Saving the Amur tiger

With the Amur tiger population facing extinction, organisations from Russia and abroad have been working to save them. They don’t always agree as to how this should be done. Then there are the politics, Mumin Shakirov observes. Perhaps the Year of the Tiger will be auspicious for the Amur big cats…
Mumin Shakirov
26 February 2010

Over the last two years Amur tigers have been frequent guests on television and the pages of newspapers. Strangely enough, this is partly due to the efforts of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In September 2008 the “national leader”, who loves posing for the cameras, took part in a publicity stunt in the Ussurian taiga. In front of journalists, he put a tigress to sleep with a shot to the shoulder, and then hung a collar with a radio transmitter round her neck. In this way Putin became the “best friend” of ecologists and tigers, and the deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Ecology and Evolution Vyacheslav Rozhnov, who was accompanying him, received an annual grant of $1 million from the Prime Minister to save the Amur tiger.   Putin’s next step is to hold the International Forum on Tiger Conservation in Vladivostok. The summit, which will be held in the autumn, will be attended by 13 heads of state and one of the authors of the Global Tiger Initiative, the head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick.

Amur Tiger (1)

Ecologists all over the world have been sounding the alarm for a long time: tigers have completely disappeared in a number of regions – in Transcaucasia, Central Asia and on the islands of Bali and Java. Russia today has the largest population in a single area (over 450 tigers, or around 11% of the world population). This was made possible by conservation measures taken in the 1950s-1980s: the authorities prohibited hunting tigers, introduced the criminal article “five years for poaching” and set up sanctuaries. By the end of the 1980s, the population had grown to 350-400. 

The problems began in the 1990s, when the borders with China were opened up and trade became more active.  The animal’s skeleton, fangs, claws and whiskers were in demand. In those hungry post-Soviet years the shooting of tigers reached unprecedented proportions. “Traditional Chinese medicine manufactures medicine using the organs of animals,” says the head of the Russian office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare Maria Vorontsova. “For this purpose, they breed tigers in the thousands on special farms, but the internal organs of a wild tiger are more valuable than those of a tiger bred in captivity.”

Specialists have calculated that in the early 1990s poachers killed 70 tigers a year. In China itself, shooting a tiger is an offence attracting the death penalty, but for some reason the local authorities close their eyes to smuggled goods from Russia. The Chinese themselves have paid a high price for poaching, as the South China Tiger that once lived there has disappeared from the country completely. The Amur sub-species is now a rare visitor in the north of China. Local farmers built farms on the shores of the Amur and the Ussuri, and the wild animals had to leave to make room for the domestic animals. The lack of food has driven deer, Siberian stags and wild boars from their habitat. If there are no cloven-hoofed mammals in the forests, the tigers cannot survive. The only places they can live are the national parks of Primorie and the Khabarovsk Krai, where they can find food.

The population of tigers started declining at the end of last century and the authorities reacted by taking measures. In 1996 Russia developed the First National Strategy for preserving the largest wild cat on the planet. In the Far East anti-poaching brigades were set up, customs services were given training, laws were toughened and the fine for poaching rose from $50 to $16,000. But it’s not easy to put a poacher in jail. “You need to catch a person with a smoking rifle over the corpse of a tiger, or even better at the moment the shot is fired,” Maria Vorontsova says. “If they come to your home and find a tiger skin, then nothing will happen to you.”

But “Strategy 1996” did actually yield some results. In the mid 2000s, the number of tigers in the Far East increased, reaching just over 500. The ecologists didn’t have very long to celebrate:  a few years ago it was discovered that the tiger population was once more in decline.   In 2009 selective monitoring by scientists recorded tiger tracks in the snow in some areas.  Analysis of these tracks revealed that the tiger population had fallen by 40%.  Ecologists were horrified and the authorities initially tried to conceal the figures.  The Vladivostok Global Tiger Summit was not far away, after all, and in recent years the image of Russia had been of a country which successfully cared for its tigers. But the information leaked out to the press.  The head of the Russian office of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Igor Chestin confirmed that the population of tigers was in decline.   This had been brought about by poaching and the reduction of the habitat area. On the Khabarovsk Krai the habitat of one tiger – about 40 hectares – is destroyed by fire every five years and another is cut down every three years.  Experts also concluded that over the last few years the system for monitoring national parks and sanctuaries in the Far East had become noticeably less efficient. It had been deteriorating for many years.  In 1996 the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources was reduced in status to the State Committee for Environmental Protection, which itself was disbanded in 2000.  The Ministry of Natural Resources came into being in 1996.  The word ‘ecology’ was shamefacedly tacked on in the spring of 2008.

