Siberian tigers in danger once more Turmoil in Russia imperils species

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

As the van turns east on the coast road, John Goodrich, a field coordinator here for a program called the Siberian Tiger Project, run with help from the Hornocker Wildlife Institute in Idaho, offers a quick history: This stretch was once the range of a tiger they nicknamed Lena. She was killed by a poacher in 1994. Another female took over; she disappeared in 1997, probably shot. Two females then divided the range. One vanished last summer, also probably hunted down.

This was when poaching was thought to be under control. Now the economy is crashing.

"I guarantee you," says Dale Miquelle, an American who is resident chief of the Siberian Tiger Project, "poaching's coming back this winter."

Earlier in the day Goodrich had stopped in to pay a call on Bart Schleyer at a cabin deep in the woods where he runs the trap lines. Tigers (and bears, which are also being studied) are caught in spring-loaded cable footholds, tranquilized, weighed and measured in all sorts of ways, and fitted with a radio collar. Schleyer had come into camp with a collar in his hand -- from a bear shot by poachers looking to sell its gall bladder and other bodily parts to China.

As the van jolts and bounces through the darkness, Goodrich talks about his work, and about what he and his wife, Linda Kerley, have learned in their three years here. Siberian tigers generally feast on elk or boar; but sometimes they eat wolves, and one male at Sikhote-Alin specializes in brown bears. He weighs in at 445 pounds; he'll kill bears bigger than he is. He killed one bear and dragged it a mile. Tigers also kill badgers, lynx, people (two since 1995), cattle and dogs.

They have huge territories. A typical female's range covers about 175 square miles, Goodrich says. A Bengal female, by contrast, needs a little more than 6 square miles. Males here have ranges of 200 to almost 600 square miles -- even with the radio collars it has been too difficult to keep tabs on them more precisely. Goodrich says a male might take a month to patrol his territory.

The taiga -- the vast north Asian forest -- is nowhere near as lush as the Indian jungle. The soil is thin, the winters long. There are only so many boar and elk that can live off the land, and a tiger needs about 25 pounds of meat a day. It needs that much territory to get that much food.

People can live in the taiga for 20 years and never see a tiger. Others encounter them without wanting to. One man on a rickety Russian motorcycle was chased by a tiger 30 miles down the road, all the way to the town of Plastun.

Late at night the van pulls into town. When a visitor grumbles to Smirnov about not seeing any tigers, he replies, "They saw you. I guarantee it."

In fact, there are probably more tigers than ever along the coast because of the ferocious forest fires raging inland. One fire at Terney, which destroyed a few thousand acres, was probably set off by a hunter shooting at elk with tracers. This is a new problem. When the white-hot bullets don't hit their mark, they make excellent incendiary devices.

The days of aerial reconnaissance and water drops from helicopters are long past; the government pulls men off poaching patrols but otherwise can do little. Tigers and elk can escape the flames, but herds of wild boar are being devastated.

"You know, to the north of Terney, everything burned down," says Igor Nikolaev, a biologist who is said to know more about the Siberian tiger than anyone. "There are no boar or elk there at all."

The survivors are coming down to the coast to get away from the fires, but this is where the roads and villages are; as the tigers follow, they'll be making the poachers' jobs that much easier.

Hunters will also be out. Last year, Astafyev calculates, about 1,000 elk were taken in the forest bordering the reserve, though licenses were issued for only 500. More and more, hunting and gathering is replacing agriculture.

Valentina Kaushinskaya's experience is instructive. Five years ago, she and her husband decided that private farming was the way to make a new life in the new Russia. They quit their jobs and carved out a 150-acre farm along a river bottom at the foot of the Sikhote-Alin range.

They didn't count on the lack of available credit for anyone without the right connections, nor did they expect that their neighbors would become too impoverished to buy their food.

They have beef, vegetables, cheese and milk to sell, but no way to sell it. They're closing up.

Come January, Kaushinskaya will say farewell to her eight remaining cows, to her chickens, to her lonely homesteader's life in the forest -- and to Natasha, a tiger who wanders over from the reserve a few times every year.

"We've been living side by side," Kaushinskaya says. "It's her place as much as ours."

One night recently Kaushinskaya and her husband woke up and realized that Natasha was attacking their dog in his doghouse. There wasn't much they could do about it. The tiger got the dog. That's what tigers do.

"They're not beautiful to me, and they're not frightening," says Bannikov, the taiga fire fighter. "They're just part of life."

But the tiger's weakness is that it is not afraid of roads or villages.

And in a countryside where the poverty runs so deep that the skin and organs of one tiger, successfully smuggled to China, bring an amount of money equal to 100 years' salary for a forest ranger, even Smirnov, the optimist, can't discount the power of human temptation.

The Siberian tiger

Successful attempts to protect Siberian tigers are jeopardized by Russia's economic downturn and a dwindling food supply.

Physical characteristics:

Black and orange stripe pattern; white spot on ears and feet; heavy fur and large body wize to withstand cooler climate.

Food sources;

Deer, elk, wild boar and small mammals.

Range/habitat:

The Russian Far East; coniferous and hardwood forests; sea level to elevations over 3,000 feet.

Weight: up to 800 lbs.

Length: 10 ft. (adult male with tail extended)

SOURCES: The American Society of Mammaolgists, The tiger Information Center

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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