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Down in the forest of the Russian Far East


In May of this year I was fortunate enough – along with 3 of my colleagues from China, India and the Netherlands – to undertake a 4 day field trip in the Russian far east led by the legendary Pavel Fomenko, WWF Russia’s tiger expert. We were able to join this field trip – which was for his work programme rather than just a visit laid on for donors. We were also joined by Vladimir Aramilev who will lead the Amur leopard re-introduction programme for the government.

Driving from Vladivostok up into the the vast forest landscapes of the Primorsky krai (province) of the Russian Far East reveals the diverse forests composed of Korean pine, Mongolian Oaks, Birch (amongst many others) that provides a striking range of greens as you look over the forest canopy. Interestingly – along the road – the forest is punctuated by large areas of uncultivated farmland which is actively kept in this state to prevent overgrowing and natural re-afforestation. A hangover from the years of state farming programmes there is still the hope to one day re-cultivate these areas.

Group by car(from right to left ) Vladimir Aramilev (Russian government), Pavel Fomenko (WWF Russia); Joseph Vattenen (WWF Tigers Alive Initiative); Xiaohai Liu (WWF China) and Igor (a Lazovski Forest guard)

Though the small villages still remain, their apparent disrepair indicates that these are hard times and the winter must be especially cruel. There is willingness from Chinese farmers to come to the area from north east China, where farmland is in short supply and demand for agricultural produce is huge. However, whilst in some other neighbouring provinces the doors have been opened to allow Chinese leasing and management of farms, this is still largely resisted in Primorsky.

The forests of Primorsky are managed through a range of stakeholders. At one end of the spectrum is the Lazovski Strict nature reserve (or Zapovednik) which strictly excludes any public activity within its boundaries. This stunning forest area starts in the hills in the west of the Sihkot Alin mountains and runs right down to the sea. Deer come down to feed on the mineral rich seaweed on the sandy tideline and it’s perhaps the only place on earth where tigers can be found strolling snow covered frozen sea-shores.

Whilst Lazovski is closed off to the public, nearby Zof Tigre National Park (which was carved out of one of the many privately leased hunting estates) is open for all. At the other extreme of forest management there are the Russian  hunting estates. These large areas of forests are largely leased and run by wealthy or dedicated individuals or groups with a passion for hunting, shooting and fishing. They require extensive investment in terms of basic infrastructure and management. It was generally considered that there was little profit to be made from the operation but they are mainly sustained by the passion and interest of the lessee and managers . The quality of management varies enormously and we’ve worked hard to cultivate processes in a series of “model” estates that are working alongside tigers and the soon to be re- introduced Amur Leopards.

Sika tracksSika tracks lead down to the tideline where deer feed on mineral rich seaweed

Of 90 hunting estates in Primorsky 10 are considered as “models”, 50 rate as OK and 30 not so good. As the estate manager of one of the model estates – Mediev ( Russian for Bear) – observed “If there were no tigers there would be wolves.” This would be much worse from an ungulate management point of view as wolves are kill recreationally as well as for food. Favoured prey for tigers in this region are wild boar rather than deer. It’s estimates that tigers require about 50 deer each year. On the Southern Valley hunting estate where there are up to 10 tigers this would equate to around 500 ungulates taken for food each year whilst currently there are only 150 ungulate licenses granted to the Estate annually.

The return of the Sika deer.

There is a large range of ungulates in the area including Red, Sika, Roe and Musk Deer as well as wild boar. Goral – a type of wild sheep that exist on some of the rocky cliff areas – are seen as a potential prey species for Amur leopards when they are re-introduced. Other species including game birds and wildfowl are also managed for hunting.

In particular the role of the Sika deer in the Sikhot Alin is interesting. As with much of the other wildlife in the region it was almost eradicated during the Russian troop concentrations during and after the second world war when Japanese invasion threatened the region. It was subsequently farmed and escaped populations established themselves and began to breed. It was granted protected status (due to it’s prior rarity) until last year which caused its numbers to soar. The impacts of this overpopulation is that they have significantly cleared the undergrowth and regrowth in some areas of the forest. Walking in the areas of these forest where the Sika populations are too high is like walking in an urban parkland. There are plenty of trees but anything within reach of the deer has been eaten, leaving a lawn–like forest floor.

The change in their protected status this year has enabling hunting estates to begin to control numbers and the negative impacts should begin to be brought under control.

A tiger's scratching postA tiger’s scratching post

There is a dilemma though within the strict nature reserve of Lazovski which does not currently permit any form of control.

One of Pavel’s reasons for visiting these forests was to make a primary assessment of the impact of the heavy snows of last winter on the ungulate population. Snowfall of over a meter could spell death for many ungulate species in many areas. This may require the management plans to lower permitted licenses for hunting over the coming years. However  his assessment (based on the occurrences of  deer tracks and droppings) was that the populations in this area had come through the harsh winter relatively unscathed.

In all of these management and forest areas there were fresh signs of tiger life – along with those of other species such as black and Himalayan bears. Sadly we didn’t actually see any tigers or bears… only ungulates by spot-light when we carried out a night survey. I did almost catch a glimpse of a lynx jumping across the forest road deep inside Lazovski (whilst sat in the back of the 4×4) but alas I was a moment too late!

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