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Tiger ranger, scientist, and detective

Pavel Fomenko dedicates his life to protecting Amur tigers

Medium ww231142

Temperatures drop well below -30C during winter months in the bitter wilderness of the Russian Far East. There, Pavel Fomenko will spend weeks out in the forest—up to 40 days in a row—often alone.

What brings Pavel out in such conditions and makes him stay? He is on the trail of the Amur tiger. Having spent more than 25 years working for WWF-Russia, Pavel knows these forests like the back of his hand and uses that knowledge to help protect the endangered Amur tiger, the biggest of the big cats.

 

It’s a lonely job being a tiger protector, and dangerous: “It's the risk of getting lost, the risk of getting frostbitten, the risk of encountering a predator,” says Pavel. “The cold is a very insidious phenomenon. It can be beautiful, but it is deadly. One must know how to survive in the cold and how to adapt.”

When out in the field he is on the lookout for signs of tigers, and for their only predators: poachers.

But Pavel’s work goes far beyond the forests. He is a ranger, a scientist and a detective. His ‘detective’ work out in the field—tracking tigers using scat and pug marks, and investigating poaching sites—translates into ‘CSI-style’ forensics work which he then carries out in laboratories.

Tracking signs of tigers and poachers.

As many as 540 Amur tigers exist in the wild today.

Pavel is trained in a specialist form of wildlife forensics. Though wild tiger numbers have started to increase, the sad fact is that the remains of dead tigers are sometimes found in the field. When this happens, the animals are brought back to the Animal Diseases Diagnostics Centre in Ussurysk, where Pavel and his team carry out full forensic examinations.

The autopsies Pavel carries out on tigers aim to determine the cause of death, and ultimately decide whether the tiger died at the hands of humans or from natural causes.  

These examinations are essential in forming evidence for possible criminal cases in the illegal wildlife trade, and it’s a responsibility that he does not take lightly: “One must be completely honest… objective and professional. I am fully aware that, due to my expertise, a person will get a jail sentence or a large fine.”

Every year, the team carries out over 100 examinations on wild animals that are brought to the Diagnostics Centre. In the first half of 2016 alone, Pavel provided forensic and biological expertise for six criminal cases, three involving tigers.

Pavel Fomenko prepares to examine a dead female tiger found in the forest.

The female tiger starved to death after her leg was caught in a poacher's snare.

Tiger protectors like Pavel are a key part of the efforts that have seen wild tiger numbers begin to rise globally for the first time in conservation history, after a long century of decline. Protecting tigers is Pavel’s passion, and he sees a more hopeful future for them.

“Tigers are powerful, they are beautiful, they are perfect… and they can coexist with humans.”