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"Our players fought like the tigers they are." -- Coach Guus Hiddink, after a South Korea World Cup victory.

HWACHEON, Gangwon province

The Hanbuk mountains lie like long rolls of sodden gray carpet. On this early afternoon, a mist rising from these mounds makes the mountains grayer, as if cloaked in mystery. "When the clouds are like that," Lim Sun-nam says, pointing above the treeline, "tigers like it. That's when they move around."

There are tigers up there now? Mr. Lim's companion says, falling to a whisper.

"Many tigers."

How many tigers?

"Maybe several."

Tigers burning bright everywhere. Tigers standing sentinel at the Demilitarized Zone. Tigers romping near Busan. Tigers creeping all across South Korea, showing up at toll booths even. No one, of course, has actually seen any of these tigers. No Korean has laid an eye on a Panthera tigris, the nation's symbol for all that is strong and brave, for more than 75 years. But the tigers are out there, according to Mr. Lim. They're up in these mountains this very day. Maybe several of them are crouching in the vapory ridges outside this drab, military town four hours east of Seoul, watching us.

They watch and we wait.

To be more accurate, Lim Sun-nam waits. Nobody waits better than he does.

Utterly convinced that there are tigers in the wilds of South Korea, Lim Sun-nam has been looking for them for the last seven years, to the exclusion of everything else in his life. He dreams of tigers, gets mad at those who mock his dreams, prays for tigers, calls their names.

He's seen what he says are a tiger's footprints in the South Korean snow and he's seen claw marks that he says a tiger left in a South Korean tree. But Mr. Lim has never seen a tiger in South Korea -- outside of a zoo.

Meanwhile, drawing on an unconventional logic that tells him tigers will one day appear, he keeps hunting, waiting, believing -- and exasperating nonbelievers.

Lim Sun-nam has driven to this remote piece of South Korea, as he does once a week, in a truck that looks as if it might sell ice cream. It's a boxy Chevy that he bought from the U.S. Army and repainted white so it would blend in with the snow because, he says, snow is where Korean tigers like to roam. The truck has 500,000 miles on it, and is fitted with a bed so he can sleep during his tiger searches. The truck also has a sound machine aboard, a gadget that duplicates a male tiger's mating call. Ah-hunnng. Ah-hunnng.

"We will hike up a trail for a while," Mr. Lim announces as he parks his truck. He is dressed this day as he always is when he stalks tigers: boots and camouflage gear. A youthful-looking 48, packing-crate sturdy, Mr. Lim wears his hair in a style that dates nearly to the last time a tiger was glimpsed in South Korea: a snappy crew cut, planed flat as a table. If he looks to be on a mission, he is.

The trail up into the Hanbuk mountains is initially steep, sweat-breakingly so, even in the cool fall air. Leading the way, Mr. Lim crisscrosses a semi-exposed flank. After about 10 minutes of trekking, he halts. Crows circling about 200 meters distant cause him to go rigid. "There might be an animal's body," he says, drawing on personal logic. Crows equal carrion, which could equal tiger.

Before he purchased his truck, Mr. Lim slept in a tent in these low mountains. One winter he spent three consecutive months in the tent, waiting for a big cat. He saw footprints in the high drifts, but no tigers. The day in 1995 when he started coming to these mountains, he quit smoking for good. Tigers can smell cigarette smoke, he says, and he didn't want that to be a distraction. Evidentally, tigers cannot smell soju.

Onward, as if directed by an inner voice, Mr. Lim marches. He is trudging to a spot in the mountains where he has set up a still camera. Each week he comes up here and collects the film in his camera and checks the batteries. The camera is a Nikon attached to a sensor. Ten meters in front of the camera, hidden beneath brush, sits a cage holding a rabbit. If a tiger comes down from the mountaintop to investigate the smell from the cage, the sensor will trip and the camera will automatically snap a photograph. So far, all Mr. Lim's camera has picked up nosing around the rabbit cage is a few squirrels and a wild pig. But that does not deter him. "Where there is a wild pig," he says, logically, "there are tigers. Tigers eat wild pigs."

He learned much about photographing tigers in Russia. He has gone there four times a year for the last seven years, studying Siberian tigers with wildlife experts. There are between 7,000 and 8,000 tigers in the world, chiefly in Russia, India, Indonesia, Sumatra, Nepal, Vietnam and Burma. The Russians taught Mr. Lim how to trap tigers. They taught him how to sedate tigers with a dart gun. In turn, he told the Russians that tigers can climb trees. They laughed at this revelation; tigers are too heavy to do that, they said. But he had seen bark clawed on trees back home, and so he got the Russians to set their cameras facing a tree that had bait in it. The tigers came -- and they climbed.

