June 28, 1999
Joseph Pontecorvo (left foreground) and wife Christina (background) film sedated tiger while working with American and Russian biologists.
by Marshall Haley, staff reporter
Most people on earth, or even in Russia, will never see a Siberian tiger, because the world's largest cats carefully avoid detection.
Documentary film writer/producer Christina (Mulvihill) Pontecorvo is one of the few people on earth to touch a live tiger and live to tell about it.
"Actually, Siberian tigers are not usually aggressive toward humans unless cornered," said Pontecorvo, a 1987 Woodinville High grad who has made three trips to Siberia with documentary filmmaker husband, Joseph. "When the tiger was sedated, I got to touch her. Her outer fur was kind of rough, but when I felt underneath, her undercoat was very soft. I was shaking, it was so exciting. When Joe went on a helicopter capture, he was filming a sedated tiger when he heard John, one of the scientists, say, 'She's waking up!' Joe looked around and everyone was already about five feet behind him, backing quickly away. That was an exciting moment for Joe, but she just got up and laid right back down again."
The Pontecorvos' documentary, In the Shadow of the Tiger, will air on the Discovery Channel's Wild Discovery series at 8 p.m. and midnight on July 3. They wrote, produced, and directed the film. In addition, Joseph did cinematography and film editing, while Christina did the location sound work. They made their trips to the Russian Far East with scientists from the Hornocker Wildlife Institute (HWI), an Idaho-based scientific corporation focused on national and international ecosystem conservation.
"Joe filmed a commercial for HWI a few years ago," said Christina Pontecorvo. "He knew about their 'Siberian Tiger Project,' and proposed this documentary project to Hornocker President Dr. Howard Quigley, who said 'Sure!'" HWI is working with Russian scientists to develop a conservation program for the tigers and their habitat.
"Russian scientists have studied the tigers' interaction with their habitat for over 50 years," said Pontecorvo. "But for economic reasons, they relied strictly on snow tracking, and that only gave them information in winter. Hornocker gives them more high-tech resources. They are able to use helicopters to track and capture the tigers, and fit them with radio telemetry collars for year-round monitoring. They also use cable snares to capture them, before sedating them. The cables are thick enough to not cut into their legs. If they can help save the tigers, they feel it's worth one hour of discomfort every two to three years, which is how long the collars last."
The Tiaga Forest of southeastern Siberia is part of the largest standing forest in the world. That gives tigers a large habitat and individual territories, but maintaining their habitat is crucial, because it's not densely populated with prey. Not many species can survive in such extremely cold conditions. Poaching has reduced the entire Siberian tiger population to less than 400, and clear-cutting forests reduces their habitat at a rate of 10 percent a year, according to Hornocker findings. Poaching has virtually eliminated them in the parts of China and North Korea that border on the Russian Far East.
"Due to the economic situation in Russia since the fall of communism, if people are carrying a gun when they see a tiger they might shoot it," said Pontecorvo. "It could mean the survival of their family. They sell the bones and male sex organs to the Chinese for health remedies. They also sell the skins to the Japanese.
"Under communism, the borders were strictly controlled, which was better for the tigers. Now the Russian Mafia moves a lot of goods, like weapons and drugs, across the Chinese and North Korean borders. The Russian Far East is so removed from the central government that they live a less controlled life, like our old wild west. In fact, they call it the 'Wild East.'
"That area is a tremendous mining and timber source, but the Russians don't have the economy or technology for large scale industry. Because of that, the Russians select cut, rather than clear cut, like big timber companies do. Any foreign company is required to have a Russian partner, but they say there that if you want to make money, you have to join the Mafia. A Japanese company was there clear-cutting for awhile, but pulled out because their Russian partner was so corrupt.
"Hopefully, the Russians will make the right decisions for long-term survival of their ecology and economy, so that if they let a big timber company come in, they won't destroy the habitat.
"Although life is very hard there, Eastern Russians were very warm and receptive. They are very cultured, and especially knowledgeable about their history. They are very educated, with about a 97-percent literacy rate. I don't know if that will be true for future generations, due to the breakdown of their system."
Pontecorvo praised Matt Chan and Chuck O'Farrell of Seattle's Screaming Flea Productions for overseeing the film's completion and distribution to the Discovery Channel and international distributor HIT Entertainment. She said that without their expertise, dedication, and willingness to buy the film, it might not have happened.
"This is the first documentary we've produced and we were pretty nervous," said Joe Pontecorvo. "All our money went into the film. It truly is a production close to our hearts. I am so happy it will be seen by a worldwide audience."
The Pontecorvos said their goal was to go out of their way to capture startling images and events as they happened. The flight from Anchorage to Vladivostok took over 12 hours. The drive to the small fishing village of Terney--Hornocker's project headquarters--took another 15 hours. They endured frigid temperatures, long hikes with heavy camera gear, and stays in small, rustic cabins where they had to carry all their water in buckets. They did a total of three months filming on their trips, during the winter of 1996 and the spring and fall of 1997.
"The third trip was the hardest for me, because I discovered I was pregnant after we got there," Christina said. "That trip was full of long hikes, bugs, and a dangerous snare capture. I didn't have any time to indulge in morning sickness. The scientists really helped us in our work and getting situated in lodgings."
"I was very impressed with the diligence and patience of the scientists," said Pontecorvo. "They placed black 'sleeping' masks over the sedated tigers' eyes, after putting ointment on their eyes, for protection, because they have no blink response while sedated. The tiger is revered by the Siberian people. The Vladivostok official city seal has a Siberian tiger on it. Even eastern Russia vodka labels have a tiger."
Pontecorvo Productions, Screaming Flea, and the Hornocker Wildlife Institute hope to collaborate again on a documentary about the pumas of Yellowstone.
Christina Pontecorvo earned a BA in Communications and History from the University of Washington in 1992. She went to work that year as a production assistant for KOMO-TV, where she worked her way up to positions as a writer, then producer. She left KOMO in 1997 to work fulltime on Pontecorvo Productions. Her parents, Jim and Audrey Mulvihill, live in Woodinville. Christina has given presentations at Woodinville schools about her Siberian trips.
Joseph Pontecorvo has been Director of Photography on two feature films and cinematographer on several documentaries, including: Critical Habitat, a national PBS special on the state of forests in the Northwest; Long Live the Kings, about northwest salmon; and Torrents of Change, about the effects of flooding in the Pacific Northwest.
In the Shadow of the Tiger is his first attempt to produce, direct, and write a documentary. Before forming Pontecorvo Productions, he worked as a cinematographer for Boeing.