Rangers in eastern Russia are working tirelessly to protect the Ussuriskii State Nature Reserve, which is under threat from logging and poaching. This nature sanctuary or Zapovednik is home to some of the last remaining Siberian tigers in the region. Filmmaker Emmanuel Rondeau interviews some of the men fighting to save the largest and most powerful species of big cat. I spoke with Emmanuel about the making of Zapovednik.
How did you hear about the Zapovednik featured in your film?
Zapovednik means “reserve” in Russian. Six months before shooting the film, I had worked for two months on a photo story about Amur leopards, the most endangered species of big cat. This work had been done in another reserve in the same region of Russia, the Kedrovaya Pad Zapovednik, now part of the newly created Land of Leopard National Park. During the many weeks I spent walking on the trails of the reserve, I came across many marks and tracks of tigers and I swore to myself that I would come back to do a project on this fascinating species. After that, I spoke with Dale Miquelle, director of WCS Russia, who put me in touch with Andre Kirilovich Kotlyar, the director of the Ussuriskii Zapovednik, and this is how it started. Andre is a very intelligent and dedicated person and we immediately connected.
What drew you to this subject/region?
I think I have always wanted to do a story on Siberian (or Amur) tigers. As the voiceover says in the film, the species is the most intense representation of the wild; they just completely incarnate the idea of power and wilderness. So a conflict between man and tiger really is a conflict between man and the entire natural world. Tigers are not a little pet we can put in a box; a single male needs about 1,000 square kilometers of pristine forest and hunts about 50 deer per year.
I was also attracted to the location where this story takes place, Far East Russia. It is a region almost forgotten from the world with incredible biodiversity. Vladivostok, the main city, is farther from Moscow than New York is from Paris, so even Russians sometime forgot about this territory. People are tough, just like the weather, but also real. I found a lot of humanity in them.
Was there a favorite moment from the shoot?
Because the taiga is not easy to deal with (temperature, travel with snow), the shoot took two months, which is very long for a 17-minute documentary. I think the best moments were when we were following tiger tracks in the snow, which happened quite regularly, even sometimes close to the village or on the road. Tigers don’t need to be seen—you really feel their presence. The whole forest feels different. This is a strange feeling and one I will never forget.
I also remember one day, I was fixing a camera trap that I was using to photograph tigers on the road at night, and while we were doing this with Sergey, one of the rangers, a tiger saw us and avoided us by using the forest instead of the road. This was just 20 yards from us. We understood what had happened when we got back in the car and saw the tracks in the snow.
Any moments that were particularly challenging to film?
What was difficult was the duration of the shoot. Because of the freezing conditions and the physically demanding work, close to the end of the shoot I kind of passed out in the forest. That had never happened to me and it was one of the scariest experiences of my life. Fortunately I was not alone. I could hear the rangers that were with me, but I was blind, I couldn’t see anything. This lasted for about
two hours, and once at the hospital I was given medicine to make my blood pressure wake up and my vision came back. The reason was simple: I was not eating and sleeping enough. This very day I learned that at -22°F our body really needs to eat double since we are burning energy at an alarming rate. Rangers knew that very well. I didn’t.
How can people help the rangers?
The best way to help the rangers of the Ussuriskii Zapovednik right now is through Wildlife Conservation Society Russia, a unit managed by Dale Miquelle, an American who has been living in this area for many years. I strongly encourage everyone to donate something for tiger conservation; I know that Dale’s team will have real use of it.
What are you working on next?
I am working on several projects. One is a TV scientific film about planet Venus exploration by a team of European scientists using spacecraft and some of the biggest telescopes on Earth, and another project is a short film for Rewilding Europe, an incredible NGO working on rewilding the continent by reintroducing species, creating economic growth based on ecotourism, and acting in several countries here in Europe.
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