Q & A: Sooyong Park
Sooyong Park is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has devoted over twenty years to studying and filming Siberian tigers. His groundbreaking tiger research was the subject of the film Siberian Tiger Quest. When not in Siberia, he lives in Seoul, Korea.
Based on his philosophy that ‘nature is to be observed, not directed’, his work involves unimaginable patience and a painstaking devotion to becoming part of nature. His profound insights into the natural world and his warm affection for living creatures reveal that animals, like humans, have souls.
Poignant, poetic and fiercely compassionate, The Great Soul of Siberia is the incredible story of Park’s unique obsession with these compelling creatures on the very brink of extinction, and his dangerous quest to seek them out to observe and study them. Eloquently told in Park’s distinctive voice, it is a personal account of one of the most extraordinary wildlife studies ever undertaken.
1. What originally drew you to the study of tigers and the Siberian tiger in particular?
I’ve been observing nature for over twenty years. There are innumerable species living in the natural world. At first I observed plants, insects, fish and birds. And then I concentrated on observing and studying the ecology of wild Siberian Tigers. I do not think that tigers are different from other creatures. There might be some difference in terms of intellect, but all living things are born with dignity; they try to survive and raise their offspring, and then they perish. Nevertheless, there were several reasons that made me focus on Siberian tigers in particular.
© Sooyong Park, 2016
© Sooyong Park, 2016
The first reason was that Siberian tigers are under severe threat of extinction. In order to protect a living thing that is on the verge of extinction, you must fully understand its ecology. However, there was not much known about the ecology of wild Siberian tigers. This is why I wanted to organically observe and study the ecology of wild Siberian tigers without artificial methods.
The second reason was that tigers are fierce and strong creatures that could kill me in nature. Modern people live in the city and act as gods over other species or nature itself. A tiger would turn tiny if it encountered the city. Numerous cars, people racing through the streets and street sounds themselves would startle the tiger and render it as helpless as a small baby. But think of it the other way around: if a human were to encounter a wild Siberian tiger in the middle of a wide forest with no sign of any other mankind around. That human would become extremely small in the face of this wild tiger that could easily kill. It is in cases like these that humans realise that they are small in the face of great nature, similar to how astronauts must feel in the vastness of space. They feel they are as tiny as mere dust particles, forcing them to learn to let go of their own selfishness, to be humble and to love and care for other lives. To me, tigers in the forest are entities that teach me to let go of my own trivial self in the face of nature. That appeal is what made me want to study Siberian tigers.
The final reason was sympathy. When I first started to observe and study Siberian tigers I did not know much about tigers. Whichever tiger I encountered I only thought of as a single tiger, without any knowledge of its parents or what its behaviour meant. However, as time went by I gradually began to understand their ecology, and I could distinguish each tiger according to its appearance and behaviour. That led me to recognise which parents this tiger came from and which offspring it had, and now I know each generation down to the 5th descendant of this tiger named Bloody Mary. Back when I could not individually distinguish tigers my sense of sympathy was not that large, but now that I can recognise the parent of a tiger my sense of sympathy has grown. As the tigers I got to know died one by one due to human greed my compassion and sadness only grew. This is why I have concentrated even more on the research and observation, and I strive to help protect Siberian tigers through the Siberian Tiger Protection Society.
2. Did you enjoy the solitude that waiting for the tigers brought about? How did you pass the time?
I think that all life forms, including tigers and especially humans, are meant to be with others, and not alone. When I was staking out alone for six months I was so terribly lonely that I used to imagine that someone was with me speaking human language. Even if that person had been my worst enemy we would have made up and become good friends.
© Sooyong Park, 2016
And yet, when I staked out in that 3.3-square-metre area for months on end, a forest ranger would come up every three months with supplies. Even though he was a human that I so longed to connect with, I couldn’t lock eyes with him. I didn’t even speak much other than to exchange simple greetings. If I had locked eyes or spoken too long with him I think I would have burst into tears. In fact, I had tears streaming down my face watching him leave every time. I once again realised that humans are meant to live together and not alone.
It was a very lonely thing to spend time isolated in nature. At first I counted the tides of the waves and distinguished the types of wind. I memorized food labels after having finished reading all of my books. Still, I felt so lonely that I did a hunchback dance in the low-ceiling stakeout area, singing in my mind. From then on I started to talk to myself. My childhood memories seemed as clear to me as yesterday and I thought of my family and friends. I thought of who I was, what humankind was, what society was, and fundamental questions such as what life and death meant to me. Then I thought that I was merely a dust particle blowing by in this long-standing and vast natural world. After such intense contemplation I escaped myself and looked toward the objects outside the stakeout area. There were rocks covered in snow, along with shriveled up grass and trees. There was a titmouse bird flying here and there searching for food, and a sick hairless feral cat dozing off on a sunlit hill. There were new sprouts emerging from shriveled up leaves. A generational shift was taking place. The hairless tail of the feral cat staggeringly walking resembles me. The waves behind the feral cat still came, battered against the rocks and went out. This cycle and period of time – there was a starkness in its transience and eternity. I thought ‘Ah! Those are the same entities as me. As one wave goes back a new tide of life comes forward’, and I felt sympathy toward all these other lives surrounding me. And I realised that all the valuable things that I had felt inside this stakeout area were trivialised in the city, and that all things that were considered valuable in the city were trivialised here. This consoled and soothed me during this time.
