Siberian tiger in the cold

Conservationists draw up strategies to arrest the rapid decimation of the great Siberian tiger

By Sujata Rao
Published: Tuesday 31 December 1996

A RECENT series of studies on conservation in Russia revealed that the country's vast network of zapovedniki (wildlife sanctuaries), once the strictest and most extensive in the world, is now on the brink of collapse. Funding for the zapovedniki>/I> is scarce owing to the fact that despite its vast size, Russia's expenditure on conservation has dwindled to about a tenth of the expenditure in most developed countries.

Topping the list of endangered creatures is the great Siberian tiger. A report by the British organisation Tiger Trust stated that less than 250 of these animals still exist in the Russian wild, down from over 500 just five years ago.

The foremost reason for the rapid decimation of the Siberian tiger is the steep demand for the animal's skin and innards for use in Chinese medication of which Russia has become the richest source after the post-Soviet chaos.

Poachers descended on the Russian taiga after 1988, when control over the Chinese-Russian border trade noticeably slackened, and the financial crisis forced wildlife sanctuaries in the area to cut down patrolling. Just over the winter of 1988-89, poachers slaughtered more than 100 tigers. In this context one may point out that in Korea, lucrative trade has wiped out the tiger population; one tiger skin could fetch as much as us $15,000, and bones went for about us $250 a kg.

However, Igor Chestin, species conservation consultant with the WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) -Moscow, is optimistic about the tiger's future. Although Chestin describes Korea's attitude as "not so positive", he says that the threat of sanctions and international censure has been extremely effective in China's case.

Chestin and his colleagues are presently involved in preparing the groundwork for a 12.5 billion ruble (US $2.5-million) Federal Programme for the Protection of Tigers. Chestin gave details of the conservation effort in the Russian taiga: setting up anti-poaching brigades in the Far East and providing them with transport, arms and equipment. "Though the brigades will continue to operate, the focus has, of late, shifted to habitats and habitat protection, monitoring, and development of sustainable forestry in the area and the present programme aims to maintain this course," he said.

Greenpeace is also campaigning to have its forests included in the World Heritage list. "We believe this may be the only effective deterrent to mass deforestation in the area," says Elena Surovikina, biodiversity coordinator for Greenpeace Russia. However, one of the most disappointing features of Russia's conservation scene is the almost complete absence of funding or promotion from Russia's new big business houses. In Russia, the sole supporter of the conservationist cause is the banking giant Mezhkombank, which contributed over us $550 million in 1995 to protect the tiger and the Siberian crane.

Says Chestin, "Rich people here are not too interested in wildlife or nature; they would prefer to sponsor causes that are more in the public eye and would get them some political footage." According to him, "its mostly the same with political parties too. So far the scene is pretty much limited to international organisations and a few Russian NGOS. For the sake of the tigers we're hoping this will change soon."

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