Siberian Tigers Caught In The Crossfire
There may be only 350-500 Amur, or Siberian tigers, left roaming the forests of Russia’s far eastern border with China. The largest of all the living cats is now so rare, says Sergei Bereznuk, who has led anti-tiger-poaching groups for 17 years, that he has seen far more dead than alive.
“We know about 15 are being killed a year, mainly by poachers, but that’s an official number from the government and it is probably closer to 40 or 50 a year. The animals are killed in retaliation, mainly for loss of cattle by hunters, but now international criminal groups are killing them to order. Most of the tiger parts go to China,” he says.
“Only twice in my life have I seen the Amur tiger in the wild, and once I saw its tail. But in India I saw three in three days,” he says.
Bereznuk’s conservation efforts, among others, have helped move Amurs from “critically endangered” to “endangered” on the IUCN red list of endangered species, but their fate, like all tiger populations, is precarious. If just five percent are killed a year, then the whole population could be extinct in a generation.
The territory they inhabit is twice the size of Scotland which makes it next to impossible for Bereznuk’s team of six to patrol. Moreover, poaching near the Chinese border is becoming more sophisticated, he says.
Eight tiger skins were seized in the Russian town of Arsenyev in August. This followed the accidental discovery by the police of a massive haul of dead wild animals in April, when 148 bear paws, two Himalayan bear skins, three brown bear skins, two Amur tiger skins and five sea eagle carcasses were found.
Ecologist Bereznuk, who has won a 100,000-Swiss franc Rolex award, directs the Vladivostock-based Phoenix fund, set up by Russian and US conservationists. They monitor, track and investigate tiger deaths as well as try to create wildlife corridors and educate children. “Education of people and efficient anti-poaching measure must work together to save the Amur tiger,” he says.
The problem is that even as poaching becomes more organized and wild tiger parts become more valuable, so the Amur’s habitats in Primorsky Krai on the Chinese border are being fragmented by roads and invasive industrial developments, wild fires and illegal logging of the forests.
“We need better policing and stronger laws,” he says. “If you are caught killing a tiger in the forest you will go to prison. But if you are found with tiger parts you get only a small fine. This must be changed.”
Fighting the poachers, he says, is not helped by official corruption. “Once I was employed by the state tiger protection organization. One of the people receiving tiger parts was the chief of police.”