It was dark when they landed in Khabarovsk after the long flight from St Petersburg. A helicopter waited on the runway to transport them to the camp at the junction of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers.
The accommodation was not luxurious but the huts that had been built in a clearing in the forest were sturdy and clean.
“This is a research facility, not a tourist site,” the bearded official who greeted them had explained gruffly. “We are monitoring tiger movements. We also safeguard the tigers. We will leave tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. Please have your breakfast first.”
Someone banged on Edward Barnard’s door as dawn was breaking.
He dressed quickly. Thick trousers and a tough jacket. Strong boots. They might start off in vehicles, but if they were following tiger spore he reckoned they would probably spent most of the day on foot. At least the Russian taiga – those vast birch forests which covered so much the country out here in the Russian Far East – weren’t as thick and impenetrable as, say, some of the rainforests in the Congo or South-East Asia.
How lucky he was, he thought, to have a job which took him to some of the most far-flung corners of the world. And you couldn’t be much more remote than the Ussuri-Amur triangle, that corner of land where China and Russia met.
They breakfasted sitting around the campfire. Steaming mugs of coffee, pickled egg, slices of thick brown bread.
Halfway through the meal, they heard the thud-thud-thud of the helicopter. It landed in a clearing fifty years from the campsite. Moments later, Russian President Igor Popov jumped down and strode over.
Clad in battle fatigues, with a hunting cap pushed far back on his head, he held out his hand for the rifle. The gruff ranger had already explained that weapons were always carried with tigers around.
“Good morning, friends. I hope you are not too tired after your journey.” Popov smiled at them as he ostentatiously hefted the weapon. Popov turned to Jack Varese with a smirk on his face. “I got into Khabarovsk in time for a good night’s sleep before coming over here this morning.”
Three UAZ Patriot Jeeps were waiting for them, engines throbbing quietly. The UAZ 469 had long been the staple off-the-road vehicle for Russian police and military units. Connoisseurs rated it as sturdier, more reliable that the Land Rover or Land Cruiser.
The vehicles were painted dark green and bore the logo of the Russian Federation’s National Park Service.
Popov, still carrying his rifle, got into the lead vehicle. He beckoned to Barnard. “Come and join me.”
Barnard hadn’t realized until then just how good Popov’s English was. He knew that Popov was meant to be fluent in German, having served as the head of the KGB’s Dresden office in former East Germany, but he – together with most other observers – were quite unaware that of the extent of Popov’s proficiency in other languages.
“What we are planning to do this morning,” Popov explained, “is to collar a tiger. The Park Service here has set up a tiger monitoring programme. We want to know how many tigers there are, where they live, what they eat, as well as the pattern of their day-to-day movements. This latter point is particularly important. We believe we are losing significant numbers of tigers, as many as twenty a year, because they cross the river into China. And God knows what happens to them there.”
Popov corrected himself. “Actually we do know. As I mentioned to the Chinese President back in St Petersburg, the Chinese kill them and eat them. Or else they grind up their bones into powder and sprinkle it on their soup as an aphrodisiac. Pah! Real men don’t need aphrodisiacs!”
As they drove off along the track into the forest, Popov continued, “Sergei here” – he gestured to the driver – “found a recent kill yesterday, about twenty kilometres from where we are now. He was tracking a tiger on foot when he came across the carcass of a deer. Quite a large animal actually, probably a Siberian musk deer. The tiger had obviously had a go at the deer because most of the haunch had been eaten. Sergei reckons there’s a good chance the tiger will be coming back for a second helping.”
The driver said something in Russian which Barnard didn’t understand. Popov turned to Barnard. “Looking at the spoor, he thinks it may be a large male.”
After about an hour, they pulled into a clearing in the forest. The four rangers who had been riding in a support vehicle clustered round the President. Then one of them stepped forward and addressed the party.
“My name is Ivan. I’m the head ranger here. Our plan today is to shoot a tiger. Of course, we are not going to kill it. We’re going to dart it. We are happy that President Popov himself is here with us this morning. He is a very good shot.”
“He had better be,” Ronald Craig muttered. “I’m not sure I could outrun a tiger, not nowadays, though I can tell you there was a time when I could do a hundred yards in ten seconds!”
Popov laughed. “We don’t doubt it, Ron. And I can do a thousand push-ups!”
The President was in a jovial mood. “How’s the campaign going?”
“They’re gagging for me. By the time we get to the Convention, it’s going to be a coronation, not a contest.” Craig laughed.
Edward Barnard listened to this brief exchange with some interest. It was obvious that there was a strong rapport between Popov and Ron Craig. What was it based on, he wondered? Was it just friendly good fellowship, mutual camaraderie, or was there something more? He knew that the Craig had huge assets in Russia and he imagined that his ambitions were wider ambitions still. Why else should he be spending so much time in the country?
