Siberian tigers – the hunted ones

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Siberian tigers – the hunted ones


Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 01/12/2007



Until recently the tiger population of Siberia had been showing signs of recovery. But now logging, poaching and a lack of interest from the Russian government threatens to decimate the big cats. Richard Grant went on anti-poaching patrol to see if anything can be done to save them


Seven time zones east of Moscow, Siberia extends a long claw between China and the Sea of Japan. This rough frontier region, known as the Russian Far East, or Russia‘s Wild East, is the last redoubt of the Siberian or Amur tiger, the biggest of the world’s tigers, weighing up to 295kg, and the only sub-species adapted to living in snow. They were nearly wiped out in the 1930s, again in the early 1990s, and both times the slaughter was driven by the Chinese demand for tiger skins, bones, penises and other ‘medicinal’ body parts. That demand is still there but the most recent survey, in the winter of 2004/5, found that the tiger population had increased to between 400 and 500, and stabilised.


A male Siberian tiger. Despite a recent recovery by the tiger population in the Russian Far East, slack legislation is impeding a proper protection programme for the animals


‘It’s a conservation success story,’ the World Wildlife Fund press officer said. ‘We’re helping to fund these crack anti-poaching patrols and they’ve really made a difference. A lot of them are ex-Russian military, ex-special forces. They’re well armed and well equipped. It’s like the SAS are out there protecting tigers now.’


Inspection Tiger was founded in 1994 as a kind of environmental ranger squad. It was given its authority by the federal Ministry of Natural Resources, but almost entirely funded and equipped by international wildlife organisations such as the WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Save the Tiger, 21st Century Tiger and the Phoenix Fund. I amassed a file of British and American news stories and press releases testifying to the effectiveness of Inspection Tiger, while the WWF made arrangements for a photographer and me to accompany a unit on an anti-poaching patrol.


We flew to Moscow, changed planes, and took the long flight east to Vladivostok, a port city with a high concentration of gangsters in black leather jackets, haughty prostitutes and fleece-clad environmental activists with neatly trimmed beards, most of them Russian and American. There was a Tiger Hill, a Tiger Street, and a huge bronze statue of a tiger overlooking the bay – reminders of the days when hungry tigers used to come into the city and eat its dogs. The last tiger seen in Vladivostok was shot at a downtown tram stop in 1986.


Our guide and interpreter was a local environmentalist called Peter Sharov, who spent part of his childhood in Kazakhstan and learnt most of his English at university in Idaho. With his grey suit, black moustache and cheery, upbeat personality he bore an unmistakable resemblance to Borat and spoke English with the same accent. ‘How lucky are we!’ he exclaimed as the driver left the city’s grim Soviet-looking outskirts. ‘How beautiful is the forest where we go! Maybe we see a tiger, but we don’t him want to eat us! Ha ha ha!’


How often does that happen? ‘Oh, maybe one or two times a year,’ he said. ‘It is not much. But the tigers kill many dogs. Yes! I was living in the forest and they killed four of my dogs. In the village of Terney, tigers killed 148 dogs in one winter.’


The tigers were hungry, he explained. They were going into the villages because they couldn’t find enough of their normal prey – deer, elk, wild boar. And this was largely because more hunters from Terney and other villages were going into the forest, legally and illegally, to shoot deer, elk and wild boar for meat. According to Sharov, tigers also hated dogs, with an ancient feline enmity, and killed them even when they weren’t hungry. ‘Imagine if your cat weighed 250kg. He would kill many dogs also.’


A recent survey found that tigers are Britain‘s favourite animal, but how many of us, I wondered, would be prepared to live with a beast like this prowling through our backyards? Someone has to, if tigers are to remain in our world, and fortunately for us the someones are poor, foreign and more tolerant of dangerous wild animals than we are.


