These are truly adventurous tours into the remote Russian taiga at three distinct times of the year, on the trail of the rare and elusive Siberian (Amur) Tiger in the birch-clad landscape of Durminskoye Forest Reserve. On all three departures we will look for tracks and other signs as we move around this wilderness by four-wheel drive, snowmobile (winter only), and on foot, and we will learn all about the ecology and conservation of these big cats from the expert local guides. In spring, flowers and breeding birds will be an additional focus, and in autumn we will hope to see the reserve's Asiatic Black Bears as they fatten up for hibernation. We will check and set up camera traps, aiming to get our own photographs, and we hope to see other wildlife, including Siberian Roe Deer, Wild Boar and Hazel Grouse. The pinnacle would be, of course, to catch sight of the endangered icon itself – always a possibility!
The Russian Far East is a remote, sparsely populated and profoundly wild place, where vast taiga forests still support some of our planet’s most dramatic wildlife. The most iconic of all is the magnificent, and near-mythical, Siberian (or Amur) Tiger. Over 500 individuals roam these woods and mountains – nowhere else on Earth do so many Tigers live in the company of so few people.
Most of these striped felines inhabit the rugged and starkly beautiful mountains of the Sikhote-Alin. Nestled in their northern foothills is the Durminskoye Reserve, a 200 square kilometre expanse of rivers, rocky crags and dense birch groves. This wildlife haven is managed by renowned conservationist Alexander Batalov; for 30 years he and his team have guarded this forest, and Durminskoye now has a healthy number of Tigers. Although they remain supremely elusive, there is nowhere better to search for this majestic big cat.
On our ‘Realm of the Siberian Tiger’ tour, you too can travel right to the heart of big cat territory. We run departures to Durminskoye at three distinct times of year: winter, early summer and autumn, each of which will have a slightly different focus.
In winter (February departures), most of our time will be dedicated to searching for evidence of Tigers; this is the best season to look for tracks and scratch-marks, capture camera trap images, and maybe even catch a glimpse of a wild Siberian Tiger in the snow. General wildlife-watching is hard work, but we could find other mammals and birds such as Manchurian Deer, Wild Boar, Sable, Azure-winged Magpie, Siberian Jay and Ural Owl. Those wishing to maximise their chances of a Tiger sighting (or those wanting to see the critically endangered Amur Leopard) should consider extending the tour with time in the forest hides of the Land of the Leopard National Park ... although this is only for the dedicated and hardy!
By early summer (June departures) the snow will be long gone, replaced by carpets of flowers, and scenic rivers and streams will have started flowing again. The taiga, eerily quiet in winter, will be alive with birdsong; the region’s breeding species include Falcated Duck, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Siberian Rubythroat and the critically endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting. We will, of course, also search for evidence of Tigers, such as pug and scratch-marks, and regularly check camera traps. This itinerary will also visit wetlands near the Amur River, and the pine forests of the Sikhote-Alin mountains.
Autumn (August departures), when the leaves are turning, is the most beautiful time in the taiga. What’s more, in this season Durminskoye becomes one of the best places in the world to see Asiatic Black Bears. Normally elusive, their activity peaks as they begin to fatten up for hibernation. As per the summer tours, we will also search for evidence of Tigers, plus look for any breeding birds that have not yet left for warmer climes.
Even if we are not lucky enough to see a Siberian Tiger, simply feeling their presence all around us should be a powerful and rewarding experience. Furthermore, Alexander relies on tourism to fund his vital conservation work – mostly monitoring, anti-poaching patrols and education. At a time when this big cat is increasingly threatened by illegal human activity, our visit will help to ensure that Durminskoye continues to be a safe haven for the Siberian Tiger.
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26 Feb - 6 Mar 2021 :
flights included from UK
Tourist hotel in Khabarovsk (Days 2 & 8). Cosy log cabins, with separate facilities, in Durminskoye Reserve (Days 3-7).
All food is included in the price, apart from dinners in Khabarovsk (Days 2 & 8).
* These tours are operated by Naturetrek (ABTA Y6206) for which Nature et Terroir acts as agent.
