Siberian tigers in danger once more Turmoil in Russia imperils species

November 08, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TERNEY, Russia -- The Moscow economy collapses, and even the tigers far away in the forests by the Sea of Japan must pay the price.

Russia had the makings of a success story here, as international efforts to protect the Siberian tiger from poachers and civilization were starting to show results after years of trying.

Now new threats are coming at the tigers from all directions. Huge forest fires are burning in the northern ranges of their territory, destroying prey. An unprecedented lack of acorns last winter has made it a bad year for the wild boar that tigers love to eat. Poachers seeking tiger skins and tiger organs for Chinese folk medicines are on the prowl. And local hunters are taking to the forest to compete with tigers for food.

Alone, none of these threats would be devastating, but every one of them is now made worse by the economic collapse that began last August.

About 400 adult tigers roam the Russian Far East, probably as many as the taiga in this region can support. But it doesn't leave much room for things to go wrong. Just 200 bullets, says #F Yevgeny Smirnov, a biologist here, would effectively drive the Siberian tiger to extinction.

Smirnov works at the Sikhote-Alin nature preserve, in the heart of the tigers' territory, where the magnificent animals are theoretically free from harm. But even here the balance is tipping.

On a dark, rainy afternoon, Anatoly Astafyev and a few of his men are skittering down a gravel road in an old Japanese van, on their way back from visiting a firefighters camp 60 miles inland. Two separate forest fires are burning their way through the northern reaches of the nature preserve, and Astafyev, the director, had wanted to see that things were still in hand.

He has eight men on each fire, with no equipment to speak of because there's no money for that. "You should have seen the grass fire today," the crew chief, Grigory Bannikov, had told his visitors. "It was awful and beautiful at the same time. We were just standing there admiring it -- until we realized we better start running."

Rain late in the day has helped, and Astafyev is satisfied that the fires, though worrisome, are not an immediate threat. But these men would normally be on anti-poaching patrol. It is no secret, anywhere in the region, that the patrols have been suspended as long as the forest fires have to be fought. Astafyev is worried.

The van, splashing through the thickening rain, comes upon a campfire by the side of the road. Astafyev leaps out and sternly questions the four men huddling around it. Legally they shouldn't be here in the reserve, and they have no documents. They tell him their truck broke down up the road.

There's little the director can do. The men might be poachers, or hunters, or smugglers (the Chinese border isn't far) or maybe just four unlucky truckers. Astafyev would have to catch them with a rifle in hand and a dead tiger at their feet if he had any hope of prosecuting them. There has been just one tiger-poaching criminal case in Terney in the past decade; the court refused to accept most of the evidence and the defendant received a two-year suspended sentence.

Astafyev says later that in the villages near the reserve there are reported to be three or four tiger skins being held by poachers waiting to make a sale. A skin can fetch up to $10,000.

Throughout the tigers' range -- a mountainous slice of Russia's Far East about the size of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia combined -- poachers probably take 50 to 70 tigers a year, a number that the tiger population can sustain.

In 1992, when the economy was very bad here, poaching threatened to get out of hand. Reports that the tigers faced extinction led to a grant by the German branch of the World Wildlife Fund to support the poaching patrols.

At the same time, Russia reinforced its customs checkpoints along the Chinese border. These measures didn't solve the problem, but they kept it in check. Some experts even ventured that the Russian tigers were better protected than any other group of tigers in the world.

"This year," says Astafyev, "the situation with poaching had been much better -- until this economic crisis started. The criminals are still active, and now the other part of the population has also become involved."

As night falls, the van works its way out of the Sikhote-Alin range, heading to the coast. Here, in 1906, a military detachment led by Vladimir Arseniev came through on an expedition trying to get a better understanding of this distant corner of the czar's realm. Arseniev wrote a book that became a Russian classic; in it he described how he found the forest infested with bandits, and he worried that Chinese marauders were wiping out much of the wildlife.

Not that much has changed since then.

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