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Russia Resumes the Prowl For Siberian Tiger Poachers

At the Lazo Wildlife Reserve in eastern Russia, a six-man team helps guard the region's fragile tiger population

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 1996



LAZO WILDLIFE RESERVE, RUSSIA

A damp beech wood blanketed by fog rolling in from the Pacific Ocean is the last place on earth you would expect to find tigers.

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Indeed, it is one of the last places on earth you can find the Siberian tiger, the largest member of the cat family. And that is due in no small part to Vladimir Timonin, who pads through the forest each night at the head of his patrol, searching for poachers. Only three years ago the Siberian tiger was thought to be on the brink of extinction. But the combination of a worldwide alert, local activism, and changing economics means that today, experts say, the tiger is no longer in imminent danger of disappearance.

Not, however, that the animal does not still need protection. And that is what Mr. Timonin - looking more like a guerrilla insurgent with his camouflage fatigues and bolt action rifle than a nature park warden - is up to.

Timonin is the leader of a newly formed six-man team whose task is to protect the 16 or so Siberian tigers believed to live in the Lazo reserve, a 300,000-acre spread of hilly woods that run down to the coast of the Pacific on Russia's Eastern edge.

Here, in the sort of countryside where you might take a nonchalant stroll in one of the tamer regions of Western Europe - azalea bushes growing on the slopes, badger sets tunneled beneath the beech roots, shy deer skipping out of sight into the foliage - the wet mud of the forest paths carries a very different message: tiger tracks.

They are tracks that Timonin knows well after spending most of his adult life in these woods as a ranger. And now, with grant money from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), he is being properly paid and equipped for his work for the first time since the collapse of Communism caught up every living thing in the whirlwind of transition in the former Soviet Union, including wild animals.

Once, the Amur tiger, as the Siberian tiger is also known, roamed for thousands of miles in the Far East, down into southern China and up toward the Arctic Circle. But as pioneers pushed eastward in the 19th century, destroying or disturbing the tiger's habitat, its numbers dwindled. Scientists estimate there were perhaps 1,000 beasts alive in the mid-19th century, but only 100 or so by World War II.

Then, however, the Soviet government began to take measures to protect the tiger - establishing wildlife reserves, instituting stiff penalties for poachers, and studying the animals' ways. And by the late 1980s, although the exact numbers of such elusive creatures are hard to judge, their numbers had climbed back to around 500.

Then disaster struck. Perestroika, the economic reform process that led the disintegrating Soviet Union toward a free market, brought chaos with it to most Russians and many were driven by poverty to earn money however they could. With poached tigers fetching as much as $15,000 apiece, old taboos that had protected the animal broke down.

"When people suddenly found themselves unable to rely on the government any more, and saw others doing things that had not been socially acceptable before - saw poachers getting rich - that changed perceptions of what's good and what's bad," explains Igor Chestin, an expert on tigers at Moscow University.

As taboos broke down, so did Soviet control mechanisms: The government ran out of money to pay guards on the reserves, or to buy fuel for their vehicles; suddenly people were free to travel abroad, which made smuggling into neighboring China or trading with other Southeast Asian nations easier.

And the market was booming. Countries in Southeast Asia were getting richer, and more of their people could afford the rare and exotic ingredients that make up traditional oriental medicines. For the tiger is valuable not so much for its skin, but for its bones and other body parts that are essential to certain Asian remedies.