that.  However, modern industrial projects, such as the Eastern Siberia – Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline, can interfere with the lives of the endangered predators on a much larger scale than the war did.  Today there are about five hundred Siberian Tigers in the Russian Far East (hunting them was banned in 1947).  And, if one of them wanders back to Yakutia someday, we must remember that these striped cats are afraid of neither open flames, nor people.  When coming across a human on a trail, tigers usually let them pass by, and then follow them from behind.  So, looking at the size of the famous museum exhibit, one can’t help but agree with the words of the famous hunter Dersu Uzala: "We say: people who never saw Amba are happy people. They always live good lives." By the way, Dersu never hunted “Amba”. He believed that tigers were gods, guarding the ginseng...

Nikolai Kychkin