Sneaky Siberian Tigers
Siberian Tigers are out there!
Baltimore Sun, November 8, 1998
Siberian tigers are menaced as Russian economy collapses
By Will Englund
In 1992, when the economy was very bad here, poaching threatened to get out
of hand. Reports that the tigers faced extinction led to a grant by the German
branch of the World Wildlife Fund to support the poaching patrols.
At the same time, Russia reinforced its customs checkpoints along the Chinese
border. These measures didn’t solve the problem, but they kept it in check.
Some experts even ventured that the Russian tigers were better protected
than any other group of tigers in the world.
“This year,” says Astafyev, “the situation with poaching had been much better
— until this economic crisis started. The criminals are still active, and
now the other part of the population has also become involved.”
As night falls, the van works its way out of the Sikhote-Alin range, heading
to the coast. Here, in 1906, a military detachment led by Vladimir Arseniev
came through on an expedition trying to get a better understanding of this
distant corner of the czar’s realm. Arseniev wrote a book that became a Russian
classic; in it he described how he found the forest infested with bandits,
and he worried that Chinese marauders were wiping out much of the wildlife.
Not that much has changed since then.
As the van turns east on the coast road, John Goodrich, a field coordinator
here for a program called the Siberian Tiger Project, run with help from
the Hornocker Wildlife Institute in Idaho, offers a quick history: This stretch
was once the range of a tiger they nicknamed Lena. She was killed by a poacher
in 1994. Another female took over; she disappeared in 1997, probably shot.
Two females then divided the range. One vanished last summer, also probably
hunted down. This was when poaching was thought to be under control. Now
the economy is crashing.
“I guarantee you,” says Dale Miquelle, an American who is resident chief
of the Siberian Tiger Project, “poaching’s coming back this winter.”
Earlier in the day Goodrich had stopped in to pay a call on Bart Schleyer
at a cabin deep in the woods where he runs the trap lines. Tigers (and bears,
which are also being studied) are caught in spring-loaded cable footholds,
tranquilized, weighed and measured in all sorts of ways, and fitted with
a radio collar. Schleyer had come into camp with a collar in his hand —
from a bear shot by poachers looking to sell its gall bladder and other bodily
parts to China.
As the van jolts and bounces through the darkness, Goodrich talks about his
work, and about what he and his wife, Linda Kerley, have learned in their
three years here. Siberian tigers generally feast on elk or boar; but sometimes
they eat wolves, and one male at Sikhote-Alin specializes in brown bears.
He weighs in at 445 pounds; he’ll kill bears bigger than he is. He killed
one bear and dragged it a mile. Tigers also kill badgers, lynx, people (two
since 1995), cattle and dogs.
They have huge territories. A typical female’s range covers about 175 square
miles, Goodrich says. A Bengal female, by contrast, needs a little more than
6 square miles. Males here have ranges of 200 to almost 600 square miles
— even with the radio collars it has been too difficult to keep tabs on
them more precisely. Goodrich says a male might take a month to patrol his
The taiga — the vast north Asian forest — is nowhere near as lush as the
Indian jungle. The soil is thin, the winters long. There are only so many
boar and elk that can live off the land, and a tiger needs about 25 pounds
of meat a day. It needs that much territory to get that much food.
People can live in the taiga for 20 years and never see a tiger. Others encounter
them without wanting to. One man on a rickety Russian motorcycle was chased
by a tiger 30 miles down the road, all the way to the town of Plastun.
Late at night the van pulls into town. When a visitor grumbles to Smirnov
about not seeing any tigers, he replies, “They saw you. I guarantee it.”
In fact, there are probably more tigers than ever along the coast because
of the ferocious forest fires raging inland. One fire at Terney, which destroyed
a few thousand acres, was probably set off by a hunter shooting at elk with
tracers. This is a new problem. When the white-hot bullets don’t hit their
mark, they make excellent incendiary devices.
The days of aerial reconnaissance and water drops from helicopters are long
past; the government pulls men off poaching patrols but otherwise can do
little. Tigers and elk can escape the flames, but herds of wild boar are
being devastated. “You know, to the north of Terney, everything burned down,”
says Igor Nikolaev, a biologist who is said to know more about the Siberian
tiger than anyone. “There are no boar or elk there at all.”
The survivors are coming down to the coast to get away from the fires, but
this is where the roads and villages are; as the tigers follow, they’ll be
making the poachers’ jobs that much easier. Hunters will also be out. Last
year, Astafyev calculates, about 1,000 elk were taken in the forest bordering
the reserve, though licenses were issued for only 500. More and more, hunting
and gathering is replacing agriculture.
Valentina Kaushinskaya’s experience is instructive. Five years ago, she and
her husband decided that private farming was the way to make a new life in
the new Russia. They quit their jobs and carved out a 150-acre farm along
a river bottom at the foot of the Sikhote-Alin range.
They didn’t count on the lack of available credit for anyone without the
right connections, nor did they expect that their neighbors would become
too impoverished to buy their food. They have beef, vegetables, cheese and
milk to sell, but no way to sell it. They’re closing up. Come January,
Kaushinskaya will say farewell to her eight remaining cows, to her chickens,
to her lonely homesteader’s life in the forest — and to Natasha, a tiger
who wanders over from the reserve a few times every year. “We’ve been living
side by side,” Kaushinskaya says. “It’s her place as much as ours.”
One night recently Kaushinskaya and her husband woke up and realized that
Natasha was attacking their dog in his doghouse. There wasn’t much they could
do about it. The tiger got the dog. That’s what tigers do. “They’re not beautiful
to me, and they’re not frightening,” says Bannikov, the taiga fire fighter.
“They’re just part of life.”
But the tiger’s weakness is that it is not afraid of roads or villages. And
in a countryside where the poverty runs so deep that the skin and organs
of one tiger, successfully smuggled to China, bring an amount of money equal
to 100 years’ salary for a forest ranger, even Smirnov, the optimist, can’t
discount the power of human temptation.