Toshiji Fukuda has been photographing the natural wonders in the far east of Russia for nearly 25 years. His dedication has resulted in countless amazing images – including a true rarity: a beautiful photo of a wild Amur tiger taken without a camera trap. This won him the Gerald Durrell Award for photographing endangered species – and Toshiji gave WWF his prize money!
Here, he relates the amazing tale of commitment, cold, cramped conditions… and a serious amount of patience that resulted in his celebrated image. Toshiji explains:
“I’ve been taking pictures of wildlife in the far east of Russia since 1990. I spend up to 150 days every year there, and I’ve been lucky enough to take pictures of many wild animals. But for me, the Amur tiger – the largest of the big cats, and the ‘emperor of the Taigas’ – is the most beautiful. So it was a great moment for me when I had the opportunity to visit Lazovsky Nature Reserve in eastern Russia to try and photograph one.”
“There is a large variety of wildlife in the reserve. It covers 1,200 sq km – that’s about three-quarters the size of Greater London. But only about 10-11 adult Amur tigers live there.”
“I have only seen wild Amur tigers twice. The Amur tiger is like the Big Foot. The Amur tiger is like a ghost. So, to photograph one, I tried two methods. The first was the camera trap. The second was simply watching and waiting. I monitored my camera traps for two years. In that time I captured just four images of Amur tigers.”
Sensing a tiger
“While I was checking the camera traps one sunny day, the forest suddenly became very silent, and I could only hear the sound of the crows. At this moment, I sensed the presence of an Amur tiger. Victor Yudin, an expert on the Amur tiger, told me: “If you sensed an Amur tiger once, that means you have been seen a thousand times by the Amur tiger.”
Pawprints in the sand
“But it was on a sandy beach by the Sea of Japan, rather than in the forest, that I often found the footprints of an Amur tiger. I’d also seen sika deer there, which are prey for the tiger. The deer eat kelp on the shore during the winter, when there is a shortage of food in the forest. I figured I was more likely to see the tiger when it wasn’t so perfectly camouflaged in a forest, too.”
“I was very determined to get a picture, so I decided to stay here for one winter – between 2011 and 2012. I’d managed to photograph Amur leopards from my tent. But Amur tigers are even more cautious animals, so I needed something different.”
Room with a view
“My assistants dug a hole in a sharp slope overlooking the beach, and built a hut. We camouflaged the hut, completely covering it with earth and leaves. And we surrounded it with a 9,000-volt electric fence for my safety.”
“The hut was 2.3 metres long, 1.5 metres wide and 1.4 metres high. It was my prison cell, where I’d sentenced myself to serve one winter – my crime being my desire to take a picture of an Amur tiger in the wild. I was 63 years old at the time. I found that older people have one advantage: time passes more quickly for us than for the young.”
“Near the end of my seventh week in the hut, finally it snowed. The snow covered the tiger markings. And I knew the tiger would have to return to mark his territory again. I had a feeling my chance was coming close.”
“Strong winds had blown all night. I woke up shivering, and noticed that the crows were noisy. I had a feeling that finally, my chance had come.
I opened the window slowly and quietly. And there, 150 metres away, glowing in the morning sun, stood a divine female Amur tiger! It was as if the goddess of the Taiga had appeared to me. I stayed another 24 days in the hut. But that was my only opportunity.”
A dream fulfilled
“For me, 74 days in the hut was a small price to pay to achieve my lifelong dream: to see and photograph such a rare and wonderful animal.”
Do you have prize money you want to donate to us? Don’t worry if not, you can always adopt a tiger instead.
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