In the past 18 years, Russia’s leading tiger expert, Sergei Bereznuk, has only seen three Amur (Siberian) tigers roaming free in Russia’s far east, but he has high hopes for the survival of the endangered species.
“I’m optimistic,” says Bereznuk, who won a Rolex Award in 2012 for his multifaceted project to protect this tiger, the biggest of the cats, which has been the focus of his life. “We have a very good habitat for tigers in Russia. The government has been changing the regulations and putting money into protecting territories. The number of [Amur] tigers is now sustainable, there are about 450-500 in Russia.”
Conducting a full-scale survey in the winter of 2014-2015 will be a crucial factor in evaluating how well Russia is implementing the Tiger Conservation Strategy in the Russian Federation and meeting commitments given during International Tiger Forum in 2010.
At a tiger summit in 2010, the Russian government promised that tiger numbers in Russia would increase by 500 by 2020, due to the conservation of tiger habitats and improvement of food sources.
Bereznuk applauds a recent order by Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, doubling the fine imposed for harming the Amur tiger or the Amur leopard. The order, in March 2013, raised the fine from 500,000 roubles (US$15,700) to 1.1 million roubles ($34,700).
Bereznuk’s conservation work, carried out through the Phoenix Fund, where he has been director since 2000, is strengthening its support for inspectors who are tackling poachers. MIST, a spatial management information system provided to Phoenix workers a few years ago, thanks to assistance from conservation agencies abroad, is being upgraded to SMART, a system that makes encoding information easier and more effective. The system can be used to register, for example, sightings of poachers or animal tracks.
The MIST and SMART systems have been successfully introduced in Primorsky Krai (Maritime Province), the original focus of Phoenix’s work. Within the next 12 months, Bereznuk hopes that they will be introduced in Khabarovsky Krai, the province to the north of Primorsky Krai, which includes a major park that is the northern end of the Amur tiger’s habitat and is home to an estimated 14 tigers.
The Phoenix Fund, with six staff (including Bereznuk), some of them in their 20s, continues to draw good local support. On 29 September more than 4,000 costumed participants and 5,000 spectators were in Vladivostok for the colourful annual Tiger Day Festival, the main annual event for raising awareness about conservation of tigers and other species.
Children are the main focus of the day as Bereznuk and his colleagues realize that raising their awareness is the key to long-term conservation. “If a little boy says to his father, who is going hunting, ‘Daddy, why do you want to kill tigers?’ that is likely to have a positive effect,” Bereznuk says.
But deterring poachers and raising awareness among children are not sufficient. The Phoenix Fund lobbies governments and tries to promote international cooperation for tiger conservation. Neighbouring countries such as China are becoming particularly interested in protection, while the two Koreas, where tigers once roamed but no longer do so, would ideally like to rebuild their tiger populations.
Bereznuk welcomes these developments, particularly China’s growing enthusiasm for protecting its Amur tiger population, estimated at between 15 and 20. A crucial step, he says, would be the establishment of a protected zone on the Chinese side of the border with Primorsky Krai. “The tigers need territory to roam, especially when new cubs are born,” he explains. “Sometimes they cross the border into China and they don’t come back.”
Photo: © Christophe Lepetit
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