Underway with tiger protection patrols in Far Eastern Russia
The wheels of the all-terrain vehicle plough through the gravel of the riverbed. Fountains of water spray high, the banks are edged with a lush verdant green. The vehicle rocks as it works its way through the landscape.
I am accompanying an anti-poaching patrol on a regular inspection tour of a significant wildlife reserve. It lies in far eastern Russia, close to the borders with China and North Korea, in the southwest of the Primorye region. This area counts as one of the most important hotspots of biodiversity. The last remaining snow leopards live in its forests - and 15 to 20 Siberian tigers! This small subpopulation lives isolated from the somewhat larger incidence further to the north in the country. There are less than 400 animals of this variety in total.
The last remaining Siberian tigers are worthy of protection from habitat destruction and poaching. Due to the high demand for tigers by traditional Chinese medicine, tigers are highly valued and their products are still regarded by large parts of the Chinese population as most effective. That is the reason why tigers and tiger products have highly inflated prices. A wild tiger on the black market can attract a price as high as 40,000 euros. Of course, such business is illegal, because the tiger is strictly protected.
However, compliance with animal protection legislation must be intensively monitored and verified. One of the best trained and equipped tiger protection patrols in this region, largely financed by IFAW, has dedicated itself to this task.
For one day I am becoming acquainted with the regular work of the rangers. The leader of the patrol, Evgeny Stoma, is an experienced man. He is wise to the methods and tricks of the poachers, who not only seek tigers, but also other wild animals such as red deer and wild boar. They are the tiger’s prey and so also require protection to ensure the remaining tigers can survive.
Evgeny Stoma leads me down a narrow beaten path alongside the course of a stream. Suddenly he stops me and points ahead. At first I see nothing conspicuous, but then I spot a large wire loop stretched across the track. Should a tiger or other wild animal walk or run along here, the loop would draw closed and there is no escape for the animal.
At another spot, Evgeny Stoma shows me an equally camouflaged trap. It is a sprung iron covered by dried grass and leaves. I was almost caught in it myself. Any animal that steps into its jaws would be held tight and must suffer agonizing pain before it eventually dies.
The territory to monitor is large. Even more reason why it is vital the patrol is well-equipped. With transport such as all-terrain vehicles (ATV), inflatable boats, and even hang-gliders, patrols can monitor on land, water and in the air. Night vision, GPS and radio devices facilitate orientation and communications. This is important, because poachers are often equipped with the most modern of technology too.
Finally, Evgeny Stoma shows me something quite special. On a tiny pathway lies a pile of animal droppings, a little farther on I see a large paw print in the wet earth – both from a tiger! Yes. It lives here, it may be scarce and furtive, but the tiger is here. To realize this was a wonderful feeling.
And the work of the IFAW tiger protection patrol is showing results. In the past 12 months significantly fewer cases of poaching have been registered, in the face of more frequent patrol tours. This confirms the presence and work of our rangers is making a real difference.
To protect the tiger even better, there is something else urgently required. In 2009 the Russian government has increased the penalty for the illegal killing of tigers drastically, to the equivalent of some 15,000 euros, but the transporting or possession of a tiger, or parts of a tiger body, remains almost free of penalty. Such flagrant loopholes in the law require closing as a priority. Only when it is not just the killing of tigers, but also the possession, transportation and trade in tigers and tiger products are threatened with high penalties that it will have a deterrent effect on the poachers. IFAW will intensify its efforts to ensure this becomes the case.
Translation: Alan Frostick