Next to his passion for tigers, Lim Sun-nam likes to prove people wrong.

Mr. Lim saw his first tiger footprints on Feb. 28, 1998, here in the Hanbuk mountains. "My God, I got very excited," he says, flicking beads of sweat from his face. Korean mushroom collectors have reportedly stumbled upon tiger spoor. A hunter once found fur on his traps that supposedly resembled a tiger's. An old woman digging up ginseng roots says she heard tigers. Ah-hunnng. But these footprints, 30 or so of them, each about 10 centimeters wide, were the real thing, Mr. Lim argues. Not indentations left by some overfed hedgehog or, as more than one person has suggested, part of a wacky winter's tale, a hoax sculpted in the snow by a crazed man in a bristly haircut.

The horangi, or tiger, has long held a special place in Korea. A frequent character in mythology, folk paintings and bedtime stories, the tiger, according to legend, has the ability to be shrewd, stupid, powerful, wise, greedy, empathetic or magical. If he sounds human, well, he is. Korea's most celebrated tiger long ago competed with a bear. The two would remain in a cave; the last to leave that cave, myth has it, would become a human being. The bear won the contest and later became the mother of Korea's first king. The tiger? He left the cave early. A size XXXL feline's gotta eat, after all.

A female tiger, another story goes, once fell in love with a man. A male tiger turned out to be a man's biological brother. One man camped out inside a tiger's stomach. Another fellow pretended to be blind, thinking tigers wouldn't eat him. A Goldilocks-like Korean yarn has a tiger disguised as a mother in order to devour two small children.

It's the humane side of tigers that generations of Koreans have grown up with. A strawberry collector is nursed back to health by tigers. A woodsman who removed a hairpin stuck in a tiger's throat is later rewarded with a trip home. There is a matchmaking tiger and a tiger so grief-stricken he carefully buries a man. An old woman who is too lazy to walk to the bathroom, does her business in the kitchen. Observing this, a tiger threatens to eat her until she promises to be clean and diligent. Afterward, the woman becomes her village's most respected citizen.

In mid-Joseon Dynasty times, there were so many tigers in Korea that reports had them strutting into Seoul to devour horses. One hundred years ago, at least 100 tigers populated the land. Because the peninsula resembled a tiger ready to spring toward Manchuria, great pride flourished. "Tiger spirit," it was called. Koreans yearned to be like tigers, to be strong and brave. When the Japanese took charge, everything changed. To negate any aggressiveness in their new colony, the Japanese decreed that the peninsula was shaped like a bunny. To make certain tiger spirit was dead in Korea, Japanese hunted and reportedly killed dozens of tigers. Mr. Lim says he has seen documents of this slaughter. In North Korea, there are perhaps 10 endangered Siberian tigers out and about. In the South, the last recorded sighting of a tiger came in 1921, in the Daedok mountains of Gyeonggi province.

As much as South Koreans revere tigers -- the animal served as the mascot of the Seoul Olympics, adorned shirts of the national soccer team at this year's World Cup and decorates every manner of product, from cleaning fluid to spark plugs -- not all people share Mr. Lim's obsession with trying to prove tigers exist. It's almost as if some Koreans don't want to see a tiger. To do so might somehow destroy the myths.

Mr. Lim says there are at least 10 tigers in South Korea, and that some are almost as large as Kias. Jo Jang-hyuk of the Judicial Research and Training Institute, and a student of tigers, responds, "I can't accept that at all. Hikers and herbalists have wiped away everything."

Mr. Lim says the footprints in the snow are absolute confirmation. Ke Chung Kim, director of the Center for Biodiversity Research at Penn State University, responds, "American biologists are not impressed by his evidence."

Mr. Lim says no one knows tigers as well as he does. Lee Seung-ho, who co-directs the DMZ Forum in the United States, responds, "There's really no one in the academic field who agrees with him."

Catty remarks about his credentials infuriate Lim Sun-nam, who never went to college. He has on occasion walked away from people who question his research. A couple of years ago, wildlife biologists at Seoul National University held a conference, which Mr. Lim attended. When a discussion of tigers came up, professors insinuated that Mr. Lim's logic about tigers being in South Korea was the same sort of theory that says elephants can fly. Hearing enough, Mr. Lim stood up at the conference and said, "No one can see a tiger from the window of an air-conditioned office."

A stony silence descended on the conference room.

Most biologists in Korea, Mr. Lim says, focus on bats, rats and birds. "To do real research on tigers, it takes 10 years. Many of those professors have never spent a night in the mountains."

He feels the same about government officials. After Mr. Lim spotted the footprints in 1998, he says civil servants came to Hwacheon looking for a tiger. They soon left, certain the depressions in the snow meant nothing.

