David Gordon: Jon, thank you for taking the time to share your great knowledge and experience with the TMU community. For starters, why don’t you introduce yourself? Tell us who you are.
Jonthan Slaght: Sure! My name is Jonathan Slaght. I’m a US-based wildlife biologist. I work for a group called the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which is based in New York City, but there is a strong international conservation component to the organization. We work in more than 60 countries on more than 500 conservation projects. I work primarily for WCS’s Russia program, but I also dabble in the Arctic and China. I’ve been going to Russia since the early 1990s and to the Russian Far East since the mid 1990s. I’m currently the Russia and Northeast Asia Coordinator for WCS. I’ve known David for nearly 20 years; I think it was around 2000 or 2001 when we met in Vladivostok.
DG: That’s right. You were still in the Peace Corps, right?
JS: Yes, and we’ve stayed in touch since then. It’s nice to connect any chance we get.
DG: Jon, how did you become interested in conservation in the Russian Far East?
JS: I was first in Russia in the early 1990s, and I think I first went to the Russian Far East in 1995. I was a teenager; I’m 41 now. I flew out there with my dad, actually. I remember looking down out of the airplane window—it was the middle of the summer and there were these rolling hills of green, it was almost like an ocean of green. I was focused instantly on that and thought, “What is this place?” That drew my initial interest to the region. And I just kept going back. I spent a semester in the Russian Far East as an undergraduate student in 1997, and, as you mentioned, I was there in the Peace Corps from 1999 until 2001. When I was in the Peace Corps, I happened to be living in the same village where WCS had a field office. They were running a project, and they still are, called the Siberian Tiger Project. The director of that program, Dale Miquelle, suggested I take the leap from hobby to profession. I had been interested in wildlife—my undergraduate degree was in Russian language, not in science—but I was engaged in a lot of bird work and a lot of nature stuff in the Peace Corps. Dale said WCS would support my work if I wanted to go to graduate school and do this more seriously. So, in 2002, I started a Masters Degree project studying the impact of logging in pine forests on songbirds. Then I continued with a PhD studying Blakiston’s fish owls, which is an endangered species that lives in that part of the world. So, it was pretty gradual—from looking out of an airplane window and seeing mountains to becoming more and more entrenched as I went along.
DG: Jon, that’s a great explanation. What is it that you actually do over there now?
JS: I do a bunch of different things. Officially, I’ve been with WCS since 2010 or 2011 as a full-time employee, but I’ve been affiliated with them since 2000. As I’ve been associated with WCS, what I do has increased in scope and complexity. When I started working for WCS, I brought with me this project studying Blakiston’s fish owls. Today, as I said earlier, my official title is Russia and Northeast Asia Coordinator, which is a title I came up with myself, so it’s not that official.
JS: So, what I do: My overarching goal is to link the different WCS country and regional programs by focusing my interests. We have a program in Russia, we have a program in the Arctic Beringia area, which is Alaska and Chukotka in Russia, and we also have a China Program. I’m working with the Russia and China programs on tiger conservation issues, and I’m working with the Arctic Beringia program on waterbirds—migratory birds that breed in the Arctic and then migrate through Russia, through China, further down into South Asia. I write grants for this type of work, I develop projects, and I implement projects. I still have two projects that I manage in Russia: One of them is a continuation of this pet project of mine with Blakiston’s fish owls, which I’ve been studying since 2005, so almost 13 years. Not many people know much about them, even in Russia.
DG: What’s a Blakiston’s fish owl?
JS: It’s the largest owl in the world. They stand about 75 centimeters tall with a 2 meter wing span—enormous, enormous birds. They primarily eat salmon, and they don’t migrate. It’s an owl that lives in a place where most waterways freeze in winter, so they’re tough birds. They’re big, ragged, Muppet-like things. If you see one sitting on a branch, with their ragged ear tops, they’re pretty comical looking. They’re endangered and live mostly in Russia. There are a few in Japan—less than 200. There are a few in China, and there might be some in North Korea, but they are cryptic. They live in an environment where it’s difficult to get around, which makes them hard to study.
