I’m in Nikolai Smetanin’s office, sweating in my thermal underwear. The immaculately turned out politician is talking me through a series of photographs of mangled reindeer carcasses. Outside, children are playing in an elaborate frozen playground; there’s a helter-skelter built from ice, lanes of glistening toboggan tracks and a banana boat being towed behind a snowmobile. Yakutsk is the coldest city on Earth with winter temperatures regularly the wrong side of -50°c. Understandably, there’s a paranoia to the way Siberian’s heat their homes and offices. It makes being inside unbearable.
Nikolai is the head of Yakutia’s government-run hunting department. With a landmass comparable to India, Yakutia is by far the largest non-nation state in the world. Life here, I’m quickly learning, revolves around reindeer, staying warm and diamonds. Mostly in that order. I first heard about the region in 2013 when its president, Yegor Borisov, announced a ‘state of emergency’, calling for international support and setting into motion a bounty system, which has since grown into the largest organised wolf hunt in history.
The problem, Nikolai explains, is that wolves are decimating reindeer herds. 12,000 reindeer were killed last year at a cost of 3 million euros to government caravans and indigenous cooperatives. The government can absorb these costs but across the Taiga, exploding wolf populations are pushing indigenous people into poverty and exacerbating the break down of communities. To see these effects first hand, Nikolai has arranged for me to visit Ion Maksimovic, the region’s most celebrated wolf hunter. Ion killed 23 wolves last year, more than any other hunter, winning 300,000 roubles and a snowmobile.
The next day we load Nikolai’s soviet-era van with fuel, ammunition and, controversially, illegal leg traps. In 2008, Russia, Canada and the EU signed an agreement banning the use of leg hold traps. Europe drafted the bill almost 20 years ago but it took Russia over a decade to sign it. The law came into effect in 2012 and, soon after, wolf populations went through the roof in Yakutia. So much so that Nikolai travelled to Brussels to petition a repeal of the law. A EU representative then flew out to Yakutia to witness first hand what was happening and decided to permit the use of traps as long as they were EU approved ‘humane traps’. According to Nikolai these were never delivered.
I can understand Nikolai’s frustration. As we leave the city of Yakutsk and concrete buildings give way to tundra, it’s difficult to imagine anywhere more culturally and geographically removed from Brussels. Our driver leans over to show me a video he shot on his phone. A reindeer is tied up and thrashing around, an Evenki herder sits astride it, carves a slit into its chest, plunges his hand in and pulls out its heart. He entered the video into a local competition but his entry was disqualified. He didn’t have a model release and the footage raised animal welfare concerns. I offer my condolences and try to forget what I have just seen.
On the way, we stop at Khatystyr, a small Evenki town and stronghold of reindeer herding culture. As luck would have it, we arrive during the annual reindeer festival. A racetrack is marked out on the ice and the first heat is about to start. The air is thick with anticipation and misty reindeer breath; herders have travelled from all over the Taiga to be here for the races. Competitors have numbers sewn into their clothes and spectators shuffle on the ice. At the start line I meet Pyotr, a nomadic herder who has lost his entire herd to wolf packs. He now lives hand to mouth, trying to find work with other herders. After the races, fragments of his story are echoed by almost everyone I meet. Khatystyr itself has lost 30 horses to wolves this year. Packs are getting braver and venturing closer and closer into town.
In the morning we say goodbye to Nikolai and swap to snowmobiles for the journey out to Ion’s winter hunting camp. We’re here principally to make a film and we load up wooden sleds with camera equipment and provisions. I’m riding at the back, on a sled attached to a snowmobile. All our gear and crew are up ahead. We cruise along for hours, alternating between bumpy forest tracks and frozen rivers. The landscape is eerily still and stark. About four hours into the journey the sled I’m riding in becomes detached. I shout after Ion but his huge Evenki hood, coupled with the sound of the snowmobiles’ diesel engines, easily drown me out. It’s getting dark and the temperature is plummeting. After about thirty minutes I unpack the sled hoping to find what I will need to survive a night. A range of Canon photographic lenses, a fictional account of a wolf attack in Alaska and a Steadicam. The taiga looks and feels very different when you’re alone. The silence is absolute and the beauty acquires a new edge. About an hour later, Yegor, Ion’s hunting partner, comes blasting back through the snow; I’m more than a little relieved.
Ion’s hunting cabin is exactly what you might imagine —nestled by a frozen river, plumes of smoke billowing from a hole in the roof. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with tools, bits of metal and plastic, the remnants of years of self-sufficiency. Ion wasn’t always a wolf hunter. He used to hunt sable, which was a much easier way to make a living. But in 2013 when the bounty announcement was made, Ion made the jump to full-time wolf hunting. The money is good but for Ion there’s a definite sense of working for his people and protecting a way of life.
