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Tracking the Elusive Ghosts of the Russian Far East

Conservationists have made headway in saving the Siberian tiger. But with little aid, the odds are stacked against the world's largest cat.

October 15, 2006|Alex Rodriguez | Chicago Tribune

TERNEY, Russia — The air is thick with mosquitoes near the top of the oak-blanketed ridge, not far from where the Sea of Japan laps up to the jagged, verdant cliffs of Russia's Far East coastline. That doesn't seem to bother American biologist Dale Miquelle and his Russian assistants, who pore over a small swatch of forest like gumshoes at a crime scene.

They note in their logbooks a few strands of orange fur clinging to a leaf, and measure how high off the ground claw marks are 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 2 of Miquelle's hunt for Galya, and although the elusive Siberian tiger has evaded him again, he has found her den.

He'll spend a half-hour examining 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 from her cubs that they can swoop in and fit them with radio collars.

In the Far East federal district, 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 habitat. And poorly equipped, undermanned Russian forest rangers are no match for poachers who feed China's thriving traditional-medicine market, which pays top dollar for every ounce of a tiger: bones, skin, meat, even whiskers.

The threat poaching poses to the survival of the Siberian tiger is evident in 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," Miquelle said. "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," he said. "She was our one hope. We've had lots of animals killed by poachers. But somehow Olga always skirted through."

Although 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 a 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 said. "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."

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 on the southeastern tip of the Russian Far East, in the densely forested mountains 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 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 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. In 1940, an estimated 50 were left. The Soviet Union banned tiger hunting in 1947, and for the remainder of the Soviet era, the number of Siberian tigers grew steadily.

But with the economic chaos that accompanied the Soviet collapse in 1991, poaching reemerged as a serious threat to the subspecies' survival. Chinese traditional medicine's ravenous demand for tiger parts provided a steady market for poachers, who 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 said. "People could basically do whatever they want."

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