More than 2,000 people roam the wilderness to get a head-count on Siberian tigers.
With a yelp of excitement, Pavel Fomenko slammed on the brakes and jumped out of his four-wheel drive. To most eyes, little would appear extraordinary about the vista ahead – just another stretch of bumpy, snow-covered track deep inside the endless Siberian taiga. Fomenko, however, had spotted exactly what he was looking for out of the corner of his eye. He lay flat on the ground to get a close look at the faint imprint in the snow.
“A cub, about two years old, judging from the paw size. It was here yesterday,” he said, whipping out a metal ruler to log the exact size of the print. It was another small piece in a hugely complex jigsaw that, when completed, will show whether Russia’s efforts to conserve the Siberian tiger over the past decade, including the personal intervention of Vladimir Putin, have been successful.
Siberian tigers, the biggest wild cats in the world, are devilishly elusive and only venture into areas of human habitation when short of food. Few people have ever seen a Siberian tiger in the wild and this makes Russia’s once-a-decade tiger census, now under way, extremely hard work. More than 2,000 people have been recruited to take part and they will traverse thousands of miles of territory in the Russian far east, searching for tiger footprints. Where possible, they travel in cars or on snowmobiles, but usually the work in the remote terrain has to be done on skis or on foot.
The last census, in 2005, showed that there were only around 450 Siberian tigers left in the wild. The Russian Government wants the figure to rise to 600 to ensure their survival, but despite success in combating poachers, it is unclear whether the numbers have risen. Fomenko, who works for the World Wildlife Fund and has spent three decades working on Siberian tigers, was one of the co-ordinators of the survey, and has been appointed by the government to oversee its results and make sure the final figure is honest.
Eaten to oblivion
For years, the biggest threat to the Siberian tiger was poaching, to feed the demand for tiger parts across the border in China. Every part of the tiger can be ground down and used in Chinese traditional medicines, from the whiskers and eyeballs to the bones and even the penis, which is ground down and served in a soup meant to boost virility. In the 1990s, as the then Soviet-Chinese border opened and the customs officials became easy to bribe, the tiger suffered.
But since Putin took a personal interest in the tiger six years ago, laws have been tightened, and now poachers can be sent to prison for up to seven years. The harsher penalties have almost wiped out poaching.
In the Russian system, Putin’s interest can also have negative side effects. In one of many photo opportunities with tigers organised for the Russian president, Putin helped release two captive tiger cubs into the wild last year, in the Amur region near the border with China. One of the cubs crossed the border into China and caused havoc there, raiding farms and reportedly attacking dogs and livestock.
“Those tigers should never have been released into the wild. An expert commission said they were not ready and it was not safe,” said Fomenko. Someone, however, thought otherwise and wanted to please the president. Part of the problem was that the tigers were released in an area without enough prey to sustain them, leading them to travel further and enter residential areas in search of prey.
Indeed, the deterioration of the ecosystem in which tigers live has replaced poaching as the biggest threat to their existence. Climate change is bringing warmer, snowier winters, causing deer and boars to get stuck in the deep snow, making for a bumper year of feasting on easy prey for the tigers, followed by lean years as the prey population suffers.
Logging, much of it illegal, reduces the supply of acorns and pine nuts, which are the main food of the deer and boars. When these populations shrink, the tigers are forced to roam further afield, and in desperation will roam into areas of human habitation, attacking dogs and sometimes even people.
In November, a human head was found in the taiga near Vladivostok, with the body having been almost completely devoured by a hungry tiger. Such attacks are rare, but for the 2,000 people taking part in the tiger survey, the work is dangerous nevertheless, and all are equipped with flares, the only way to frighten off tigers or bears.
“We have covered around 40km and found traces of three tigers,”said Anatoly Andreyev, a 63-year-old gamekeeper. His daily work also involves organising feeding grounds for boars to keep the population up. Each adult tiger needs to kill around 50 boars or deer a year to survive.
Andreyev said the recent toughening of the laws on poaching had had a huge effect: “Of course, it is all making people think twice about illegal hunting.”
NEXT PAGE: Dwindling habitat
Given the amount of government interest the tiger has received in recent years, there are many people who want to see the number go up, but Fomenko said years of illegal logging might have taken their toll. Between now and May, Fomenko will travel across the survey zone, rechecking the count in places, and then analysing the data to make sure the same tiger is not counted more than once.
He also collects tiger faeces from the ground, chunky stools packed with undigested clumps of fur and fragments of bone. Analysis will help experts determine how much inbreeding there is in the small community of tigers.
On one such day, Fomenko surveyed the taiga around him as a crack detective might look at a crime scene. He saw concrete facts in what at first glance was a mass of indistinguishable paw prints in the snow, pointing at different lines and identifying which animal passed and how long ago: mink, minx, deer, boar, and occasionally tiger.
Walking towards a concentration of crows amid the taiga bracken, he uncovered the remains of a boar, gobbled up about two weeks before by a tiger. The remains showed what a ruthless predator the tiger is: all that was left of the boar, which would have weighed more than a human, was a pelt of fur that resembled a doormat, four gnawed hooves scattered nearby, and a streak of crimson in the snow.
In the taiga, a profound silence reigns, shattered only by the occasional knocking of a woodpecker, the trickle of not-quite-frozen streams or the patter of wild boar shuffling through the snow. It is hard to believe that lurking somewhere among the endless trees are the majestic Siberian tigers, which can grow over 3m in length and run at speeds of 80km per hour.
Despite its size and power, the tiger is a master of concealment. Even Andreyev, in all his years of working in the taiga, has only seen a tiger twice. Others who work with him have never been lucky enough to see one, although they frequently find the prints that show the animal has passed by.
But even if the tigers remain largely unseen, allowing them to become extinct would be a tragedy, Fomenko said. “From a biological point of view they are extremely important in this kind of ecosystem.” – Guardian News & Media