Siberian Tigers are an endangered species spotted most often near Russia, China, and North Korea....Siberian Tigers are an endangered species spotted most often near Russia, China, and North Korea. While tracking these felines for his work with the World Wildlife Fund, COA President Darron Collins ’92 realized that their survival depended on cultural translation between many different groups. Credit: By Softeis via Wikimedia Commons

A few years after I finished a Ph.D. in anthropology, my World Wildlife Fund (WWF) colleague Yury Darman and I were in the Russian Far East, checking motion-sensing camera traps installed on a forested hillside. We were collecting data to estimate the population of the endangered Siberian tiger and the even more endangered Amur leopard. When we reached the summit, Yury pointed. “We stand here in Russia,” he said on that day in 2005. “One mile that way? China. One mile this way? North Korea. Our poor cats are the most diplomatically challenged animals in the world.” Thus began my career not only as a conservation scientist, but also as a cultural translator.

Yury went on to stress that these felines could come back from the brink of extinction if they had large blocks of forest with abundant prey. That, he emphasized, depended on the actions and influence of Russian timber companies, Chinese bureaucrats, U.S. consumers, and multinational corporations, to name just a few players. Ultimately, the animals’ survival hinged on translation among those groups, with their vastly different perspectives and motives. Identifying the right people and helping them find a common future that included big cats was exhilarating—almost as much as spying one of these endangered animals in the wild.

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