"That's when I realized that the government doesn't know much," Mr. Lim says. "It took me three years to find those footprints and they wanted to find some more in three days!"

The mayor of Hwacheon is one of the few government officials to escape Mr. Lim's ire. Mr. Lim has presented to Jeong Gap-cheol a proposal to turn the mountains near Hwacheon into a national park that would feature, under protective glass, the next set of footprints discovered. Mr. Jeong believes that if tigers were spotted in Hwacheon, it would lift the local economy, which depends in large part on the military troops guarding the nearby DMZ, and thus could use a financial boost. Earlier, the mayor tried to get a gambling casino started in the area, but failed.

"I'm excited about the possibility of doing something with this," Mr. Jeong says, "but we need more tangible proof." Until that proof appears, the mayor has agreed to consider partial funding of Mr. Lim's search in the Hanbuk mountains.

How Lim Sun-nam supports himself is almost as great a mystery as whether the tigers exist in South Korea. Before 1995, Mr. Lim earned a decent living making documentary films. But ever since tiger fever caught him in 1995, he hasn't held a full-time job. He and his wife of 22 years, Kim Young-sun, live with their four children in a modest home in Gupabal, northwest Seoul. "I get by, but it is sometimes tough," he admits. His wife, who doesn't work, supports his quest and, according to him, has never complained. She even travels with her husband to Hwacheon now and then, to change the batteries in the camera and spend a night or two in the white truck. Periodically, he says, he's summoned to a remote locale in South Korea to check out reported signs of a tiger, and says he is seldom paid for those investigations. Some people believe that money from Mr. Lim's wife's family keeps the Lims out of the poorhouse. "He never stops promoting himself," Han Sang-hoo, of the Korea Society for the Protection of Wild Animals, says. "I suppose that's how he survives." Lim Sun-nam founded the Institute of Protection and Conservation of Korean Wild Tigers and Leopards, which he runs out of a shed beside his home. Asked what the institute does, he refers you to his Web site, which tells of his trips to Russia.

"I don't do this for the money," Mr. Lim says, unstruck by the curiousness of the remark. "I do it because I love the stealth and the courage of tigers, and because I love Korea. I want the tiger spirit to come back."

Born in Gyeonggi province, the son of a rice farmer, Lim Sun-nam, as a boy, wanted to manage an animal park when he grew up. After army service, he put together promotional films for provincial governments. At age 35, he starting making documentaries, primarily for KBS-TV. When he did one about a snake eating a fish, he became hooked on wildlife.

One of his dreams is to create a passageway through the DMZ so that South Korean tigers can breed with tigers from the North. Holy carnivore! He maintains that there are South Korean tigers in the DMZ. He has received email from U.S. soldiers stationed there that describe tiger noises and smells, and somewhere, supposedly, is a videotape of a tiger pawing a fence along the 38th Parallel. Kim Ke Chung of Penn State scoffs at that notion of a DMZ breeding area. "Such a corridor would cause many complications in the preservation of the place."

This kind of talk doesn't daunt Mr. Lim. He says he is going to file a lawsuit against Japan and ask for 100 million won in damages for that country's premeditated murder of tigers early in the last century. He will use the money to build his DMZ corridor. He will prove something.

Two cows were found dead in the Hanbuk mountains in the late 1990s. "Their stomachs were ripped open," Mr. Lim says, pausing along a path blanketed with pine needles. "Tigers did it. Maybe several. Can you imagine running into a tiger up here?"

No, his companion thinks, he cannot.

"It's just up there," Mr. Lim says, indicating a stand of skinny ppang trees, on one of which his camera is strapped. Arriving there, he reaches into a snaggle of twigs and leaves circling a tree's trunk and pulls out a roll of film. That accomplished, he inserts a new roll and fresh batteries. Done with the camera, he checks on his rabbit, whose cage rests beneath a blanket of dried leaves. The rabbit, which Mr. Lim bought in a Seoul pet shop and calls Killer Tiger, is fine. Replenishing the rabbit's water supply, he adds fresh grass, then shuts the cage door.

Heading back down the mountain toward his truck, he says, "Korean tigers are accustomed to humans. They can stand on the top of a mountain and see the lights of the city below, and it's O.K."

But what does the tiger think of a human? his companion asks.

"We're just another animal . . . one that a tiger doesn't often eat."

Korean tigers, says Mr. Lim, move around at night. "During the day, they mostly nap, but get up now and then to look around. At about 11 p.m., they go on the prowl. He glances at his wristwatch. "Right now, they're up, watching me."

And, quite logically, he's waiting for them.

by Toby Smith

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