There, at the end of a trail of blood and shit, a zubr craned its neck to see who was about to kill her. All she could do was look because Slava, a Yevenk nomad I was spending the week with, had already blown away her back left leg a couple of days ago. A 7.8 mm bullet had shattered the bone and the leg lay behind her limply at an impossible angle, attached only by fur and torn flesh. So the immobile zubr just looked from side to side and every few seconds cried out a desperate sound something between a bark and a yelp to no one in particular.
The zubr was going to die anyway and its not like we were just trophy hunting. Slava, like most other Yevenks, doesn't kill for recreation. Yevenks kill just enough to feed and clothe themselves. Still, I'd never been hunting before and it wasn't a stretch to feel sympathy for the pitiful, terrified animal yowling into the emptiness of the taiga. Maybe if we'd killed her right off I wouldn't have gotten all soft.
But we weren't in a rush; Slava still had to cut a trail for the reindeer sleigh that would carry the carcass back to camp, and he left me alone to watch the zubr and tend a fire that would eventually cook one of its whole legs for a snack.
After Slava wounded the zubr, she managed to crash down an entire mountainside on three legs, covering a couple of kilometers and buying herself another 48 hours. Granted it was a life of starving in great pain at the bottom of a snow-covered valley. But, judging by the screams I was listening to, she still wasn't ready to go. Yesterday, he had gone back in search of the beast -- Slava says Yevenks never leave a wounded animal -- by following the trail in waist-deep snow. By the time he found her, it was already growing dark and he didn't have enough light to kill and prep her. And so, on the third day, he brought me along to witness the conclusion of his hunt.
Finally Slava returned with the sleigh and shot the zubr in the head. Its neck jerked back into an uncomfortable angle a few seconds after getting shot. The instant the zubr died, her eyes lost their glint and she became meat.
Slava prepped the carcass by cutting off the legs, then the head and finally gutting it. The intestines and various other organs spoil the meat if they aren't removed. So much for the myth that natives use every last bit of an animal. The prepping was a bloody process, and Slava was dressed for the occasion. But I was still hoping to keep stains off of my coat, which would be coming with me when I returned to civilization, and only gingerly helped shift the body whenever he asked.
I first heard about the Yevenks from Vladislav Perestoronin, a journalist at Tynda's local paper Avangard (Avant-garde). Perestoronin is a story unto himself, a character worthy of a Phillip Marlowe novel.
Perestoronin described the Yevenks to me as a short, Asiatic "dying people," as if they are an endangered species. And they are. There are only about 20,000 of them in Russia (with an equal number in China), spread throughout the taiga from Krasnoyar to Khabarovsky krai, and the number is steadily shrinking. Extreme poverty, heavy drinking, a general disregard for medicine and the rough climate combine to give them a mortality rate that makes the Russians seem long-lived. Yevenk men have a life expectancy in the low 40s.
Less quantifiable and yet just as deadly is the effect of Russian colonization of the taiga. The construction of the BAM and subsequent populating of the area is a classic story of a small indigenous population getting shafted in the name of development. Yevenk interests weren't even on the radar when the BAM was built and the only bone they got was that most place names (Tynda, Yuktali, Chilchi) weren't renamed after dead Communists.
The railroad has enabled Russia to start strip-mining the taiga's resources with no regard to the people who rely on the land to survive. According to the older Yevenks I talked to, in their lifetime poaching, logging and gold digging have caused a significant reduction in wildlife, which directly affects most Yevenks' livelihood. Luckily for the Yevenks, the BAM faded with collapse of the Soviet Union and development has slowed.