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Last Updated: Monday, 7 March 2005, 12:10 GMT
Hunting for tiger poachers
By Amanda Feldon
Producer/director of Tiger Traffic

The tiger has just been voted man's most popular species, but ironically the tiger's greatest enemy is man.

Amur tiger
Amur tigers have been hunted almost to extinction

The situation is so serious that a new breed of environmentalist has broken with peaceloving green traditions, and taken-up arms to fight tiger traffickers.

Habitat destruction from forest fires and logging are killing tigers at a terrifying rate, but poachers are an even bigger threat.

A tiger can sell for around $1,500 (800), but broken into body parts, the value can soar to $50,000 (26,500). Profits are high and the traffickers are armed and dangerous.

In response, armed brigades of rangers, former poachers, military veterans of Chechnya, Afghanistan and even the Khmer Rouge, are fighting a new war on behalf of the world's wildlife.

'Constant risk'

The battle began in Russia in the early 1990s amid the political and economic chaos after the collapse of Communism.

The world's biggest cats, commonly called Siberian tigers, but correctly known as Amur tigers, were being slaughtered at a rate of around 70 a year and only a few hundred remained.

Steve Galster, founder of WildAid
Steve Galster helped Russia introduce armed "environmental cops"

As Amur tigers teetered on the edge of extinction, an American called Steve Galster, founder of the charity WildAid, arrived offering technical expertise and money.

With the approval of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Steve and his colleagues established Inspection Tiger.

Steve describes Inspection Tiger rangers as "environmental cops" and in order to give it them the teeth they needed, "they had to be given state inspector status... so they could carry their own badge and guns."

Although officially a government department, Inspection Tiger is now funded almost entirely by international wildlife charities.

Since the patrols began, tiger numbers have stabilised, but only a few hundred remain and if left unprotected, they are at constant risk from poachers.

Inspection Tiger now has half a dozen anti-poaching patrols in the Russian far east, the home of the Amur tiger. This region shares a long border with China - one of the world's biggest markets for tigers.

Lack of evidence

In the port of Slavyanka, just 10 miles from the Chinese border, the anti-poaching unit is led by Andrei Yurchenko, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Russian Special Forces.

He and his team of three men and a dog patrol a massive area of 5,000 sq km.

Local poachers are just a small link in a chain to a multi-million dollar international network

Most offences are for illegal weapons, logging or poaching other wild animals.

It is extremely rare for a tiger poacher to be caught in the act. Even if someone is found in possession of a tiger skin, it is almost impossible to prove that they actually killed the tiger.

Corruption in this area is rife and not long ago Andrei's patrol confiscated a tiger skin from a member of the local parliament.

It was obvious that the tiger had been deliberately shot, but there was no proof, and as a member of parliament he is immune from prosecution. He was fined just $50 (26) and the tiger skin was confiscated, but the man is still in office as an elected representative.

Global trade

Andrei Yurchenko
So his rangers are not tempted to take bribes, Andrei subsidises their wages from this own pocket

Understanding that local poachers are just a small link in a chain to a multi-million dollar international network, Andrei Yurchenko decided to use the politician's confiscated tiger skin as bait for a local illegal wildlife dealer.

A radio tracker was fixed into the tiger's head and the patrol was able to follow the skin and see how it left Russia.

The undercover operation was filmed by several hidden cameras as part of the BBC documentary, Tiger Traffic.

Steve Galster and his colleagues have now taken their armed conservation approach to South-East Asia. In Thailand, the government was very slow to sanction WildAid's operations, until a ranger and poacher were shot and killed in a national park.

Although the tragedy helped the Thai Government take the situation seriously, patrols are still fighting apathy and indifference. Even if poachers are successfully convicted, fines are minimal and provide no deterrence.

Last year, a car driven by a notorious wildlife dealer was stopped near the Thailand-Laos border. Inside the car boot a tiger had been callously chopped in half to make it fit. Despite being a repeat offender, the trafficker was fined just $150 (80).

In Myanmar, formerly Burma, traders openly sell tiger bones, teeth, skulls and even penises. Other traders were secretly filmed with 80 leopard skins and although they had no tiger skins in stock, they offered to supply them for a staggering $2,500 (1,320), more than 30 times the price of a leopard skin.

For Steve Galster the price tag had very sinister implications.

"Tiger skins are very expensive because nobody has any at the moment," he says.

"They're hard to find and that's because there aren't many tigers left in the forest!"

Tiger Traffic was broadcast in the UK on Tuesday, 8 March, 2005, at 2100 GMT on BBC Two.

SEE ALSO
Tiger Traffic
07 Mar 05 |  This World
Read your comments
09 Mar 05 |  This World

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