However, if Craig had huge assets in Russia, did he have huge liabilities too? Barnard had heard on the grapevine that US banks were a bit wary of Craig, having been burned once or twice in the past in their dealings with the famous showman-cum-entrepreneur. Some of the key European banks had been similarly reluctant to lend large sums. But the Russians had stepped into the breach in a big way, or so it seemed. Maybe the Russians were trying to hug him close, to make sure he didn’t do the dirty on them.
It was time to go. Popov stubbed out his cigarette.
Thirty minutes later, as they followed the track deeper into the forest, Ronald Craig wasn’t feeling quite so light-hearted. The tiger, he knew, is basically one of nature’s finest killing machines and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be within spitting distance.
Two rangers, armed with rifles, led the way, with Popov half a step behind them, although his gun was nowhere in sight. They were followed by the small party of non-Russians: Ronald Craig and his daughter Rosie, Jack Varese, and Edward Barnard. Two more rangers, guns at the ready, brought up the rear.
If a tiger was going to hunt them, he or she would attack from any direction. There was no way of telling, and the undergrowth was thick and so it would be easy for the hunters to become the hunted.
They proceeded in total silence. Once or twice, a ranger gestured. “Pugmark” he would whisper. “Quite fresh. Less than hour old.”
“Oh ho!” Craig said to himself. “This is where the fun begins.”
He reached for his daughter’s hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze.
If her father was already wishing he was anywhere else but there – preferably back in New York his glittering 40th-floor penthouse – his daughter was almost beside herself with excitement. The smells and sounds of the forest were intoxicating. She cared passionately about wild animals. And to be out in the wilds of Siberia tracking an Amur tiger was one of the most exciting things she had done for a long time. The feeling of pure joy she experienced was all the more acute because she sensed that her hero, Jack Varese, felt just the same way.
When they were less than two hundred years from the site of the kill, the lead ranger held up a warning hand, motioning them to stay back while he went ahead to reconnoitre. If the tiger was there, still feasting on the dead deer, he would give a signal. This would be the moment for Popov to move forward with a tranquillizer gun, closely escorted by two armed rangers, while the fourth stayed behind with the VIPs.
Once the tiger had been darted, the VIPs would be allowed to approach. The rangers would examine the unconscious animal and record their findings on their hand-held computers. This was the way biologists built up crucial data on wildlife populations. The animal would be collared and fitted with a transmitting device which not only recorded and reported the animal’s vital functions, but which also communicated with overhead satellites, so that in theory the precise location of the collared animal could be ascertained from then on.
Given the propensity of the Amur Tiger to cross the border into China, the ability to keep track of precisely where the tigers were and where they might be heading was particularly important. The Russian rangers hadn’t yet devised a system of ensuring that the tigers stayed on Russian soil, but they were working on it.
The previous generation of radio collars had been cumbersome. However carefully they had been fitted, they could be knocked off, or damaged or destroyed, as a tiger went about its day to day business. If you were a killing machine, sometimes you had to jump through the air to seize your prey. You might have to crash through the forest in hot pursuit of a deer or even a wolf. The miniaturization of the radio collar into a small subcutaneous implant that sent radio signals on a 24/7 basis into the stratosphere for retransmission to a terrestrial monitoring system had transformed conservation field science.
President Popov had a pocket full of miniature transmitters and he was determined, once he had fired the dart, to do the “collaring” as well.
Naturally the photographers were primed. Video and still photos of the President “shooting” and “collaring” a tiger would be transmitted nation- and world-wide within minutes of the event. If there was any delay, that would probably be because Popov’s people back in Moscow needed a chance to check that the material images to be transmitted conformed to, and indeed promoted, the image they wanted to convey of a young, dynamic, daring, adventurous and scientifically up-to-the-minute world leader.
In the event, events didn’t go entirely to plan. When the leader ranger went forward to the scene of the kill, he found – as he thought he would – the tiger with its head buried inside the Siberian musk deer’s ribcage. From time to time, the tiger raised its muzzle, dripping with blood, before returning to the task of crunching through half an animal in the shortest possible time.
In retrospect, it wasn’t clear whether the tiger saw or heard the ranger. Either way, before the ranger had time to signal to Popov to come forward to take his shot, the tiger with a growl backed away from the kill.
The ranger raised his rifle.
“Don’t shoot!” Popov uttered a short sharp command. He didn’t want a dead tiger on his hands. This was not the kind of publicity he was seeking. Better a dead ranger!
Popov raised the darting gun and as he did so the tiger crashed up the path towards them.