DG: Wow! 75 centimeters tall—that’s what…about 2 and a half feet or so tall?
JS: Yes, 2 and a half feet.
DG: And a 7-foot wingspan?
JS: A 6-foot wingspan.
DG: Wow. That is crazy! So, they live in these really remote parts of the forests in Russia. What is it like when you’re out on one of your field expeditions looking for these creatures?
JS: Last year was the first year I didn’t do any fieldwork specifically associated with the owls, but the projects are ongoing. I’m married, I’ve got two kids now, so it is harder to spend time away. Actually, I’m going [to Russia] tomorrow for about a month. Maybe only two weeks of that is going to be actual fieldwork. I’m not doing anything too remote this trip. Typically, to get to where the owls are, my Russian colleagues and I—the Russian team leader is Sergei Surmach—we load everything we need for a month or so into this big truck that has a living space with a wood stove built in the back, and just drive into fish owl territory and park the truck next to a river. We work out of that truck for a few weeks. I mean, it is cold; it gets -30 Celsius in winter in Primorye, or Primorsky Krai, so it’s not easy, but there’s some degree of fun, you know. It’s a unique experience.
DG: You’re living in Minnesota. Shouldn’t you pick a tropical place, like Bali or someplace like that, to do your wildlife research?
JS: Well, honestly, that’s what my wife keeps saying.
DG: (laughs) You haven’t thought about bringing your wife and kids with you on one of these field expeditions?
JS: No, but as I expand my work into other parts of Asia, we’re thinking more seriously about it. The tough part is because she works in a school, she’s really limited by the school schedule—she’s only free to travel in the summer. Most of the trips I do seem to be in the autumn or winter. Winter is when you want to leave Minnesota, but she can’t really take a trip to Singapore or someplace like that.
DG: Oh, well (laughs). Is winter actually the best time to go tracking fish owls?
JS: Yes, absolutely. They really don’t like people. And they tend to flush if they know a person is walking toward them. They tend to fly off at a hundred or a hundred and fifty meters. So, it’s hard to actually see one. If a bird flew away at that distance in the summertime, you’d never know it was there [due to the foliage]. At least in winter, with the leaves off the trees, you can sort of see it. And because they’re hunting fish, there are only so many spots on the river that aren’t frozen. You can see their tracks in the snow around that open water. If we’re looking for owls and we don’t know where they are, winter is really the only time to find them.
DG: How many owls do you think there are in Primorye or in the Russian Far East?
JS: We have a pretty good idea for Primorye. There are 105-186 pairs. But so much of the Russian Far East is unexplored it’s difficult to say about the entire Russian Far East, but we think there are about 1000-1900 total.
DG: Up to 1900. Okay, cool. Why should people care about these fish owls?
JS: Well, they’re a symbol of wilderness, for one thing. I mentioned there are around 200 in Japan; they are one of two symbols of wilderness in that country: brown bears and fish owls. Keeping the population intact is a very manageable thing; it’s not difficult to keep fish owls from going extinct. They need to have big trees to nest in, and they need enough fish to eat. If humans are unable to keep fish owls from going extinct, that’s a big problem. It’s not a huge conservation challenge to keep these things alive.
DG: You mentioned the Russian head of the team, Sergei Surmach. I know you’ve built some really strong relationships with Russian wildlife biologists. For fish owls, he’s a really important partner for you. What can you tell us about Sergei and your friendship with him?
JS: I would preface that by saying, historically, I wouldn’t call the Russian sciences very open. In any field, there’s going to be competition and secrecy, but I feel like…Russian sciences can be challenging. People are very protective of the areas where they work, of species they work on, and the data they collect. When I met Sergei for the first time in the early 2000s, he was different. I approached him because I knew he was working on fish owls—at that time, he was really the only guy working on fish owls in Russia. He said, “You know what, I am interested in fish owls. I don’t have the time or the money to focus or do as much as I want with them. So, yes, let us collaborate.” That was a very different response than you’d get, at least at that time, from most Russians. He recognized that we could learn more about the species by working together. If I hadn’t run into Sergei, I wouldn’t know anything about fish owls. I wouldn’t know how to find one; I wouldn’t know where they live. Because, like I said, when he started working in the middle of the 1990s, no one knew anything about these birds—where to find them or anything. I’ve been working with him since 2005, so almost 13 years, and that spirit of openness and cooperation has continued. We’ve done a lot of good things for fish owls together as a result.
