Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

OWLS OF THE EASTERN ICE: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C Slaght book review

  • Written by  A S H Smyth
  • Published in Books
OWLS OF THE EASTERN ICE: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C Slaght book review
26 Aug
2020
by Jonathan C Slaght • Allen Lane • £20 (hardback)

In the primeval and largely untouched forests of Primorye, near the borders of Russia, China and North Korea, there lives a rare bird with a two-metre wingspan called the Blakiston’s fish owl. There are probably fewer than 2,000 of them worldwide. The Russian ones are legally protected, but only 19 per cent of their Primorye habitat can say the same. Another 43 per cent is now leased out to modern logging companies. 

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

Active conservation efforts have been thus far hampered by a lack of information. Few Russians have ever seen a fish owl (the first nest was not discovered until 1971), and there is little to no scientific literature on them. In 2006, then-postgrad biologist Jonathan Slaght and his experienced field assistants realised they didn’t even know how to sex the animals. ‘We were largely starting from scratch,’ he laments – before committing the four years of his PhD to learning about them, finding them and ultimately tagging some for tracking purposes.

Bird-spotting this is not. Primorye is ‘a place where winds howl through the funnelled valley, bears are more common than people, and help is on the other side of a mountain.’ In winter, temperatures routinely descend below -30ºC. 

The owls are easily ‘flushed’ by the approach of humans, so even without incident, Slaght’s work is cold, dark, and often silent. This is a seriously committed lifestyle, if only for the few months of the year between the depths of winter and the full onset of spring melt. Throw in the friendly neighbourhood alcoholics, the barter economy, breakdowns, tigers, an assistant with a urine fetish, a village called ‘Hell’, storms, suspicious former Soviets, kit malfunctions, North Korea, and a man who lost a testicle to a fish owl, and you’ve got yourself ‘a trifle on paper but an ordeal in reality’.

Just as well, for reading purposes, as we are some way into the book before Slaght locates a fish owl, let alone catches one. But the picture comes together as his (re)search progresses. With its well-paced, engaging narrative, Owls of the Eastern Ice is an entertaining memoir of an extraordinary type of fieldwork, as well as an informative and much-needed voice for the fish owl. Slaght describes the whole adventure as the ‘application of persistent pressure to a question until the answer finally emerges’. Modestly, he omits to mention that one also needs a highly publishable write-up. 

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY PRINT MAGAZINE!
Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...

Books

There's something fresh for everyone this April. Read on for…

Books

by Lesley Newson & Peter Richerson • Oxford University Press

Reviews

Elizabeth Miki Brina is a teacher and author. Her debut book,…

Books

March's top non-fiction reads

Books

Laurence C Smith is a professor of environmental studies and…

Books

Jini Reddy is the author of the acclaimed Wanderland: A…

Books

Rana Foroohar is the author of Makers and Takers (2016) and Don't Be…

Books

A broad selection of Geographical's top books this February for your…