Tigers once covered a vast stretch of Asia. They could be found in the tip of India, all the way across to Bali and even into eastern Turkey. Now they survive in a few pockets, primarily in India, South-east Asia, and here in Russia’s eastern Primorsky region. Worldwide numbers are estimated at little more than 3,000. In every one of these locations, they are under mortal threat.
A key reason is depressingly predictable: the demand for exotic animal parts.
Partly this is for traditional medicines that have no recognised medicinal value. It is also for tiger pelts and tiger-bone wine seen as exotic luxury items.
In Russia, local hunters can receive £10,000 for a dead tiger from the middlemen who smuggle it to the black markets across the Chinese border.
To mark International Tiger Day tomorrow, we're highlighting the plight of the tiger, not only in eastern Russia but worldwide.
A century ago, thousands of tigers roamed the vast stretches of woodland of the Siberian taiga. Hunted almost to extinction, only around 450 now remain.
In the 1940s, Russia had been the first country to grant the tiger full protection and an effective conservation effort allowed its numbers to grow. The collapse of the USSR saw that end almost overnight.
Rangers’ salaries were not paid, leading to their abandoning their posts, and Chinese traders looking for tiger parts moved north across the newly opened border.
Illegal loggers also took their chainsaws to vast stretches of Korean pine forests, felling trees for the Asian markets. This decimated parts of the tigers’ habitat and reduced the number of deer and wild boar that the big cats feed on.
“The border opened and the tigers started to disappear,” Vladimir Aramilev, a scientist at the Pacific Institute of Geography in Vladivostok, said. “At least one was being killed every week. There are many, many trucks crossing back and forth every day – too many for them all to be checked.
“The Chinese officially have very high penalties to protect tigers. Officially you can receive the death penalty for killing one. But I believe that some in the government really support the mafia behind this trade."
"My belief is that at the highest level there are officials using traditional medicines, and they want the animal parts that make them.”
The tale of the Amur tiger, however, is not a hopeless one. Rather, the last few years have shown how an animal can be brought back from the brink. Numbers have not only stabilised but are actually growing.
Fundamental to this was how bodies such as the WWF established anti-poaching units with local conservationists such as Mr Aramilev. In three years, the WWF’s teams confiscated 78 tiger hides, seized 4,000 rifles, detained 13,000 poachers, and filed 500 lawsuits. They also began outreach programmes to the surrounding communities and began to work with local hunting lodges on how to protect the remaining tigers.
But just as important was the support that then came from Moscow. Charities can achieve only so much. What tips the scale between success and failure is state support. And, in Russia, the tiger found in Vladimir Putin a champion who was not willing to let the animal disappear from within Russia’s borders.
President Putin may be a controversial figure but there is no question of his contribution to the tiger cause. Since 2008, he has personally overseen conservation projects in the region and earmarked an annual million-dollar budget for the Amur tiger’s survival.
The WWF has no doubt how crucial this intervention has been. “When the President says it is important, things start to work much faster,” confirmed Dmitry Kats, WWF Russia’s director. “Everyone pays attention.”
President Putin has visited the Primorsky region himself on a number of occasions, both releasing animals bred in captivity back into the wild and supporting radio-tracking operations. This meant local people who traditionally viewed tigers as a menace to both themselves and their livestock began to see the animal as a symbol of the nation to be protected.
The regional authorities talk of gaining new cars, new uniforms and new personnel. The situation remains far from stable. Members of a Chinese poaching gang, for example, were captured by the Russian authorities sneaking into a tiger sanctuary near the border. One was dragging two big bags. Inside were two adult tiger skins and the bones of a tiger cub.
Q: Why are tigers being killed?
A: Their claws, teeth and whiskers are believed to provide good luck and protective powers and are used in Chinese traditional medicines. Tiger skins and tiger-bone wine are valued as status symbols.
Q: Is this not being stopped?
A: The international trade in tigers was banned in 1987 and the Chinese government banned the use of tiger parts in 1993 – but a black market has flourished in its place.
Q: Who are these poachers?
A: Increasingly, ruthless and well-organised crime syndicates. A tiger’s parts can sell for $50,000 (£30,000) direct to Chinese consumers, meaning big profits.
Q: Who wants to buy this?
A: Mostly members of the growing Asian middle class who have greater wealth in their pockets and still see tiger goods as aspirational products.
How to help:
Telephone: 0844 7360036
To adopt a tiger: bit.ly/WWFAdopt
To donate to WWF Russia: wwf.org.uk/protecttigers