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

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.

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.

The slaughter was on. Seventy animals were killed every year between 1990 and 1994, according to local biologists, who warned that the massive wave of unchecked poaching threatened the Siberian tiger with rapid extinction.

The authorities were helpless, though. The Lazo park, home not only to tigers but to rare species of goat and deer, cut its warden staff back from 28 to 18 because of a budget crunch, according to park director Alexander Laptyev. The park paid the men it did keep such a pittance that some of them resorted to poaching themselves.

Even the honest wardens found themselves in an impossible situation, recalls Pavel Fomenko, the man who is implementing the WWF program here. "They live in the surrounding villages, and they know their neighbors and relations are poachers" but they cannot do anything about it without risking ostracism.

So the new six-man patrol is drawn from a more distant town and paid a halfway decent salary by Russian standards - $120 a month for Timonin and $60 a month for his lieutenants. They are armed, even if their guns are ancient, which gives them at least equality with any hunter they might find. They have a van. And they patrol at night, unlike ordinary wardens, often setting out for three or four days at a time to get deep into the reserve.

Even so, as Mr. Laptyev points out, "with only one small team we cannot ensure the security of the whole park," and anti-poaching efforts have their limits.

For a start, says Mr. Chestin, "it is practically impossible to catch a poacher with a newly killed tiger. If he is on his own territory he knows the ground better than anyone in the world and he knows where to hide a carcass."

To make matters worse, complains Sergei Khokryakov, deputy park director, "professional poachers usually enjoy the protection of the local police, or other authority."

The tiger team has confiscated about 20 guns from hunters since the beginning of the year, some of them two or three times. "We hand the guns over to the police, and the police hand them straight back to the poachers," says Timonin.

Nevertheless the patrol's mere existence has its effect, say local experts. A similar team funded by the WWF in another wildlife reserve "has done as much work in one year as all the rest of the guards put together in three years," says Mr. Fomenko, pointing to the number of guns it has confiscated and to the level of conservationist awareness among local residents.

And while the new team may not be able to catch professional tiger hunters in the act, it certainly discourages more casual hunters who might poach easier prey. "The brigades have had a practical impact ... on deer and boar, which is almost more important now than the tiger itself," says Chestin, who has just finished a review of the WWF's work here. "Because one of the main threats to the tiger today is the decrease in numbers of deer and boar" on which the tigers feed.

In the end, though, the Siberian tiger probably depends for its future less on Timonin and his men than on broader economic and social trends over which nobody here has any control. But at least the signs are hopeful.

Russians are growing more prosperous and the financial imperative to poach is less urgent than it was a few years ago. And prices for tiger parts have dropped, not least because China imposed a ban on their import in 1992 that came into effect in 1993.

At the same time, Russian customs officers are more aware of what they are dealing with. Gone are the days when Chinese smugglers could pass off tiger bones as the bones of their ancestors that they had come to collect for reburial in China.

Nobody is complacent, but the preliminary results of a census carried out last February suggests that the Siberian tiger population now numbers between 400 and 500. That finding "is quite encouraging," says Chestin. "The tiger is not in immediate danger of extinction. It means that tigers can still survive."

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