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Friday, 13 September, 2002, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Struggle to save the Siberian tiger
Tiger cub
The few Siberian tigers left in the wild need protection

At first sight, the Far-Eastern Russian city of Vladivostok is unlikely tiger territory.

Seven time zones away from Moscow, it looks like any other post-Soviet port city - with the rusting ships in the harbour serving as a reminder that this was once a closed military region.

People are beginning to realise that these animals are part of their heritage

Dr Dale Miquelle
Paradoxically, that is one factor that allowed the Siberian or Amur tigers and leopards to take refuge in Russia over the past century. Driven out of north-east China and Korea by rapid human expansion, they sought out the empty forests of the Russian taiga instead.

The big cats can thank Stalin for their initial survival here - he ordered much of this land to be turned into nature reserves or "zapadevnik", where any development was forbidden.

But since the collapse of communism, the tigers and leopards have found their very existence under threat: from humans competing with the animals for increasingly scarce resources.

Last survivors

With few jobs here, hunting and poaching have become a way of life for many people. Poachers also vie with the big cats for their prey, the wild boar and deer that live in the forests.

Many local Russians have been baffled by the efforts of Western conservationists to save the very animals they see as a threat or competition in the struggle for survival in this harsh landscape.

Siberian tiger
A big temptation for poachers
Dr Dale Miquelle, a tiger expert with an infectious enthusiasm for the animals, is a conservationist in Vladivostok.

He is an American biologist who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He came here 10 years ago to study the tigers, and has been here ever since trying to save them.

"This is the last surviving population of Amur tigers," he says.

"There are only about 330 to 370 adult tigers left, who exist over a vast territory called the Sikhote-Alin mountain range. A tigress needs about 450 square kilometres (175 square miles) as its territory."

But even here, he says, humans are encroaching on the animals' habitat. Legal and illegal logging is a threat.

Thanks in part to Dr Miquelle's efforts and those of other conservationists, the tiger population now appears to be stable - though its survival is far from guaranteed with such a small number of animals.

However, the Amur leopard is close to extinction here, with just one small population of between 20 and 40 of the animals left in only one location.

Health indicator

The conservationist says the Russian response to their efforts has ranged from incomprehension to enthusiastic agreement.

"Attitudes are slowly changing," he says, "and people are beginning to realise that these animals are part of their heritage, something to be proud of."

People need to eat, so they poach and sell everything - fish, caviar, deer, tigers, even leopards.

Anatoly Belov

Many also hope that the tigers and leopards - if they survive - could form the basis of an eco-tourism industry, with visitors travelling to see the unspoilt beauty of this landscape and its creatures.

That day is still some way off, but it is a possibility in the long-term, as we saw for ourselves.

Dr Miquelle takes a group of us on a trek around the edges of the wildlife reserve.

No-one, apart from the park rangers or scientists is allowed inside the reserve itself, so that the 8 tigers who are known to live here are not disturbed.

When we reach the top of a hill to see a spectacular vista of untouched forest in every direction, Dr Miquelle explains that since 1990, poaching has become a serious problem.

Anti-poaching officer
Anti-poaching officers are watching
Tiger skins can fetch up to a year's salary for people here, while their bones and organs and valued in traditional Chinese medicine.

So why save the tiger, and not first the humans struggling to make a living here? Dr Miquelle believes the two tasks go hand in hand.

"The tigers act as an indicator of the health of the ecosystem," he says. "If there's a healthy population of tigers here it's a good indicator that this ecosystem is intact and functioning.

And so it's very important to retain them as part of the ecosystem and to know that there are tigers here not just for their sake, but for our sake as well."

Tough job

Dr Miquelle's team uses remote cameras to capture images of the tigers as they prowl the forests.

The photos help show how many animals live and hunt here, as well as how healthy they are.

Dr Miquelle
Dale Miquelle is cautiously optimistic
The conservationists also work closely with Russian anti-poaching patrols. Their job is a tough one.

They work over a vast area of land, and the laws against poaching make it hard to prosecute anyone effectively.

Anatoly Belov, the head of the anti-poaching patrol, sighs with resignation as they catch yet another unlicensed hunter out with his gun near the wildlife reserve.

"There's so much unemployment here," he explains.

"Everything these days comes down to money, and of course people need to eat. So they poach and sell everything. Fish, caviar, deer, tigers, even leopards."

Learning the lesson

That message is also getting through to the young in this area. With the help of colour picture-books, children in local schools are being taught the importance of taking care of the environment.

We go to watch the lesson, given by an enthusiastic teacher, who shows the children a video of the magnificent tigers and leopards prowling the wilderness.

Tiger conservation class
Many children, at least, are tiger fans
Afterwards, at least one 12-year-old boy, Gena, has become a convinced conservationist.

"We have to remove the poachers," he says earnestly when we ask him what he's learned today. "We have to stop them killing the tigers and leopards."

For now at least, the children are eager converts to the big cats' cause.

But whether that enthusiasm continues as they grow up and struggle to make a living in the villages here is another matter.

Dale Miquelle and his colleagues are cautiously optimistic. Though they struggle against the Russian bureaucracy that can make the simplest task a mammoth feat, they hope that both the leopards and the tigers can be saved.

See also:

18 Feb 02 | Europe
12 Sep 01 | Science/Nature
23 Apr 01 | Media reports
10 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
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