DG: Sounds like you’ve spent a lot of time together in the field as well, which means you know a lot about each other.
JS: Actually, I don’t spend that much time with him in the field because of all the other things he’s working on. He’s somehow involved in most bird conservation projects in the southern Russian Far East. So, I do all the coordination with him, and I usually stay with him when I’m in Vladivostok, but most of the actual fieldwork is done with his team. I’ve only been in the field with him two or three times.
DG: Ok, so you’re out in the field with his team or you’re going through villages in Primorye, driving through them, stopping off for a quick coffee or whatever, tea, on the side of the road. What do people think of an American biologist coming over to study these owls that they’ve never seen and maybe barely heard of?
JS: It’s met with confusion, I would say. Even the Russians I work with. I remember a few years ago, we were looking for fish owls along a river in Primorye. We were driving a pickup truck back and forth through this little village. The villagers started to recognize our truck. They didn’t know what we were doing, but they knew we were around doing something. One time we stopped in the village to buy some bread, and someone got up the courage to ask us who we were and what we were doing. They couldn’t believe our jobs were to look for owls.
JS: These are people whose existence depends on what they can grow in their gardens. Their work depends on what they can gather, so what do you mean it’s an actual job to look for owls? Some people assumed we were making money off of it, trying to capture these owls and sell them to zoos or to a circus. It didn’t make any sense to them that our job is trying to find these owls and figure out how to protect them.
DG: Did they want a job like that? Did they say, “Oh wow, how do we get a job like that?” Or was it just, “Why would anyone spend time and money on that?”
JS: It’s true; it was confusing. They just assumed we were somehow gaming the system. Somehow, we must have been profiting and pretending to do this work for the greater good.
DG: Russian science has such a long and storied background. What do you want us to know about Russian scientists and wildlife biologists?
JS: They’re tough and they’re ingenious. Here’s a quick example from tiger conservation: There were two guys in the 1970s, Anatolii Yudakov and Igor Nikolaev. They set out to figure out tiger movements. How did they do that? In the US in the 1960s, we already had VHF telemetry. You catch something, you put a collar on it, it emits a radio signal, and you can figure out where that thing is moving by using an antenna to track it. That wasn’t available in Russia in the 1970s. For these guys, the only way to track a tiger is in winter, just like with fish owls, to see the tracks. So, they put on their skis, went out in the snow, and they tracked tigers for their study—they did almost 1000 kilometers total. They would sleep next to fires they built in the middle of the forest. Igor Nikolaev is still alive; he told me he’d track a tiger by finding its tracks and following it. Once it got dark, he’d build a fire and spend all night turning over. He said one side of him would be burning from the heat and the other side would be freezing from the -30 temperatures. That’s how he stayed alive. When it got light, he put the skis back on and kept tracking. And these guys were able to learn things that even with the technology we have today you can’t learn. A quick example is: They figured out a “prey detection distance,” that’s the technical term for how close a prey species like a boar or a deer needs to be before a tiger can detect it. And they did that by following tiger tracks; they saw by behavior that the tiger would start slowing down because it noticed something. They could see when the tiger turned off the direct track it had been following, and they would go check out what had distracted the tiger—like were there boar tracks or deer tracks? Because of that, they figured out that tigers can detect boar from further away than they can detect deer. Boars move together and make a lot of noise, whereas deer walk slower and are more quiet. That is fascinating. They put a number on it, I don’t remember what that number it is, but they were able to put a number on how close a boar has to be before a tiger can hear it. I think that is amazing. You can’t do that with any technology today. These guys were doing it in the 1970s.