On the edge of a village called Razdolnoye, we stopped at the ramshackle farm of Oleg Grinenko, an Inspection Tiger supervisor who worked to resolve human-tiger conflicts. He was a big, ruddy-faced man, built like an enormous pumpkin and wearing a military uniform. He had a broken leg and poled towards us on muddy crutches, cracking jokes in Russian, delivering a round of bone-crunching handshakes, then leading us into a barn containing a large homemade cage with a covered enclosure. He thumped on it with his crutch and out sprang a snarling young tiger with its teeth bared and its hackles raised. The photographer and I both leapt backwards involuntarily. Grinenko laughed. ‘She’s wild,’ he said. ‘Not from the circus.’ At six months old, she was already the size of a leopard and could have torn us into pieces without the slightest difficulty.


She was found orphaned, hungry, exhausted and missing a toe from a snare, 600 miles to the north. Grinenko had taken her in and would probably sell her to a zoo. There was no point releasing her into the wild. She had never learnt from her mother how to hunt or survive the winter. Grinenko crutched up the hill past some chickens and rapped on another cage. Out came two more young tigers. These were found by loggers, dragging themselves through the snow with frozen tails, so weak that the loggers were able pick them up. A third cage, a fourth tiger: this one Grinenko had collected from the village of Bogopol. An old woman noticed that her dog had gone quiet. She went outside to the kennel, tugged on the dog’s chain and pulled out an emaciated seven-month-old tiger instead. It had managed to kill her dog but apparently lacked the strength to eat it. Grinenko had nursed it back to health, spoonfeeding it ground-up meat and milk, with his hand and arm wrapped in a heavy cloth.


Did he also go after the poachers who had orphaned these tigers? ‘No, no,’ Sharov said. ‘Inspection Tiger doesn’t do anti-poaching any more.’ The photographer and I looked at each other. Surely some mistake. We were scheduled to go out on anti-poaching patrols for the next two days; WWF UK had been setting it up for months. ‘The government took away our authority to stop and search suspected poachers and file protocols [criminal charges] against them,’ Grinenko said. ‘All we are allowed to do now is tiger conflict. When a tiger comes into a village, we scare it off, or shoot it with tranquillisers. If it’s very old and can no longer hunt, we kill it and burn the skin. If it’s an orphaned cub, maybe it comes here.’


My head was swimming. How could all those press releases and news stories be so wrong? When did Inspection Tiger stop doing anti-poaching? I asked. ‘More than two years ago,’ Sharov said. ‘And when they lost their authority, WWF and most of the other foreign organisations stopped giving them money.’


So who are we going out with tomorrow? I asked. ‘The Hunting Service,’ Sharov replied. ‘Department of Agriculture. They do all the anti-poaching now, for tigers, leopards, bears, deer, elk, wild boar, everything. Also illegal logging. Illegal fishing. Poisoning rivers to get frogs. But there are not many inspectors and they do not have much money or equipment.’


The next morning, after we had eaten a breakfast of soft-boiled spaghetti served with margarine and hot dogs, the Department of Agriculture’s anti-poaching unit arrived at the nature reserve visitor centre where we were staying. ‘Three old duffers in a clapped-out van,’ the photographer hissed. ‘It’s like Dad’s Army.’ That was unfair. Two of them were a little past their prime but their commander, Anatoly Belov, looked strong and determined and no older than 50. We climbed in the back of the van. They had a broken radio and one weathered old rifle between them. The words ‘crack anti-poaching patrol’ kept running through my head.


It was raining softly and steadily, melting patches of snow. We rattled and squelched through the forest on muddy unpaved roads and stopped at a farm hacked out of the wilderness by Korean settlers. Belov reprimanded them for not keeping their dogs on chains and looked around for hides and bones. Then he took us to an illegal logging site inside a nature reserve – all the trees gone, a broad expanse of yellowish mud churned up by bulldozers and logging trucks. This was an even bigger problem than poaching, he said. Nearly half the logging in the Russian Far East was now illegal and controlled by the mafia. Judges and politicians were easily bought, and prosecutions were almost unheard of. ‘This is what they call democracy,’ he said, rubbing his fingers together.


We went deeper into the reserve on foot, startling a big red deer that bounded away through the ferns and birch trees. We walked single file, no talking allowed, eyes peeled for poachers and also tigers, brown bears, black bears, Himalayan lion bears, wolves and Amur leopards, a subspecies facing imminent extinction, with only 30 remaining in the wild and four or five breeding females. A poacher had shot one near here a few months ago but there wasn’t enough evidence to make a prosecution.


