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A father went hunting in the woods with his son, the Siberian folktales say. One night, the father dreamed of a Siberian tiger that told him, “Leave your son to me. Otherwise I shall not let you return home alive.” Resigned to his fate, the old hunter reluctantly abandoned his child.
When the boy awakened, his father was gone. In his place were two staring, yellow eyes: the tiger. Terrified, the boy clawed his way to the top of a tree with the tiger close behind. Then, in the merest of instants, the tiger slid down the trunk until he lay pinned, unmoving, between two branches. The son scrambled down to safety.
In his dreams that night, the boy saw the tiger begging to be rescued and promising many rewards. When daylight came, the boy took pity; he cut away branches and cleared a path, allowing the striped cat to escape. The tiger roared his thanks and vanished into the forest.
That night, the son had another dream in which the tiger spoke to him. “Set your traps in a circle,” said the tiger, “and you will find them full.” The son did so. A day later, every trap contained a sable—and the bounty grew day by day.
When the father returned to seek what he was sure would be his son’s remains, he found the boy in the midst of a great pile of rich sable. Happily reunited, they loaded a sled and set out for their village. Tigers and people, it seems, were no longer at odds in the forest.
Or so the folktales say.
Siberian, or Amur, tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) and Russia’s forests go hand in hand. A map of the Russian Far East and Eastern China (see below) marks the range of productive forests dominated by Korean pine (Pinus koraiensis) in 1996. But today the dominance of the Korean pine has been lost to logging, says Brian Milakovsky, forest projects coordinator in WWF-Russia’s Amur Branch. The mixed deciduous forests that nurture Korean pine shelter tigers and countless northern species; the Korean pine trees, which yield pine nuts, form one link in an ecosystem that replenishes the forest and sustains Amur tiger prey.
Russia’s tiger is named for the Amur River, which begins in northeastern Mongolia and flows 1,755 miles through Asia to the Sea of Okhotsk, forming a natural boundary between China and eastern Russia. Through collaboration on projects that transcend national borders and world politics, WWF biologists are working to conserve critically endangered Amur tigers and the Far Eastern woodlands in which they live. Yet according to Yury Darman, director of WWF-Russia’s Amur branch, these lofty conservation goals aren’t always easily met. WWF’s efforts to protect Amur tiger habitat bring together countries such as China, Russia, Germany and the US—and geopolitics aside, aligning the interests of rural communities, multiple national governments and a host of industries is never simple.
Additionally, some of the people who share the tiger’s landscape are hunters, killing the big cats for the illegal wildlife trade. A large male Amur tiger could net a poacher US$8,000, states Peter Matthiessen in his book Tigers in the Snow. The dead tiger might eventually be worth a substantially higher street price because its bones and other parts are in demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
The trees have their hunters as well: Illegal and unsustainable timber operations are stripping Russia’s forests not only of pine trees, but also of the oak and ash trees. These trees are highly valued for making the hardwood products—furniture, flooring, window blinds—that feed US and European consumer appetites.
Challenges can also be linked to the fruit of the Korean pine. Pine nuts are a key food source for deer and wild boar, the Amur tiger’s primary prey. Fewer trees translate to less food for tigers.
Fewer trees also mean less income for local people. According to WWF species conservation expert Sybille Klenzendorf, harvesting pine nuts is “critical to Russian Far East villagers since pine nuts are one of only a few cash crops for them.” Townspeople sell pine nuts to buyers who ship the nuts westward, where they find their way onto dinner tables in homes and restaurants in the US and other countries. So the next time you toss pine nuts onto a salad or grind them for a pesto, remember that they may once have been part of that Far Eastern forest, scattered among wild boars and Amur tigers. There is no way, says Darman, to separate one from the other.
In many places in the Russian Far East, however, that’s exactly what’s happened. Logging has drained away the forest’s lifeblood. In the 1930s, trees nearly covered the entire Sikhote-Alin mountain range, which runs about 700 miles from north to south. As a result of the range’s latitude and location near the coast, it forms the backbone of one of the most unusual temperate zones in the world. Countless 100-foot-tall, rough-barked Korean pines once towered there, scraping the sky.
Tigers used to be found in forests throughout Asia, from the Caspian Sea to Siberia and Indonesia. Today the range of the tiger is a mere 7% of what it once was. In the past century, the number of tigers worldwide plummeted from more than 100,000 to little more than 3,200. In the last decade alone, the estimated area occupied by tigers has declined by 41%.
Tigers prowl in a range of habitats, from tropical evergreen forests to mangrove swamps to grasslands. Species living in areas where there is ample prey may have ranges as small as eight square miles, based on sex (males’ ranges are larger). But because of the severity of Russia’s winter climate and a lower density of prey, Amur tigers may need to maintain a territory of 200 to 400 square miles.
Official estimates of Amur tiger numbers in Russia come from full surveys conducted approximately every 10 years in the winter months, when tigers can be tracked by following their paw prints in snow. In 2005, fewer than 500 Amur tigers were reported, and while that’s tiny compared to historical numbers, Darman points out that it may be the largest unfragmented tiger population in the world.