DG: Wow! That’s seriously hardcore. Do you know the prey detection distance for humans? Because that would seem like an important thing to know when you’re walking around in the forest in Primorye—how far away a tiger needs to be to detect you. (laughs)
JS: Well, I’m sure it’s pretty far away. Tigers in places like Bangladesh or India are known to view humans as prey, but that’s not really true in Russia where—and I think this is a learned behavior—most of the humans tigers meet in Russia are hunters, and most hunters have guns. A lot of tigers are walking around with bullets in them from being shot. So, typically, if a tiger can tell there’s a human nearby, it will hide or run away. It won’t approach a human as prey the way tigers do elsewhere.
DG: That’s good. So, you’re not afraid walking around in Primorye that a tiger might be stalking you?
JS: No, not at all. I’m worried about bears a little bit, but I’m not worried about tigers.
DG: Good. What about young scientists in Russia these days? The work that biologists need to do to track wildlife and such in the Russian Far East sounds really hardcore. Are young people coming into the field? Do they see this as a cool, exciting thing to do? If so, what’s motivating them?
JS: I certainly think that people think it’s cool. Under the Soviet system, there was more of a prestige associated with this work, and there was also stable income. People weren’t writing grants to fund their work. If they needed to do a helicopter flight to get somewhere to study something, they just asked for it, and the Soviet Academy of Sciences would get them a helicopter. It’s very different now. With all the turmoil in the 1990s, Russian wildlife biology essentially lost a generation. No one was coming into the field. There was a time when Sergei Surmach was making $7 a month as his official salary—as a biologist. You can’t live on that no matter where you are.
DG: It’s pretty hard to live on $7 a month.
JS: Even people who wanted to do this stuff and were interested in it couldn’t do it, didn’t do it because they couldn’t make a living. That’s actually a way the Trust for Mutual Understanding has been really critical for the development of this new generation of Russian scientists. WCS has been doing training since 2000, and TMU has been supporting some of our trainings since at least 2010. We’ve been gathering young Russian scientists, graduate students, people working in the institutes and reserves, from all over Russia and bringing them to our training center in Primorye. We’re leading trainings on topics that have relevance and are likely lacking in the Russian education system. In addition to providing this technical training, we’re showing these people that while they are geographically isolated (because the Russian sciences are somewhat isolated), there are other people like them—this is inspiring. To have people from the Commander Islands come in and people from around Moscow come in to learn from each other and develop this…well, it’s reestablishing a generation of Russian scientists.
DG: That’s great.
JS: It is. As the turmoil in Russia of the 1990s and the early 2000s has diminished, there’s more funding now, especially in Western Russia, not as much in the Russian Far East. It is in concert with rising salaries that a generation of Russian scientists is coming back.
DG: So, you are now seeing—like through this training program that WCS is doing—you’re seeing more young people come into the field.
JS: Yes, and staying in the field—that’s the key. There’s so much work to do, and there are so few people, and there are still very few graduate students. There was this one guy, who was—I never met him, but I heard a lot about him—he was a crack field biologist; he could climb trees and find bird nests, do all these great things…he sells cameras. He works in a camera shop. He has kids; he just couldn’t afford to be a biologist. Whereas, the work that WCS has been doing, supported by TMU starting in the 2000s and largely focused on tiger and leopard biologists, most of those people are still in the sciences. We have people who are running science departments at nature reserves, leading scientific laboratories in Vladivostok…it’s an important investment, giving them a little bit to show this is important work and you can get paid for it. Obviously, people aren’t going to get rich doing this, but showing them that it’s a legitimate career is crucial. This has been a demonstrated success.
DG: One of the things I think of when I think about the Russian far East is how much people are tied to the land and tied to the forest in a very direct way. They have, I found, a certain care for the land and a connection to place that, frankly, I think a lot of us in the US are missing. I’m curious if you see that and how you think it relates to young people getting into this field and getting involved.