Our destination was a natural salt lick that attracted elk, deer, moose and other grazers. They, in turn, attracted predators and human poachers. We were too late. Belov found fresh bulletholes in a tree behind the salt lick. There were fibres of fur from a deer or an elk embedded in the bulletholes, suggesting a kill, but the poachers were gone.


The rain came down harder. We went back to the van and Belov expounded on the difficulties of his job. By law, he had to find the poacher with a gun, the dead animal and a matching bullet. Knowing this, poachers would often shoot an animal, mark its location and come back the next day without guns. This was one of many well-known ruses and successful prosecutions were very rare indeed. In January 2007, police stopped a car near the Chinese border. The seats had been removed and inside the car were 283 bear paws, 332 tiger bones, two tiger skulls and three tiger skins. The driver said he was unaware of the contents of the car. Since there was no bullet, no gun, and he wasn’t trying to sell them, he got off with a 1,000 rouble fine – about £20. Last September a group of rich hunters after wild boar had surprised a tiger and shot it. They reported it, claimed self-defence, hired expensive lawyers, and the prosecutors shelved the case.


At 11 in the morning, Anatoly Belov and his men knocked off for the day, reasoning that poachers didn’t go out in the rain. The next day dawned bright and clear, but they never showed up. Their radio was broken, they had no mobile phones, there was no way to contact them. These three men, I discovered, were the only forest rangers working in an area of nearly 3,000 square miles. If you looked at a map, you saw several protected reserves and refuges, but they had no gatekeepers and almost no enforcement. Scattered between them were a lot of poor villages where people had rifles, and someone always knew someone who could get $5,000 from the Chinese for a dead tiger, or $20,000 if you smuggled it across the border.


Back in Vladivostok, where my hotel receptionists kept asking me if I wanted to spend time with one of their ‘sex ladies’, I embarked on a series of interviews. First was Yury Darman, the director of the WWF Far Eastern Branch. Over a plate of deep-fried pork chunks, he confirmed that the WWF had stopped supporting Inspection Tiger two years previously, and shifted its funds to the Department of Agriculture’s hunting service patrol instead. ‘First Moscow "restructured" Inspection Tiger and gave anti-poaching to Agriculture,’ he said. ‘Since then they have liquidated and reformed the Agriculture department a number of times, and each time they do it, the enforcement goes into limbo, the equipment and vehicles disappear, and we have to buy them all over again. Now another "restructuring" is about to happen. All the power and responsibility for environmental protection will transfer to the regional authorities. They will have to set up a whole new series of patrols, agencies, bureaucratic systems and will need money and equipment from us all over again.’


Despite all this, the poaching had been reduced. An average of 30 tigers were now being shot a year, down from 70 or 80 a year in the mid-1990s. These figures came from Sergei Bereznuk of the Phoenix Fund, the only environmental NGO still giving money to Inspection Tiger. He said the biggest threat to tigers and leopards now was the reduction of habitat, because of logging and fires set to encourage the growth of an edible fern. Less habitat meant fewer deer, elk and boar, and more hungry tigers coming into the villages. Last year, there had been 55 tiger conflict cases reported.


All the environmental organisations had the same solution – bigger reserves with real protection – but they said Moscow wasn’t interested. One of the first things that Vladimir Putin had done when he came to power in 2000 was to disband Russia‘s federal environmental protection agency. It was an accurate harbinger of things to come. Russia, or more precisely Putin and his friends, were going full-bore ahead with resource extraction – oil, gas, timber, minerals – and they didn’t want any environmental regulators getting in their way, or asking questions about who was getting contracts and why. According to one American environmentalist I met, Putin and his cronies made Dick Cheney and his cronies look like a bunch of tree-hugging boy scouts.


