Behind the Lines: Close Calls | Science | Smithsonian
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Behind the Lines: Close Calls

Danger comes with the territory for our writers

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John Seidensticker, whose Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and a world-renowned expert on big cats. In 1974, the Indian government invited him to West Bengal to deal with a killer tiger. To capture it, if possible. "The problem," Seidensticker recalls, "was to locate, dart and then find a woman-killing tiger at night in a mangrove swamp and also make sure the tiger did not drown."

After tying a live steer to a tree in an area where the tiger had been seen, Seidensticker waited nearby in a cage borrowed from the Calcutta zoo. Sure enough, just after dark the tiger came and made its kill. Seidensticker shot a dart from about 30 feet away, and the startled tiger took off into the mangroves. Not sure whether the dart had tranquilized or merely angered the 300-pound creature, a young male, Seidensticker then followed in pursuit with some 50 men backing him up. Intent on the task at hand, he recalls, "I did not notice that my backup team was lagging 50 yards behind." Seidensticker had begun to fret when his flashlight beam made out a familiar shape. "It wasn’t moving, so at that moment, I couldn’t tell if it was heading toward me or going away." He stopped to listen but heard nothing. "I moved up a few more feet and only then discovered that the tiger was lying there, immobilized."

As they entered Afghanistan, Denis Belliveau and Frank O’Donnell, whose story about retracing Tajikistan, the Russian border guard looked at us in amazement. In his hands were two U.S. passports with valid Tajik visas. But standing before him were two Afghans—our transformation in appearance was complete." The Russians told them that in the past 75 years only one other foreigner had crossed the border at that spot. A BBC journalist. He was later killed in Moscow during the uprising that brought Boris Yeltsin to power.

Department of Irony: Working on our story about Associate Editor Beth Py-Lieberman headed for the Library of Congress in search of an 1881 London Times account of Pasteur’s famous challenge. Alas, the great research facility was closed—due to possible anthrax contamination.

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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