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Jane was born and raised in Preston, Lancashire, and spent her childhood hiking in the Northern fells and moors with her family. Guidebooks in rucksacks, all new and interesting creatures were studied and identified. After graduating from University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, where she met her future husband, Adam Dudley (also a guide for Naturetrek), she has lived and worked in numerous countries, including Germany, United States, and India. These travels have offered fantastic opportunities for wildlife encounters and further study. During this time, Jane also developed a passion for wildlife photography, and graduated in 2012 from the New York Institute of Photography. Jane's wildlife and photography interests include butterflies, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, with a developing interest in odonata and spiders. Birds also feature highly because of her mum and husband. Since moving to California over 4 years ago, Jane has been a volunteer fieldtrip leader for the Sequoia Audubon Society, run educational courses for local organisations interested in learning more about local birds, taken part in regular bird counts, spent time butterfly monitoring for the rare and localized Bay Checkerspot, and been a regular contributor to iNaturalist. Now based in Tucson, Arizona, Jane is a keen traveller and always looking out for the next adventure.
Adam was born in Winchester and, thanks to an episode of Blue Peter, became interested in birds and wildlife from a young age. He started out recording bird songs onto tape from his bedroom window, something he credits with his passion for “ear birding”. After ten years of birding around the UK and Europe, he took a year out from university and traveled extensively in Australia, New Zealand and SE Asia looking at and studying all kinds of birds and wildlife. He developed a particular passion for shorebirds during this time when he helped the Australasian wader study group cannon-net migrating waders. After a few years back in the UK, Adam and his wife Jane (also a Naturetrek guide) relocated to the USA where they have lived for nearly 20 years. Together they have traveled to 49 of the 50 States in search of wildlife and wild places, and have lived in the East, West and Southwest of America. For the last 4 years Adam has served on the board of the Sequoia Audubon Society in California and has been responsible for designing and leading field trips near and far in this diverse state. Adam loves all aspects of wildlife but specializes in birds. When not traveling around America, Adam is an avid local patch watcher at a small creek near to where he lives.
Please note that the itinerary below offers our planned programme of excursions. However, adverse weather & other local considerations can necessitate some re-ordering of the programme during the course of the tour, though this will always be done to maximise best use of the time and weather conditions available.
We depart London's Heathrow airport on an overnight Aeroflot flight to Khabarovsk, via Moscow.
We will arrive in Khabarovsk, the penultimate stop on the great Trans-Siberian Railway, and transfer to a comfortable tourist hotel in the city centre. Khabarovsk is a surprisingly attractive city on the banks of the mighty Amur River, which will be frozen solid at the time of our visit. Urban wildlife will not be much in evidence, but we may pick up Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Japanese Tit and Large-billed Crow.
The afternoon will be at leisure, with an opportunity for those who wish to do so to visit the cultural highlights of Khabarovsk, including the natural history museum and Russian Orthodox cathedral. It will have been a long journey to the Russian Far East, however, and members of the group may prefer to rest. In the evening, we will have dinner either in our hotel or in a local restaurant, where a variety of Western and traditional Russian food will be on offer.
Day 3 Base Camp, Durminskoye Forest Reserve After a leisurely breakfast (and hopefully a good night’s sleep) we will be picked up by four-wheel-drive vehicles for the 200 kilometres journey to Durminskoye Forest Reserve. We will be travelling into an extremely remote area, and the drive can take between three and eight hours to complete, depending on snow conditions.
As our journey progresses, the flat agricultural land around Khabarovsk will give way first to open taiga bogs, and then to rolling hills clothed in dense birch forest. Significant gatherings of White-tailed Eagles can often be seen along our route, along with attendant Northern Ravens. The deeper into the wilderness we go, the more evidence we will find of the forest’s hidden wildlife; abundant tracks and trails will start to crisscross the snowy road, preserving the past activity of Siberian Roe and Manchurian Deer, Wild Boar, Sable and others. We’ll keep our eyes peeled for the creatures themselves, as well as for smaller mammals such as Eurasian Red Squirrel, which here sport an unfamiliar slate-grey coat!
We will aim to stop for a picnic lunch somewhere, before arriving at Durminskoye sometime in the afternoon. For the last third of our journey we will very much be in tiger country, and our senses will be on high alert as we scan the snowy landscape for a glimpse of striped orange fur. At base camp we will be greeted by Alexander Batalov, a legendary conservationist who manages the 200 kilometre square Durminskoye Reserve. No-one knows more about Siberian Tigers, or has done more to protect them, than Alexander. We could not wish for a better guide to show us around the winter forests.
The camp itself is a pretty, picture-postcard collection of snow-covered log cabins, set in a small woodland clearing.