© Sooyong Park, 2016
3. As you watched the tigers, how invested in their lives did you become and did you ever feel the desire to intervene?
At first when I observed and studied the tigers I thought about the results above all else. I had even utilised artificial methods in order to gain positive results. I also wanted to be considered as a great tiger observer and researcher in the human world. However, when I got to know the tigers and began to understand the state they were in I realised that such methods were wrong. These methods fed my own selfishness, lacking respect for the tigers. From then on I chose an organic and natural way of studying the tigers that would not cause damage to them, even if it meant more hard work for me. This method involved waiting for six months like a slanted tree inside a 3.3-square-metre stakeout area with sounds and smells covered up and kept hidden. Nature is an object to observe, not direct.
4. What are the main misconceptions people have about tigers that you feel need correcting?
People think of Siberian tigers as fearsome creatures. However, this is far from the truth. Tigers are brave, but they are thrown into pitiful circumstances. Siberian tigers do not attack humans unless they have been threatened or attacked themselves. In fact, they thoroughly avoid mankind and man-made structures since they know how dangerous humans are. Moreover, people think of Siberian tigers as lonesome creatures that live alone. This is due to the fact that the moving area of Siberian tigers is so large that it looks like they move alone. Siberian tigers live in families and communicate with them just as other creatures do. The mothers and offspring communicate with their smell and excretion made up of their own inherent chemical components, just as humans do with emails or tweets. Even the father tiger, after a long area patrol, looks after the mother and offspring. Upon meeting them again, the mother nuzzles the neck of the offspring that left the home years ago. Tigers form communities, too.
© Sooyong Park, 2016
Normally people think of tigers as all the same, and they fail to distinguish them individually. However, when observed closely the appearance of the face and spots on the noses are all very different. People who have seen them often would be able to distinguish one tiger from another. Additionally, each creature displays different behaviour and habits just like we do. For example, a tiger usually bites into a deer’s neck with its large canine teeth when hunting for deer. When the deer cannot move any longer, the tiger lets go of the neck. This is why there is not much blood spilt from the deer’s neck when tigers hunt for them. But one tiger – Bloody Mary – has such a persistent personality that she grabs onto the deer neck long after the deer has died, just to make sure she has killed it. Moreover, she shakes the deer. This is why the canine tooth holes in the deer’s neck grow larger, and eventually the deer’s artery bursts open. Blood is spilt around the hunting ground. And this is why she is called Bloody Mary.
Siberian tigers also leave their claw prints on thick trees to mark their territories, and compete against each other with the height of their claw prints. Once I filmed a young tiger that ran from afar and jumped in order to make a claw print high up on the tree. Normally tigers don’t go that far to do this, but this was also a character trait of this tiger. On the other hand, there was a superior male tiger name Hajain in the area, and this tiger was more interested in marking a claw print that was thicker rather than higher. If a small tiger runs from afar and jumps, it can make its mark high up on the tree but wouldn’t be able to make thick claw prints due to its small size. Thick claw prints are the prerogative of the superior male tiger. Essentially, each tiger has different characteristics and habits just as we do.
5. What key steps need to happen to make the world safer for both tigers and the humans who live near them?
Basically the reason why Siberian tigers come down to the towns to attack livestock is because there is a shortage of their prey – such as deer or boars – in the wild. People have been hunting illegally and cutting down forests, which contributes to the decrease in numbers of deer and boars. Moreover, the size of the nature reserve meant to protect wild Siberian tigers is far too small and needs to be expanded.
© Sooyong Park, 2016
In reality, Siberian tigers rarely attack people; they prefer to go after cows or dogs. So if exact compensation was made for damaged livestock there would be less conflict between townspeople and tigers. The Siberian Tiger Protection Society arranges for the right compensation to be made to the townspeople when tigers come down to the town and kill livestock, and we use various methods to discourage the tigers from coming to the towns again. However, the problem is that it is considered lawful to kill any tiger that damages the town. Townspeople who have had their livestock damaged sometimes prefer to employ snipers to shoot these tigers rather than receive compensation for their livestock. This is because – especially in China, Korea and Japan – there are still markets that buy and sell the skin, bones and meat of tigers. A huge Siberian tiger can sell for up to 30,000–50,000 US Dollars, which is a much larger amount than the livestock compensation money.
In order to reduce the conflict between the towns close to tigers’ homes and the wild Siberian tigers, a crackdown on the market that sells and buys tigers, the right education for townspeople and revisions for efficient laws is extremely crucial.
6. What are your favourite depictions of tigers in literature?
I’ve wanted to write a story which unites literature with nature for a very long time. Humans live with other humans in society, but in the end even that human society exists within nature and is subordinate to nature’s laws. Literature is a useful method to explain humankind, but it is not enough to explain nature. Science is a useful method to explain nature, but it is too dry to fully explain humankind.
In order to unite literature and nature, I physically experienced nature and the living things within it, immersing myself for a very long time. Just like the lives of humans, the lives of tigers are sufficient enough to become featured in literature, and the facts and findings that I observed in nature are enough to be accumulated into science. The nature featured in my writing is not from my imagination, it is drawn from my real experience within it, and the tigers in my writing are not from fiction, they are real tigers that I actually shared emotions with. This is how I described the life and death of tigers on the basis of long-standing time and vast nature. This is the writing I aim for and the writing that unites literature and nature. And I will continue to produce this kind of writing.
© Sooyong Park, 2016