We scanned the plain with binoculars for any sign of movement, the only light coming from the half-full moon overhead. The threat – we knew – was real. The previous evening a group of youths had been stopped, drunk and armed with a rifle.
I was with the World Wildlife Fund in the furthest eastern corner of Russia, where I had found wildlife rangers have no choice but to patrol every night. The reason: the pocket of Amur tigers that still survive in this expanse of the Siberian taiga are being ruthlessly hunted.
Their claws, teeth and whiskers are believed to provide protective powers and are used in Chinese traditional medicines, while tiger skins and tiger bone wine are still valued as status symbols in much of Asia.
The demand means poachers can make $10,000 from every tiger shot and then smuggled across the Chinese border. This is an unimaginable sum in a region where the average wage is just $150 a month.
“The situation is critical,” said Pavel Fomenko, WWF’s local programme director who was leading the patrol that night. “If many more are killed, if many more cannot hunt the food they need to survive, they will die out. We have an emotional attachment to these animals but they’re at risk of disappearing.”
WWF Russia had taken me to the Lazovsky nature reserve as I wanted to see for myself the steps being undertaken to protect the Amur tiger. One of the world’s most endangered animals, there are only around 450 left in the wild.
What I found was that the work of conservationists like Mr Fomenko is helping save the local tiger population and ensure its habitat is at least now protected. In one three-year period the organisation led anti-poaching patrols confiscated 78 tiger hides, seized 4,000 rifles, detained 13,000 poachers, and filed 500 lawsuits.
The Russian government has also played a key role. Penalties for poaching have been increased and equipment provided to the region’s government. Vladimir Putin has made clear he will do everything necessary to protect the Amur tiger from extinction and has regularly visited the region to supervise the implementation of conservation projects.
But the threat remains. In Lazovsky, some 80 illegal hunters have already been caught this year. Worldwide, some 1,000 tigers have been poached in the last decade. If present trends continue, the tiger still risks extinction in the wild.
That is why The Independent, supported by its sister publications the ‘i’ and The Independent on Sunday, is partnering with WWF-UK to mark International Tiger Day today.
We will be publishing a week-long series of reports on the tiger’s plight and how it can be protected and are delighted that celebrities, including the actress Miranda Richardson and television presenter Ben Fogle, are rallying to the cause by contributing to our coverage.
This particular night in Siberia, no poachers were found. But that did not mean the struggle there is over. Later that week the same wildlife rangers I had been with stopped a car full of hunters. In an indication of the scale of the problem, among those inside – gun in hand – was a local police chief.
A hundred years ago there were 100,000 tigers in the wild. Today there are as few as 3,200. The clock is ticking – and ticking fast. Let us hope that our efforts this week can help start to make the difference.
This blog is written by Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the Evening Standard and The Independent newspapers.
You can follow him on twitter @mrevgenylebedev
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