Korea's Tiger-man Prowls the DMZ
Text & Photography ©Nayan Sthankiya
Tigers in Korean culture are considered to be sacred and once occupied vast tracts of the peninsula. But during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910-1945, tigers were thought to have been hunted to extinction.
Over the years, though, there have been many tiger sightings. North Korea has designated the Siberian tiger an endangered species and set aside Baekdu Mountain, Wagalbong and Chuae Mountain as special tiger habitats.
Others say they have seen tigers in and around the area of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which was established at the end of the Korean conflict in the early 1950s.
A no-man's land and buffer zone between North and South Korea, the DMZ is the last relatively untouched southern area of the Korean peninsula. Few people have ventured into the heart of the DMZ since the cessation of hostilities between the two Korea's.
In part due to the lack of humans in the area, many species of flora and fauna -- found nowhere else in Korea -- call this place home. Migratory birds like the white-naped and red-crowned cranes and the endangered black-faced spoonbill, fly in and out. There are rare animals like the Asiatic black bear, the Eurasian lynx, goral antelopes and maybe even the illusive tiger.
This is the reasoning of at least one man who has dedicated the last seven years of his life to proving the tigers' existence. Lim Sun Nam believes that in the DMZ, the Korean spirit is still alive. Historically, the tiger has embodied that spirit of strength, beauty and courage. For Lim, seeking out the tiger and restoring Korea's spirit is a patriotic goal.
The 48-year-old tiger-man, who used to be a television cameraman and documentary filmmaker, has been searching full-time for the Korean tiger. He has found and documented numerous eyewitness sightings, tracks and tree markings in the restricted civilian-controlled zone just south of the DMZ.
His quest led him to quit his job, sell his house and move his family in with his older brother, who also supports Lim's full-time search. One part of his preparation took Lim to Siberia to learn how to track tigers. Using this knowledge, he has searched all through the mountains bordering the DMZ but has been unable to document a living tiger.
However, he has been gathering documentation of footprints, fur and eyewitness testimony that would seem to bear out his claims. Many wildlife experts believe the tiger to be extinct and that the footprints are of wild dogs. They also maintain that the eyewitness accounts are unsubstantiated.
Despite these expert opinions, Lim remains undeterred and is ready to prove the existence of tigers on the Korean peninsula.