JS: Well, especially in the more remote areas…for example, Terney, where our Siberian Tiger Project is based—you couldn’t drive there until the mid 1970s; you could only get there via the coast or air, so the options were boat, helicopter, or plane. I think a lot of these smaller villages in Primorye, like Terney, are historically more tied to the land. Even Amgu, a village 300 kilometers further north along the coast where a lot my field work on fish owls is based—there was a flood a few years back that knocked out something like 20 bridges between Terney and Amgu and essentially blocked Amgu from the rest of the world for more than a month. It didn’t really matter. People had cows, so they had their milk and cheese, people were hunting deer, people were fishing in the ocean—it wasn’t that big of a deal for them. Just think about any town in the United States to be cut off for a day. There is certainly a lack of connection to the land in the US. But a conservation problem tied up in the land connection you’re describing is that a lot of the villagers who hunt view tigers as competition. Whereas, there is scientific data to show that tigers are not stealing meat off of a hunter’s table because they just don’t catch that much. It’s difficult to convey that to hunters. This is one of the reasons we’re working with youth; we want to try to build a conservation ethic at a young age. Today, I would say a number of hunters, if they’re in the woods, they’re not specifically out there looking to shoot a tiger, but a large proportion might take the shot if they saw one.
DG: Just because they see it as competition?
JS: Yes, or because they think they can make money from it. It goes both ways. Some people want to shoot them and leave them there because, “Good riddance, it’s one less thing to compete with me.” We want to instill a conservation ethic early so when these kids grow up and they’re the hunters in the woods, they see a tiger and understand its position in the ecosystem. They might not like the animal but they understand its role and what it is doing there and might not pull the trigger.
DG: Jon, you translated a book by Vladimir Arsenyev into English. Who was Vladimir Arsenyev and why should we care about him? What did you find most interesting about his writing?
JS: He was a Russian explorer, military officer, ethnographer, naturalist. He’s one of the few people that bridged the Imperial Russian-Soviet divide.
DG: He lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, up until the 1920s or 1930s?
JS: Yes, he died in 1930—mid 1930s, perhaps—relatively young. His most famous trips were in 1902, 1906, and 1907. I think what’s important about him is that there were Russian explorers to Primorye before him and there were many after him, but I’d say he was Primorye’s first eloquent champion. He was the first person who could describe what he was seeing in a way that was beautiful. His love of the region, the people there, the wildlife—it’s just evident in the way he described it. One of my favorite passages in the book I translated, which is called Across the Ussury Kray, is a description of seeing fireflies at night. “A dance of light,” he called it. He was exploring, traveling through Primorye during a time when it was the peak of four cultures in the region: There were many more Chinese than there were Russians, there were more Koreans than there were Russians, there were Russians, and there were the indigenous groups like the Udege and the Nanai. Arsenyev was really instrumental in preserving and documenting Udege customs and way of life. I am glad that his work has survived because he beautifully described a unique place at a unique time.
DG: Right. Having read your book, you did an amazing job bringing his love of the region across to make it accessible to English language readers in a way that hasn’t been done before. What would you say to a young person in the US who is thinking about wanting to learn more about the Russian Far East or wanting to travel there?
JS: With respect to travel, I’d say it’s not easy. In the Russian Far East, at least in the southern Russian Far East, tourist infrastructure is quite minimal. It’s almost nonexistent outside of cities. Every once in while I look just to see what kind of wildlife or outdoors tours are available, and they are very guarded. They don’t go anywhere really that interesting. I just feel like the Russian hosts are worried that Americans aren’t gonna cut it and won’t be able to do it. You go to a safari park, and it’s not that interesting. My advice would be: You have to at least learn some of the language. Outside of cities, you can’t make it if you don’t speak any Russian. Also, it’s a much different way of life than what fast-paced Americans are used to. So, have an open mind, a relaxed agenda, expect delays and weird side trips, but also expect to be welcomed. And expect to be amazed by the people that are there and the landscape.
DG: Some of those unexpected side trips should be the most amazing, in my experience.
JS: Yes, that’s basically what my blog at Scientific American is all about—it’s just capturing these weird stories of me trying to get around.
DG: Russia’s been in the news a lot lately—probably for a lot of reasons we don’t like very much. What do you say to people who are like, “You work in Russia, what are you doing?” Or who might be wondering why you focus so much on this region?