 “The structures responsible for monitoring have been paralysed by administrative reform” complains Igor Chestin. “In the past the smugglers’ activities were to a certain extent curtailed. Then the centre transferred the supervisory functions to regional governors, who turned out to be unprepared for the changes: the new regional conservation services weren’t ready.” As a result, the famous “Tiger” inspection service, which had been supported by international NGOs, automatically passed out of federal jurisdiction, that is to say it lost all its powers. It still had money, machines and equipment, but it couldn’t function. Inspectors couldn’t file reports or stop the poachers and, to the distress of ecologists, the organisation began to collapse. But ecologists are convinced the problem is more than unwieldy bureaucracy. They say that the forests in the Far East need to be saved or, to be more precise, the cedars, which are being taken into China by the trainload. In 2007, with the introduction of the new Forestry Code, the ban on felling this valuable timber was lifted, and legal and illegal felling began. A reduction in the forest areas means the rapid disappearance of cloven-hoofed mammals, who feed on cedar nuts. When the deer, Siberian stag and wild boar disappear, the tiger and its cubs die from starvation. Almost every schoolchild in the Far East knows this.

Amur tiger (2)

Many experts and specialists have come up with proposals for saving the tigers. The head of the Russian office of the WWF, Igor Chestin, proposes establishing several more parks and sanctuaries in the Far East, and banning the felling of cedars. Maria Vorontsova believes that a tough law is required which would make it possible to bring to justice not only the poachers, but also the traders and owners of skins.

Animal activists are also in favour of creating rehabilitation centres, where tiger cubs can be looked after. When they lose their mothers, the cubs usually die in the forest and putting them back there is no simple task. It has to be said that ecologists are also not angels and often get into conflict situations. As the Global Summit approaches, relations have become very strained. It isn’t just about money, which is always short, but influence too. WWF is clearly trying to dominate the information sphere, often ignoring the interests of colleagues and other organisations. Everyone admits that the financial help from Chestin’s office makes a difference and his publicity work is noticed, but the question arises: why stamp on other people’s feet when everyone has a common goal?  There are also complaints about Putin’s “friend”, Vyacheslav Rozhnov. When he was asked at a press conference what he had spent “Putin’s” million on, he gave a most disappointing reply. It turned out that in one and a half years he and his employees had only put collars on three tigers. All the claims that significant funds were being spent on satellite communications, molecular genetic research and buying radio transmitters failed to convince many of the experts. No one is talking about embezzlement, but the situation leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, as it were. 

Nevertheless scientists and ecologists are managing to overcome the administrative barriers and internal contradictions and trying to do their jobs. Besides the WWF, there are a dozen international NGOs in the Far East working with the tigers, including regional organisations. For example, the International Fund for Animal Welfare helps the local organisation “Phoenix”, whose main objectives are combating poaching, creating rehabilitation centres for tiger cubs, and developing educational programmes. Scientists and ecologists are brought together by an event called “Day of the Tiger”, which is held every autumn in Vladivostok. The programme is spectacular: there’s a parade and a carnival march; students, dressed in orange and black costumes with the words “Save and Protect” written on them, songs and poems about caring for nature. “We’re not naïve, of course,” laughs Maria Vorontsova. “These publicity campaigns aren’t aimed at poachers and traders of skins, but their children and grandchildren may grow up to be different people”.

Animal activists in Russia spend about $2.5 million a year on saving and studying Amur tigers. The next goal is to bring the population of Amur tigers back up to the 2006 figure of 550-600. The latest monitoring results are to be published in March.  According to the integrated data of the Global Tiger Initiative, the world tiger population is now around 3,200. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 100,000 living on our planet. Despite the enormous area they inhabit, including 13 countries such as China, India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Bhutan, tigers have become the rarest of the great cats.   The current (Chinese) Year of the Tiger is considered by many to be a sign that it’s now or never to save them.

Mumin Shakirov is Moscow based journalist and film director

Photos: courtesy of the Moscow office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare

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