VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- "Masha," Pavel Samolianov purrs, creeping over a pile of hay and scrap lumber outside his mansion-in-progress in the wooded outskirts of the Russian Far East's largest city.
"Mashenka. Come here, my sweetie, my good little girl."
A six-month-old Siberian tiger cub pokes its head from its hiding place, and Samolianov, a 37-year-old businessman, wheeler-dealer and self-proclaimed friend of the animals hauls the cat into view.
Masha yowls. The cub recently underwent abdominal surgery, and is in no mood to tussle with Rik, Samolianov's eager mongrel, which is trying to drag a deer hide to the cub for its gnawing pleasure.
Masha is one of the planet's rarest and most beautiful animals, a Siberian tiger. Perhaps only 400 remain in the remote finger of Russia bordered by China, North Korea and the Sea of Japan.
Samolianov is an even rarer breed: a private owner of a Siberian tiger. Their relationship illuminates the confusion about trying to preserve the tiger in a nation in crisis and in a region where most people are more concerned about whether their apartments have heat this winter than whether a woodland carnivore and occasional man-eater survives.
As funding for Russia's wildlife ecology dries up, so has money for the tiger. Thus the authorities' confusion about what to do with Samolianov: thank him, ignore him or seize the cat.
Only one other family in the Primorye region, a biologist couple who live deep in the Sikhote-Alin mountains that form the tiger's primary habitat, owns Siberian tigers.
Viktor and Yelena Yudin, who work at the Far Eastern Institute of Biology and Soil Studies near the town of Spassk, 100 miles north of Vladivostok, have cared for as many as five Siberian tigers at a time. When their funding failed, the Yudins gave tigers to zoos, a Moscow circus -- and when one of their females gave birth to a cub -- to Samolianov who had sought them out because of his interest in tigers.
Samolianov brought Masha to his sweeping property, where he is building a 19,000-square-foot brick home in what he calls the "Russian merchant" style. He constructed an outdoor steel cage with the floor space of a small house, where the tiger sleeps at night.
Eventually, Samolianov plans to build a 19-foot-high fence around a broad stretch of land, with the bars sunk deep in the earth so Masha won't be able to dig her way free. For now, the cat roams free during the day, cared for by Samolianov's hired hand and his wife. (Samolianov also keeps a pet deer locked up in a stable built out of a former construction workers' trailer).
The cub eats about five pounds of food a day, and like its elder brethren in the wild, it favors the intestines and occasionally the hides of animals. Samolianov buys buckets of guts from a local meat market. He wants to allow children to come out to look at Masha when the tiger recovers from the surgery.
Not everyone is pleased that the tiger will live permanently at Samolianov's home. Konstantin Kuchenko, deputy head of the Primorye Committee for Environment and Natural Resources, would prefer to keep tigers closer to their home environment. Although Samolianov has permission to care for Masha, Kuchenko doesn't see this as a long-term solution.
"We hope that Masha will recover and eventually be taken back to the scientific station where she was born," he says. "Unfortunately, the Yudins have no money and the government doesn't give them anything to feed the tigers."
The district police weren't happy about the arrangement, either. When officers got wind that there was a tiger in the neighborhood, they swept in and seized Masha. ("They were probably bored and had nothing better to do," scoffs Kuchenko.) Police kept the cub for a day, and when they returned her to Samolianov, she was ill and could hardly move.
Two veterinarians failed to find anything wrong with her, and Samolianov called in a surgeon, who operated on the animal. It turned out, Samolianov says, that the cops had been feeding the tiger sausage and strips of cloth.
So far, Masha seems contented in her new home. Samolianov's cat and dog have adopted the tiger. After Masha's surgery, Rik the dog sat licking the weakened cub, while Vaska the cat caught field mice for her.
Masha has grown accustomed to people, and follows Samolianov and his hired hand around. She doesn't even mind the construction workers, though engines frighten her.
Samolianov sees few alternatives apart from a zoo or circus. "It's no secret that the tiger is being actively exterminated," he says. "Even top officials from the regional administration are hunting them -- they kill tigers for their skins."
Last year, the regional governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, gave the skin of a Siberian tiger to Belarus' president, Aleksandr Lukashenko. Nazdratenko claimed, over the cries of environmentalists, that he had the necessary documents to make such a gift legally. An investigation fizzled out after the environmental prosecutor said he didn't have authority to interview the governor.
The Russian government provides no money to preserve the tiger, Kuchenko says, so tiger saviors must rely on funding from foreign sources such as the World Wildlife Fund.
That doesn't mean that individual tiger lovers are the only hope for preserving the cat. At Ternei, 240 miles northeast of Vladivostok, biologists and park rangers are experimenting with an effort to teach three orphaned cubs to hunt for themselves.
"They already can catch mice and other small animals," Kuchenko says. "They are only three months old, and if they survive the winter, then their future will seem brighter."
Others say the odds are slim for any tiger that has become accustomed to human beings. Vasily Solkin, a senior research worker at the Far Eastern Institute of Geography's tiger-studies lab, has little hope for Masha.
"History knows of no case in which the relationship between man and a large carnivorous animal ended well," Solkin says. "It always ends the same way: with the corpse of a dead animal, at best. And at worst, there are dead bodies of people, too."
Every year, government hunters must kill one or two tigers that have killed villagers or hunters.
On a bitter winter day, Samolianov and Igor Zakirov, the hired hand, wander about his estate, discussing plans for building Masha's pen. Masha hobbles after Zakirov -- she doesn't like letting him out of sight. The sight of the injured cub hints at the frailty of the great cat.
Will tigers still live in Russia 100 years from now?
"I hope to God they will," Samolianov says. "But human beings are so vicious. Two years ago, birds were singing all over the woods here. But kids with slingshots killed them all."
Pub Date: 3/09/99