Quite how Ronald Craig ended up on the ground with a tranquillizing dart sticking out of his backside while the tiger escaped into the forest none the worse for wear was, in the confusion of the moment, never totally clear.
One thing which was clear was that Ronald Craig, showman and businessman, not to say a possible or indeed probable Presidential candidate, was decidedly unhappy.
“What the fuck!” His voice boomed loud in the silence of the forest, hastening the speed of tiger’s retreat.
He groaned and slumped to the ground as the dart’s concentrated load of ketamine took hold.
The rangers, trained to deal with just such an eventuality, moved rapidly into action. They couldn’t risk waiting for the effect of the drug to wear off. The risk of damage to the heart and sensory systems was very real. A dose of ketamine that could knock out a tiger would very likely be lethal for a man, even a man as large as Ronald Craig.
“Mr President, pass me the yellow vial, please,” said one of the rangers
Taking the vial from the President’s outstretched hand, the ranger looked down at Craig’s now prostrate and motionless body much as a butcher might examine a large side of beef. He made a rapid calculation. No point in injecting the whole dose. More like half the dose, or even a third. Though hefty, Ron Craig certainly didn’t weigh as much as a fully-grown male Amur tiger.
The ranger squirted a shot of the liquid into the air, to make sure the plunger was properly loaded and ready to go. He shuddered to think of the fate that might befall him if by some freak accident he injected a fatal air-bubble into the bloodstream of a man who was one of President Popov’s honoured guests.
Removing the hunting jacket from the comatose man, the ranger rolled up Craig’s right-hand of the shirt sleeve so that the upper arm was exposed. He felt for and found the vein. Then, with quick professionalism, he injected a 200 mg dose of Tolazoline.
While the rangers kept guard – God only knew where the tiger had gone, although everyone hoped it had gone as far away as it possibly could – Ronald Craig gradually regained consciousness.
“Christ, my ass feels sore,” he complained. “Did someone taser me?”
“Not exactly.” Popov helped the American to his feet. “There was a small mishap. We’re going to get you to hospital as soon as we can.”
Khabarovsk General Hospital was surprisingly clean and well equipped. Roland Craig was wheeled straight away into the theatre. Seconds later, he was lying face down on the table.
“This will only take a minute. The dart’s made quite a wound. We’re going to have to swab and disinfect just to be on the safe side. Give you an anti-tetanus too. You’d be surprised how many germs there are out there in the forest.”
“No, I wouldn’t” Craig mumbled, still drifting in and out of consciousness. “I’m a germaphobe. You go right ahead!”
“You won’t feel a thing” the surgeon said, “but we’ll give you a little local anaesthetic as well.”
When President Popov visited Ronald Craig in Khabarovsk General Hospital that evening, the American was well on the way to total recovery. Happily, he was also ready to see the funny side of things.
“Shot in the ass by the President of Russia. I’m going to tweet.”
“Actually, I’d rather you didn’t,” Popov said. When he switched on the television. Craig took the point at once.
In the few hours that had intervened since that unfortunate event in the forest, Russian news channels had been running a brilliantly concocted story. All over the country, viewers had been enjoying the footage of a crouching, then leaping tiger, followed by shots of a bare-chested President Popov firing a hunting rifle with deadly accuracy.
“President Popov saves US politician-tycoon’s life in Ussuri hunting incident” the newsreader proclaimed. The fate of the tiger was not specified, but the video was interspersed with a series of clips of Ron Craig and his glamorous family in full campaign mode.
One Russian commentator went so far as to suggest that Craig would not only be chosen as the Republican candidate in July. “There is a high probability that he will win the Presidency itself in the Presidential election this November, particularly since Mrs Caroline Mann, the likely Democratic nominee, is immersed in scandal owing to her misuse of official communications facilities when serving as Secretary of State.”
When the broadcast finished, Craig said, I’m impressed. It’s almost as though they had all that in the can and were just waiting to run it. And thanks for the plug”.
“Our journalists are very professional” Popov said with a straight face. “They have very high standards of accuracy and objectivity.”
Craig sighed. “I wish our media were like that. They’re all over the place. They lie through their teeth, most of the time. Distort the news. Actually make things up! It’s so sad!”
Before he left, Popov turned to Rosie Craig, who was sitting by her father’s bedside. “Don’t worry, Rosie. Your father will be all right.”
Rosie Craig didn’t quite know what to say. She wasn’t angry with Popov. How could you be angry with a man who was trying to save the world’s tigers?
“I’m sure Dad will be all right” she said. “It would take more than a dart to put him out of action.”
“Don’t tell me,” Popov sighed. He’d been dealing with Ronald Craig for the best part of a decade. There were times when even he felt he had met his match.
From KOMPROMAT. Used with permission of Oneworld Publications. Copyright © 2017 by Stanley Johnson.