Between full surveys, a yearly monitoring program in 16 tiger locations offers a more limited snapshot. In 2005-2006, the assessment revealed 115 tigers inhabiting the 16 sites. In 2012-2013, the most recent such count, “the total was 75 tigers, a 25% reduction from the average of the first decade,” says biologist Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia Program. In at least one site, the number had dropped to zero. “Poaching, prey depletion, habitat loss from logging, and infectious diseases have taken down Amur tigers,” says Miquelle. “Even in their main habitat, they are in trouble.”
The only way to save the tiger in Russia, believes biologist Sergey Naidenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences, “is for the many organizations involved to work together. The combination of efforts is what it will take.” Naidenko is collaborating with other groups to track tiger movements, compare the tigers’ genetic diversity by identifying individuals, and understand infectious diseases in Amur tigers. “Tigers thrive,” says Naidenko, “where there are healthy forests and the density of wild boars is high enough.”
Korean pine, sometimes called “cedar pine,” is among the most abundant tree species in the forests of Russia’s southern Far East. Or was. Rising global demand for the pines for use in everything from furniture to makeup pencils has led to rampant illegal logging.
Within the Amur tiger range, logging rates more than doubled between 2000 and 2008. In response, WWF helped Russia get the Korean pine listed in Appendix III of the trade treaty CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). The new rules, for which Klenzendorf points out WWF advocated over many years, created a new layer of protection for the species; exports of Korean pine now need CITES permits, making it harder for the illegal timber trade to continue. In 2010, in advance of the Global Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin added Korean pine to the list of species for which all logging is banned—so now no logging of Korean pine is permitted in the Russian Far East. Thankfully, tiger forests have now notched a few important wins.
In parallel, to expose the scale of the illegal activity, WWF researchers synthesized more than a decade of on-the-ground field observations. “Sadly, some forest managers have allowed loggers to plunder valuable stocks of pine, oak, ash and other tree species with impunity,” says Linda Walker, director of WWF’s Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN), citing the 2013 report Illegal Logging in the Russian Far East: Global Demand and Taiga Destruction.
WWF supports Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification as the best way that forest managers in Russia can demonstrate that they practice legally, socially and ecologically sound forest management. Consumers can look for the FSC logo when buying tables, flooring or other wood products if they want to ensure that those products come from responsibly managed forests. Through GFTN, WWF works with US and other buyers to help them learn more about FSC and responsible wood sourcing from the Amur region and other priority forests.
“But we’ve yet to crack the code on stopping the demand that forces supply,” Walker says. “In addition to the legal protections now in place for Korean pine, the keys to solving the crisis are improved enforcement of laws that penalize imports of illegally sourced wood into the US, strong coordination internationally, and responsible wood purchases by companies and consumers.” In essence, buyers need to be aware of the effect their purchases in the US could potentially have on the forests of Russia’s Far East.
Which brings us back to pine nuts.
Russia’s Nut Harvesting Zones (NHZs) flow across the Russian Far East. NHZs are leased by the provincial government to private entities; in the past five to six years, says Evgeny Lepeshkin, head of the forest program at WWF’s Amur office, most of these 50-year leases have gone to community cooperatives and companies that work closely with WWF.
The NHZs are some of the last remaining optimal tiger habitats and, as the map on the opposite page shows, these NHZs are among the core zones where tigers are found in the highest density. WWF scientists hope nut harvesting will offer more villagers a viable way to earn a living, an economic alternative to illegal logging and the poaching of tigers and tiger prey.
There are now eight NHZs working toward sustainability in the Amur tiger’s range, and four other NHZs will likely be leased as conservation concessions by the end of 2014. “WWF covered the first year’s rent fees and paid for forest inventories and development of recommendations for sustainable forest use,” says Darman. “We also support NHZ owners in hiring and training special brigades to control illegal logging in cooperation with forest rangers and police.”
Milakovsky explains the need for such cooperation in this way: In 2007, townspeople in the village of Ariadnoe staged public protests and organized logging patrols in an effort to halt illegal logging of Korean pine trees. They spoke out to protect pine nuts for the income the nuts provide. They also raised their voices because abundant nuts ensure stable populations of important game animals, including wild boars, sables and red deer. “The situation at one point got very tense, with shots being fired into windows and at the cars of the movement’s organizers,” he says, “but no one was hurt.”
Ariadnoe was just one expression of the widespread desire of forest village residents to have Korean pine trees protected from logging. The communities made it clear that Russia’s people want their forests, pine nut income and tigers to be protected. This may have played a key role in Russia’s decision to ban logging of Korean pines. And as Igor Chestin, CEO of WWF-Russia, points out, tiger advocates should be happy too. “No Korean pine, no Amur tigers,” he says.
That is indeed the crux of the matter, believes Darman: finding a path to coexistence for people and tigers and the forests they both need to survive. Folk wisdom, international partnerships and modern science are merging to protect forest incomes and Amur tigers in Russia’s farthest wooded reaches—a storied landscape with trees that reach toward the clouds, a tiny nut that feeds an interconnected food web, and a carved-out niche in which Amur tigers can roam.