Common birds around the camp are sure to remind us of home – Eurasian Nuthatch, Marsh Tit and Great Spotted Woodpecker in particular – although slightly more exotic visitors can include Azure-winged Magpie and Siberian Jay. After the welcome party, we will settle into our simple but cosy accommodation, before warming ourselves up with a freshly prepared bowl of soup or broth. If our journey from Khabarovsk hasn’t taken too long, we may go out on a short excursion in the evening. Then, after a hearty local dinner, we will retire for our first night in the taiga.
Days 4 - 7
Base Camp, Durminskoye Forest Reserve
For the next four full days we will explore Durminskoye in depth, by snowmobile, on foot and in 4x4 vehicles. We will typically set off into the forest after breakfast, and if the weather is good (i.e. not too cold!) we may spend the whole day in the field, enjoying a packed lunch at a scenic spot. Where we go will depend on recent Tiger activity, and we will be on the lookout for fresh Tiger tracks – great dinner-plate-sized imprints in the snow – as well as the deep gouges in tree bark that Tigers use to mark their territories. We will also check and set camera traps on well-used trails, in the hope of capturing our very own images of the world’s largest feline. The Siberian Tiger is one of the world’s most elusive animals, and while signs of their presence will be all around us, we will need a considerable amount of good fortune to see the big cat in the flesh.
One thing it is important to note is that we will be limited in our ability to pursue Tigers actively by following their footprints. Even fresh tracks could be several hours old, by which time these wide-ranging animals could already be several miles away. Off the established trails, the terrain in Durminskoye is challenging, and trekking cross-country for an undetermined time and distance is not a realistic option. Even if we were able to approach Tigers in this fashion, it would be impossible to control the circumstances of an encounter, potentially putting us, and the Tiger, in danger. Where conditions allow, we will be able to follow tracks for a short distance, which will Eurasian Red Squirrel Tiger scratch marks provide an opportunity for Alexander to impart fascinating insights into the individual’s behaviour. Tigers are fond of using the relatively snow-free roads to patrol their territories, and our best chance of a sighting will consequently be from the vehicles.
Alexander and his team have unparalleled knowledge of Siberian Tiger ecology and conservation, and we will be sure to learn a great deal about this remarkable feline. Their passion is infectious, and their stories about life in the forest are thrilling; for example, they once had a Tiger stroll nonchalantly past the kitchen window during dinner! There is plenty of other life here too, including birds such as Hazel Grouse, Black Woodpecker and Ural Owl, although only the hardiest of species are here year-round.
If desired, there will be the opportunity on one of the days to visit a nearby rehabilitation centre, where injured Tigers are looked after before being released back into the wild. We may also wish to visit the Udege, the indigenous people of the area whose animist culture reveres the Tiger as a god.
At the end of the day we will return to camp where, before dinner, we will have the chance to relax in a Russian ‘banya’ or steam sauna. The typical post-dinner routine will be to check the camera trap memory cards collected that day – images will hopefully include Tigers in the snow, as well as other mammals like Raccoon Dog and Red Fox. If we are very lucky, we may get pictures of something really unusual such as Grey Wolf or Eurasian Lynx. After a long day, our log cabins – kept wonderfully warm by wood-burning stoves – will provide a welcome home for the night.
We should have time for one more trip into the forest this morning, before we sadly have to depart Durminskoye and return to the bright lights of Khabarovsk. Even if we have not been lucky enough to see a Siberian Tiger with our own eyes, one will almost certainly have seen us, and everyone will hopefully agree that it has been a rare privilege to share the forest with this most iconic of wild animals. In contrast to so many areas across their range, Tigers are thriving in Durminskoye, largely thanks to nearly three decades of dedicated work by Alexander and his team. Alexander relies on tourism to fund his conservation activities, and our visit will have directly supported his efforts to ensure that Siberian Tigers continue to survive in the Russian Far East.
The long drive back to the city will give us one last chance for an encounter. Tigers often use the roads leading into the reserve to patrol their territories, and we may well find that jeep tracks from the previous day are overlaid with fresh pugmarks! Unfortunately, the great birch forests will gradually start to recede, and we should arrive back at our Khabarovsk hotel by late afternoon.
In the evening, we will all go out for an end-of-tour dinner at one of Khabarovsk’s finest eateries. Anyone particularly keen to get into the local spirit may wish to mark the occasion with one or two glasses of vodka!
Today we will catch our flight back to Moscow, and then on to London, arriving at our final destination in the late evening.