JS: I have a mentor at WCS, Peter Zahler, and he told me once that nature knows no borders. Tigers will roam where tigers want to roam and pine trees will grow where pine trees want to grow. Because of my knowledge of the region and the language, it’s a landscape where I can actually make a difference. For many species, conservation has to happen at the landscape level or an international level, and these projects have to be managed in a trans-boundary manner. What I can do is act as a voice, an advocate for what happens in Russia. That’s why I stay there; that’s why I do what I do.
DG: And despite all the challenges in our government-to-government relations, you said that people who travel there should still expect to be welcomed. Do you see those challenges in government relations reflected on the ground in the region?
JS: Oh, yes, absolutely. You can’t get around that. Publically, there’s a lot of suspicion. The people you meet on the street are usually where the trouble is. As you know well, once you get in the door, once you are in someone’s home, once you sit around the table—sure, politics will come up, but you’ll be treated very well and with a lot of hospitality.
DG: Is there anything else you really want Americans or anyone else around the world to know about Russia and specifically about the Russian Far East?
JS: The overarching thing is that it’s not Siberia. To start to understand something, you have to at least call it by the right name. That’s why my blog at Scientific American is called East of Siberia—to plant the seed that the Russian Far East it is a distinct geographic region. And it’s huge. It’s about twice the size of India with a population three quarters the size of New York City. Geographically, it’s an amazing place. It is a temperate rainforest; there are just nine of those in the world. It’s the only place where tigers and brown bears live in the same forests. It’s just a remarkable place to walk around and experience.
DG: It is a truly amazing place. And it leaves a major impression on you. Final question: A fish owl meets a Siberian tiger in the forest, what happens? Who wins the fight if they’re going to fight over a salmon?
JS: The tiger will get the salmon if the tiger wants the salmon. There’s no way to sugar coat that.
DG: (laughs) The owl can’t just fly off with the salmon?
JS: It depends on the size of the salmon. If it’s really big, then the owl just can’t fly fast enough. I do sometimes get drawn into these online conversations about tigers versus bears; it’s a weird hobby that people have. You know the Internet debate—who’s going to win fights—I try to stay out of those things.
DG: (Laughs) Good, leave it up to the animals to figure out. Anything you want to add?
JS: I want to add one thing about TMU. Earlier, I was talking on a professional level about how TMU has supported building this new generation of Russian conservationists by showing people they’re not isolated, by inspiring them, by showing there’s a future in conservation. But there’s a personal level to that, too. TMU support has allowed me to make multiple contacts with people I otherwise wouldn’t be able to meet. Much of the collaborative work I’m involved in now is work that grew from seeds that TMU helped to plant. I think that’s an important thing to note. Also, there aren’t a lot of people or foundations funding conservation in the Russian Far East right now. I can’t underscore enough the importance of the support we’ve had from TMU for our work specifically and for conservation of wildlife in the Russian Far East in general.
DG: Thank you for adding that. And thanks for taking the time, Jon. I know how busy you are getting ready for your trip; good luck with everything and my best to your family as you go on this next big adventure.
JS: Thanks for guiding the conversation.
Jonathan C. Slaght, Ph.D., is the Russia and Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He manages several research projects involving Blakiston’s fish owls and anti-poaching of tigers, oversees grants for the Russia Program, and seeks to unify conservation strategies among the Russia, China, and Arctic Beringia programs. His writing credits include a blog for Scientific American titled “East of Siberia,” articles in The New York Times, Audubon Magazine, Mongabay.com, and an annotated translation of a Russian natural history classic called Across the Ussuri Kray.
David Gordon has extensive expertise in international grassroots activism. After graduating from Reed College, he served in the environment program at the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation where he managed grantmaking to support local communities around the world to sustain healthy ecosystems and biodiversity. He then became the executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which manages the Goldman Prize, the world’s largest award honoring grassroots environmentalists. David now runs the Kamchatka Engagement Sustainability Fund and serves as an environmental and philanthropic advisor. He is a member of the advisory board of the Trust for Mutual Understanding.