In a foul slum behind a disused factory, in an old concrete building with no flooring or plaster on the walls, smelling strongly of cat urine, I found the new offices of Inspection Tiger. The deputy chief, Vitaly Starostin, was a soulful, doleful man with a rumpled face and a long-suffering sense of humour. ‘It was nice while it lasted,’ he said, lighting the first of many cigarettes. ‘We had a nice comfortable office downtown. We had some good men, the foreigners bought us good vehicles and equipment, and we did some good work protecting tigers and looking after nature. Now we have only one car, which is without a roof at the moment, and the windscreen moves more than the windscreen wipers. The only reason Oleg is still so fat is because he has that farm.’

I asked him what he thought of the latest order from Moscow, to transfer all power and responsibility for wildlife protection to the regional authorities. ‘The statute looks very good except for one phrase: "using the available funding". The federal government will give the regional authorities no extra funding to do the work. Who benefits from this arrangement? I would say the poachers, the illegal loggers, the forces of frontier capitalism in general.’ And the future of the tiger? ‘Right now, the tigers are holding on, but the pressure against them is building. One hard winter, with a big die-off of elk, deer and wild boar, and the tiger population will collapse.’


The photographer flew back to London. Peter Sharov and I took a squalid overnight train to the city of Khabarovsk, 600 miles north on the Amur river. We were met by a hearty, bearish man with a beard and ponytail called Sergei Kuznetsov, a wildlife biologist, hunting guide and disgruntled former hunting inspector for the Department of Agriculture. He said you could still buy a tiger penis in the Khabarovsk market if you knew who to ask, but many were fakes, fashioned by Chinese craftsmen from bull and deer penises. We drove out into the forest in his Toyota Land Cruiser, which was equipped with coloured lights on the dashboard that flashed and pulsed with the Russian electro-pop on the stereo. I asked him why he had resigned from his job as a hunting inspector.


‘I caught the deputy chief of the regional police, some regional administrators, an army general and a KGB boss hunting without a licence, just blasting away at bear, elk and anything else that moved. I filed charges against them, and was demoted to the lowest rank and given a pay cut. It’s not beneficial to be honest in this country.’


We stopped for lunch at an outdoor kebab restaurant with a huge, cross-eyed bear in a cage. The waitresses were dancing in a circle in the concrete courtyard to inane electro-pop. ‘The last good habitat for tigers is the Bikin Valley south of here,’ Kuznetsov said. ‘It’s a big area with plenty of ungulates [elk, deer, boar], little hunting and poaching, and more tigers than anywhere else. Now they have started logging there. Roads are going in. Hunters are using the roads but the hunting inspectors can’t afford the petrol to patrol there, except the ones who are corrupt.’


We drove on to a wildlife rehabilitation centre called Utyos, where a big male tiger prowled around a large enclosure. It had been brought here as an orphaned cub and was familiar with people. The tiger pressed his cheek against the wire and Kuznetsov and I rubbed the fur. ‘Now watch this,’ Kuznetsov said. He turned his back to the tiger and ran along the side of the enclosure, like a fleeing prey animal. The tiger switched instantly into hunting mode and sprang after him with a cold predatory look in its eyes. ‘Nature has designed him as the ultimate killing machine, the biggest, most powerful, most virile predator on the land,’ Kuznetsov said. ‘And this is his curse, because the Chinese think they can get some of his power and virility through his body parts.’


There were still a few wild tigers in the forested mountains above Utyos and we went looking for them, hoping to catch a glimpse of that fire-striped coat. Sunlight filtered down through the broad leaves of the taiga forest, the birds were singing and where the trees parted you could see for 50 or 60 miles across the surrounding hills and valleys. Kuznetsov stopped and pointed down. There on the muddy trail were the fresh pawprints of a young tiger. The rear tracks had a wider straddle than the front tracks. Its hips were broader than its shoulders, therefore it was a female.


I placed my hands over the two front pawprints, trying to imagine the animal who made them. Was she hungry, looking down at that village in the valley and thinking about dogs? Was she looking for a mate? And if she found one, what was the future for her cubs? I asked Kuznetsov if he thought there would be tigers in this forest for his grandchildren to wonder about.


‘I hope so,’ he said. ‘But right now the motherland has no shield, and Russia is not a good place for happy endings.’


For the cats,


Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue

an Educational Sanctuary home

to more than 100 big cats

12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625

813.493.4564 fax 885.4457


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