Ion tells me he spends months at a time out here, alone. And over the course of the next few days I start to get a sense of how he lives and what it’s like to hunt wolves in one of the harshest climates on earth. Our days revolve around collecting ice from the river, gathering firewood, and stoking the fire throughout the night. But, of course, the majority of our time is spent tracking wolves.
A few days into our stay we find the carcass of an elk. All half a million hectares of Ion’s territory is effectively a giant deep freeze, littered with perfectly preserved animal carcasses. Wolves will make a kill and come back to continue eating weeks, or even months, later. It’s when the wolves return that Ion has the best chance of catching them. He tells me that in the middle of winter an entire elk will freeze solid in four hours and stay frozen until spring, but deep in the permafrost animals can be preserved for thousands of years. Digging up frozen mammoths is big business elsewhere in Yakutia; the tusks are sold as ethical alternatives to the African ivory trade.
Science tells us that wolves are predators like any other; they live to eat and reproduce yet wolves the world over can’t shake their mythology. Wolf hunting in Yakutia is steeped in superstition. Hunters never visit the same trap twice in one day, never urinate in the direction they’re travelling and, most importantly, they always make the kill. Wolves have been known to bite off their own legs to escape traps and then travel hundreds of kilometres to find a new pack in a new territory. Usually they’re cannibalised by the new pack, but those that survive are said to regain their strength and then return to seek revenge on the hunter.
Back in Yakutsk, Nikolai had shown me photographs of a recent incident where a wolf chased a herd of 100 reindeer off a cliff. The fall killed them all instantly. The picture was unnerving, a pile of bloodied and twisted limbs; but the wolf, it would seem, had no appetite. Observers said she just looked down from the cliff, stared the herder in the eye and turned back to the forest. But there’s science here too. As Ion travels through his territory he collects data on wolves and other species, which is passed thousands of miles up the chain of command to Moscow where bio-data from all over Siberia is collated and environmental policies, including hunting quotas, are established.
A few days later we return to where Ion set the trap, but it’s gone. The trail is easy enough for Ion and Yegor to follow; the paw prints are fresh and the undergrowth has been disturbed. I follow them, struggling through the knee-deep snow. It’s an effort to keep up. After an exhausting hike we find the wolf, trailing a scarlet constellation of blood against the snow. Ion lifts his rifle and shoots. The shot echoes around the forest and hangs in the air. The wolf collapses against a tree. Yegor clamps a stick between its teeth, ties a rope around the muzzle, and drags it back to the sled.
Darkness falls as we head back to Ion’s cabin. The headlights of his snowmobile illuminate a narrow track of taiga ahead of us. The wolf, already frozen solid, trails on a sled behind us. Above our heads the sky is awash with stars. This is a genuine, but fragile wilderness. Railway infrastructure and thousands of kilometres of new gas and LNG pipelines are beginning to snake their way through the forest, clipping and segmenting habitats. Nikolai is tight lipped on the ecological implications of all this activity, but for reindeer herders it’s a real concern. Traditionally they follow the movement of their herds, but with the landscape changing as it is, herders increasingly have to lead the reindeer.
Back at Ion’s hut, the wolf thaws out by the fire overnight. It oozes blood and a smell like wet carpet. In the morning it is hung from a tree and flayed. Ion efficiently cuts out the vagina, assuring me that there’s a roaring trade for it in Central Asia. The carcass is burnt on a small funeral pyre. The skin he stores with the others he has stockpiled, and a few days later we travel together back to Yakutsk.
We’re getting into spring now and mud and pollution mix to black in the melting snow, shovelled up along the roads. Ion tells me he doesn’t much like being in the city. In fact the only reason we’re here is to drop off his skins at the government-run Sakha Bult Factory. Ion gets paid $400 per wolf skin and gets a ticket for an extra $400 bounty from the provincial government. It’s not as much as it sounds once you factor in fuel, snowmobile upkeep and ammunition costs. But it’ll see Ion through another season. Once he’s got what he came for, Ion doesn’t want to hang around and we say our goodbyes in the dungeon-like processing factory, standing on a concrete floor awash with wolf blood.
I have a few hours left in Yakutsk and I decide to take a look at the commercial arm of Sakha Bult. As I enter the pristine shop floor directly above the factory, I can still hear the factory machines grinding away beneath the gentle hum of the electric heaters. But otherwise, I could be in Paris, or Milan. I try on a fur coat made from twelve wolves. There’s a double duvet so thick with wolf fur it’s almost too heavy to lift. I turn over the price tag, it costs $5,000.
As they pass through this building, wolves are transformed from mythologically empowered killing machines into luxury commodities. In many ways that’s been the biggest take home for me on this trip; that the significance of this species has been split so many ways by the prism of human culture, a culture that will ultimately decide their fate. Polticians, reindeer herders, fashionistas, hunters – they all see a different side of the wolf. And as pack numbers continue to grow, the Evenki people must fight back to preserve their way of life on Yakutia’s unforgiving tundra. But one day wolves too may need preserving, the real race is to have measures in place for when the tide begins to turn.