Book Reviews

The Great Soul of Siberia (Sooyong Park)

The Great Soul of Siberia (Sooyong Park)The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger by Sooyong Park, Jamie Chang
Published by Willliam Collins on January 12th 2017
Genres: Non Fiction, Science & Nature
Pages: 253
Format: Paperback
Source: From the publisher

There are five races of tiger on our planet and all but one live in tropical regions: the Siberian Tiger Panthera tigris altaica is the exception. Mysterious and elusive, and with only 350 remaining in the wild, the Siberian tiger remains a complete enigma. One man has set out to change this.

Sooyong Park has spent twenty years tracking and observing these elusive tigers. Each year he spends six months braving sub-zero temperatures, buried in grave-like underground bunkers, fearlessly immersing himself in the lives of Siberian tigers. As he watches the brutal, day-to-day struggle to survive the harsh landscape, threatened by poachers and the disappearance of the pristine habitat, Park becomes emotionally and spiritually attached to these beautiful and deadly predators. No one has ever been this close: as he comes face-to-face with one tiger, Bloody Mary, her fierce determination to protect her cubs nearly results in his own bloody demise.

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.

Before I went into teaching, I studied zoology and conservation, and even though it’s not a field I’m working in, conservation will always be a huge passion of mine, so I love to pick up the occasional non-fiction read about animals, illegal wildlife trade, conservation or just wildlife in general. When I saw The Great Soul of Siberia was available as a review copy, I jumped at the chance, because it has so many things that appeal to me: it’s about a spectacular and interesting endangered species, who are threatened by poaching and illegal wildlife trade (probably the area I would most like to go into if I ever left teaching) and it’s written in a narrative style.

Park has spent twenty years following, observing, filming and studying the Siberian tiger, by spending half of each year doing his utmost to completely immerse himself in the jungle, living in a tiny hide in which he can just about stand up, where it is so cold he has to take care not to let his drinking water freeze overnight. In almost complete isolation, with just occasional supply runs, his only company is the sound of nature around him, and occasionally mice. His reward for such difficult, unpleasant living conditions, are that he gets to see Siberian tigers, also known as Amur tigers, in ways probably no one else alive has. In 2017, the IUCN reclassified tigers to contain two subspecies – the continential tiger (which includes Amur/Siberian tigers, as well as Bengal, Malayan and Indochinese tigers), and the Sunda tiger. While that makes it difficult to get an accurate count of Siberian tigers specifically, there are only around 3500 continental tigers and estimates suggest that of these, perhaps 500 are Amur tigers.

The Great Soul of Siberia has a really interesting format, where Park not only describes tigers, their behaviour, ways to identify them and other facts, he also tells the story of ‘Bloody Mary’, a particular tiger he followed throughout his time observing, talking about her individual life and her offspring. This dual-nature makes The Great Soul of Siberia a really easy read, even for those who wouldn’t normally consider themselves non-fiction or natural history fans; the stories of Bloody Mary’s life break up the more traditional natural history writing which ranges from everything from the weather, to the habitat and vegetation, to the differences between tiger subspecies and how to recognise tiger pawprints. Interestingly, Park also includes a reasonable amount on the local people, their spiritual beliefs about the tiger and the forest, and the practical, day-to-day difficulties faced in the area. Whilst part of my brain found it a little difficult to focus when we got a divergence into the less tangible, more spiritual beliefs, Park does a great job of balancing everything. He never judges local traditions or superstitions, but nor does he veer down the ‘noble savage’ stereotype that some non-fiction authors do. Instead, he simply describes what the beliefs are of people in the area, and how these have been abused or struggled due to changing power regimes in history. Natural history non-fiction can focus purely on the charismatic animal and ignore the people, and while that makes for a nice read understanding the local people and their relationship with the habitat and the species is crucial for conservation, so it was nice to see this element included. Park clearly has a good relationship with people in the areas he works, which helps significantly in terms of his work and being able to carry it out efficiently.

It probably goes without saying that if you pick up a non-fiction read on an endangered species, it won’t be all sunshine and rainbows, and it’s certainly true that not every moment in The Great Soul of Siberia is a happy one. As well as the heartbreaking moments though, there are moments that will surprise you, moments that will make you smile, probably even moments that will make you laugh. There’s plenty of awe and wonder at the intelligence observed by Park, something we know about tigers theoretically, but rarely see in a way that is so blatantly demonstrated as it is throughout Park’s observations. There’s also a fair few moments of tension; edge-of-your-seat moments that will have you biting your nails and crossing your fingers for everyone involved! The middle of the book contains some beautiful photos obtained throughout the twenty years of study, and while the stark reality of the threats to tigers is never played down or skimmed over, there’s also a sense of hope. Park doesn’t just study tigers, he loves them, and he desperately wants to save them – I think you would be very hard-pressed to read this book and not feel the same way by the end, even if you never considered yourself a tiger lover before.

Buy it? If you like nature non-fiction, this is one that’s definitely worth adding to your shelves.
In a nutshell: A great read for non-fiction fans but also a must for anyone who wants to know more about tigers, fieldwork or conservation.

One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

Other reviews of The Great Soul of Siberia: Belgo Geordie | Halfman, Halfbook

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