Tiger, tiger, dying out: a majestic animal on its knees

The tiger has walked the Earth for two million years. One hundred years ago, there were more than 100,000 in Asia. Now, only just over 3000 survive in the wild - and their number keeps on declining. Evgeny Lebedev of The Independent reports.
Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Smoke rose in the distance, above a homestead deep in the Siberian forest. The nearest neighbours lived miles away, so isolated is this barely populated spot five hours by car from Vladivostok. By the time they got close, the blaze had caught hold. The house was burning.

The property belongs to Vladimir Aramilev, whose work protects some of the world's last surviving tigers. The cause of the fire was animal poachers who had doused it in petrol and lit it with a match. The objective: to force him out, so they can keep on killing.

Black scorch marks can still be seen today along the outside of the window frames. Inside, where the fire raged, the damage was near total. Wooden facings on the house's walls and ceiling were burnt to ash while belongings simply melted in the heat.

"I was shocked," Mr Aramilev admits of the attack on his property. "Definitely I'm scared. I have a four-year-old daughter. My work is to protect animals. But now I know the risk to me is part of that job, too."

Tigers once covered a vast stretch of Asia. They could be found in the tip of India, all the way across to Bali and even into eastern Turkey. Now they survive in a few pockets, primarily in India, South-east Asia, and here in Russia's eastern Primorsky region. Worldwide numbers are estimated at little more than 3000. In every one of these locations, they are under mortal threat.

A key reason is depressingly predictable: the demand for exotic animal parts. Partly this is for traditional medicines that have no recognised medicinal value. It is also for tiger pelts and tiger-bone wine seen as exotic luxury items. In Russia, local hunters can receive thousands for a dead tiger from the middlemen who smuggle it to the black markets across the Chinese border.

Over Christmas, this newspaper highlighted the plight of the African elephant and how, if present poaching levels continue, it faced the prospect of extinction in the wild. We were astounded by the outpouring of passion and financial assistance that came in response from you, our readers. The money you donated means new teams of wildlife rangers are today out protecting that continent's elephants and has helped to enable the creation of a new nature conservancy, which will open early next year.

The campaign also resulted in our being approached by wildlife organisations highlighting how other animals are under similar threat, and how brave and committed conservationists - such as Mr Aramilev - are risking their lives each day to stop increasingly well-armed poaching gangs from driving other species towards extinction.

Throughout this week, to mark International Tiger Day tomorrow, this newspaper and its sister publications, i and The Independent on Sunday, will be highlighting the plight of the tiger, not only in eastern Russia but worldwide.

I saw for myself exactly how important this cause is on my visit to Russia with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). A century ago, thousands of tigers roamed the vast stretches of woodland of the Siberian taiga. Hunted almost to extinction, only around 450 now remain. That is why Mr Aramilev is now rebuilding his house to ensure his own fight against the poachers can continue.

In his early 50s, and with the expanding waistline that comes with middle age, he makes an unlikely revolutionary. Yet that is what he is. As a scientist at the Pacific Institute of Geography in Vladivostok, he realised that unless more direct action were taken the local tiger population risked being wiped out - and that, in the absence of other options, he was going to have to be one of those who acted.

In the 1940s, Russia had been the first country to grant the tiger full protection and an effective conservation effort allowed its numbers to grow. The collapse of the USSR saw that end almost overnight. Rangers' salaries were not paid, leading to their abandoning their posts, and Chinese traders looking for tiger parts moved north across the newly opened border.

Illegal loggers also took their chainsaws to vast stretches of Korean pine forests, felling trees for the Asian markets. This decimated parts of the tigers' habitat and reduced the number of deer and wild boar that the big cats feed on.

"The border opened and the tigers started to disappear," Mr Aramilev said. "At least one was being killed every week. There are many, many trucks crossing back and forth every day - too many for them all to be checked.

"The Chinese officially have very high penalties to protect tigers. Officially you can receive the death penalty for killing one. But I believe that some in the government really support the mafia behind this trade. My belief is that at the highest level there are officials using traditional medicines, and they want the animal parts that make them."

The tale of the Amur tiger, however, is not a hopeless one. Rather, the last few years have shown how an animal can be brought back from the brink. Numbers have not only stabilised but are actually growing. Fundamental to this was how bodies such as the WWF established anti-poaching units with local conservationists such as Mr Aramilev. In three years, the WWF's teams confiscated 78 tiger hides, seized 4000 rifles, detained 13,000 poachers, and filed 500 lawsuits. They also began outreach programmes to the surrounding communities and began to work with local hunting lodges on how to protect the remaining tigers.

But just as important was the support that then came from Moscow. Charities can achieve only so much. What tips the scale between success and failure is state support. And, in Russia, the tiger found in Vladimir Putin a champion who was not willing to let the animal disappear from within Russia's borders.

President Putin may be a controversial figure but there is no question of his contribution to the tiger cause. Since 2008, he has personally overseen conservation projects in the region and earmarked an annual million-dollar budget for the Amur tiger's survival.

The WWF has no doubt how crucial this intervention has been. "When the President says it is important, things start to work much faster," confirmed Dmitry Kats, WWF Russia's director. "Everyone pays attention."

President Putin has visited the Primorsky region himself on a number of occasions, both releasing animals bred in captivity back into the wild and supporting radio-tracking operations. This meant local people who traditionally viewed tigers as a menace to both themselves and their livestock began to see the animal as a symbol of the nation to be protected. The regional authorities talk of gaining new cars, new uniforms and new personnel. The situation remains far from stable. Members of a Chinese poaching gang, for example, were captured by the Russian authorities sneaking into a tiger sanctuary near the border. One was dragging two big bags. Inside were two adult tiger skins and the bones of a tiger cub.

Yet in the coming days, we hope to explain why the battle to rescue the tiger is not a hopeless cause. In Siberia I saw what the right policies from wildlife charities can achieve. But charity alone is never enough. This urgent but winnable campaign requires government action too: state and society acting in unison to dampen the effects of an appalling market. Together, we can save these magnificent cats from the extinction that - until so recently - seemed their certain fate.


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