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In Russia's Far East, conservationists fight to save the Siberian tiger

In Russia's Far East, conservationists fight to save the Siberian tiger

The air is thick with mosquitoes near the top of the ridge, blanketed in Mongolian oak, not far from where the Sea

of Japan laps up to the jagged, verdant cliffs of Russia's Far East coastline. But that doesn't seem to bother American

biologist Dale Miquelle and his Russian assistants, who busily pore over a small swatch of forest like gumshoes at a crime

They note in their logbooks a few strands of orange fur they find clinging to a leaf, and measure how high off the ground

they find claw marks gouged into a nearby tree.
"This is where they played," Miquelle says, finding a matted patch of grass and a set of trees used as scratching posts. "Eta

dyetsky sad," he says - tiger kindergarten.
It's Day Two of Miquelle's hunt for Galya, and while the elusive Siberian tiger has evaded him again, he has found her den.
He'll spend a half-hour combing over every trace of Galya and her cubs, then eight more hours tracking her radio-collar

signal before nightfall ends the trek. The next morning, Miquelle and his crew will set out once more, hoping for a moment

when Galya has strayed far enough away that they can swoop in and attach radio collars on the cubs.
In the Russian Far East, where decades of poaching have diminished the Siberian tigers' numbers to an estimated 500, Miquelle

and fellow Wildlife Conservation Society biologist John Goodrich are waging a lonely, unsung battle to keep the largest

member of the cat family from disappearing. The odds against them are stiff.
Many villagers and hunters regard tigers as a nuisance, and often won't hesitate to kill one if it has preyed on a dog or

cow. Illegal logging continues to erode tiger habitats. And poorly equipped, undermanned Russian forest ranger staffs are no

match for poachers who feed China's thriving traditional medicine market, where top dollar is paid for every ounce of a

tiger: bones, skin, meat, even whiskers.
Most tigers killed by poachers
The threat that poaching poses to the survival of the Siberian tiger is made clear by a sobering statistic that gnaws at

Miquelle: Every tiger monitored by his team that has died since 1992 has died for reasons other than natural causes. In most

cases, poachers were responsible.
"We haven't had an animal die of old age yet," says Miquelle. "The first animal we captured in 1992, Olga, survived until

last year when she was poached. She was 15 years old, obviously a really old animal with maybe a year or two to live. But she

didn't get to die of natural causes.
"It's a sad statement," Miquelle continues. "She was our one hope. We've had lots of animals killed by poachers. But somehow

Olga always skirted through."
Though the Siberian tigers' future is far from certain, Miquelle takes solace in the fact that the animals' numbers have

stabilized since the mid-1990s, when poaching was claiming as many as 80 tigers each year. At the time, the Russian

government clamped down on poaching by stepping up patrols, but recently Moscow has drastically pared back funding for local

conservation officers.
"Wildlife is really low on the list of priorities in Russia today," Miquelle says. "So our efforts are made doubly hard by

the fact that the government puts very little interest in it. But the fact that we have some stability here in number of

tigers - and stability in prey - gives us hope that we can inch forward to the next step of actually trying to increase

numbers of tigers."
Shrinking habitat
The Siberian tiger's habitat once stretched from Mongolia eastward into Chinese Manchuria, southeastern Russia and the Korean

Peninsula. Today, the tigers are primarily found in the southeastern tip of the Russian Far East, in the dense, mountainous

birch and pine forests wedged between the Amur River and the Sea of Japan.
Winters here are brutal, with snow blanketing the woods five months of the year and temperatures routinely dropping as low as

minus 12 degrees Fahrenheit. But the Siberian, or Amur tiger as it's also called, is built for Russian winters; weighing up

to 675 pounds and reaching lengths of up to 13 feet, Siberian tigers develop thick layers of insulating fat that shield them

from the cold. Their fur grows as long as 21 inches, longer and thicker than the fur of a Bengal or Sumatran tiger.
Siberian tiger populations began plummeting between 1910 and 1940, when the animals were hunted as game or regarded as pests

and culled. By 1940, an estimated 50 Siberian tigers were left. The Soviet Union banned tiger hunting in 1947, and for the

remainder of the Soviet era, the number of Siberian tigers steadily grew.
But with the economic chaos that accompanied the Soviet collapse in 1991, poaching re-emerged as a serious threat to the

subspecies' survival. Chinese traditional medicine's ravenous demand for tiger parts gave poachers a steady market. Those

poachers rarely had to worry about getting caught.
"There was an increase in poaching of tigers across Asia, but in Russia the burden was greatest because the country was

essentially lawless for those five or six years," Miquelle says. "People could basically do whatever they want."
Miquelle has studied Siberian tigers in the Russian Far East since 1992, Goodrich since 1995. They carry out field work all

year, capturing tigers and equipping them with radio collars that allow the animal's movements to be tracked via

global-positioning systems. In the winter, they survey tiger prey, including wild boar and deer. With all of the data,

scientists can raise red flags when populations of tigers or their prey fluctuate.
Very little legislative support
The work is physically demanding - tigers can travel as far as 60 miles on a given day, within a home range that can span 300

square miles.
"They're incredibly elusive," Miquelle says. "And when they don't have a collar on them, they're like ghosts."
The state's indifference to the plight of the Siberian tiger looms as one of the animals' biggest threats. In Russian courts,

poachers rarely receive more than a slap on the wrist, Miquelle and Russian conservation leaders say. On average, one or two

Russians get arrested each year for tiger poaching and face a maximum of 3 years in jail. But in the last 15 years, no one

has ever served any jail time for poaching a tiger, says Vladimir Krever, coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund's Moscow

In most cases, poachers are fined between US$500 and US$1,000, an amount dwarfed by the US$15,000 a poacher can make from a

single tiger carcass, according to the WWF. Once put on the black market, prices for tiger parts soar: US$380 for a pound of

meat, US$180 for a pound of bone, US$120 for a tooth.
Chinese traditional medicine
In Chinese traditional medicine, virtually every part of a tiger carcass is used - either pulverized into a powder or boiled

to make tinctures and broths.
"They make bone wine, they make all kinds of things," Miquelle says. "It's a belief system in China that's really hard to

change. Millions of people believe in it."
Miquelle and Russian conservation leaders say China's demand for tiger parts isn't likely to wane anytime soon. The best hope

for ensuring a Siberian tiger revival, says Miquelle, lies in wholesale changes in Russian attitudes toward poaching. That

won't be easy in a country where poaching fish, berries, deer, timber and tigers has been a way of life for centuries.
"It's part of the culture," Miquelle says, "partly because the laws are such that it almost makes it impossible to do things

legally, to get licenses legally. So they do it illegally, which is the way they have always done it."

Updated : 2021-07-26 04:25 GMT+08:00