Ben Hills

Vladimir Shetinin crouches on the forest floor and pokes a stick at the track of a trail bike frozen in the black mud. “Poachers,” he grunts, tugging on his grey beard and cocking an ear to the sky. The only sound is the icy Siberian wind groaning through the bare boughs of the oaks and birches – and the occasional green flame of an evergreen cedar. The last squadron of cranes migrates silently south across the sky.

Here in the vast wilderness of the Russian taiga, the onset of winter signals that the killing season is open again for one of the world’s most endangered animals.

The poachers’ target is the Siberian tiger (more correctly known as the Amur tiger), the largest, rarest and deadliest of all the big cats. Standing more than a metre tall at the shoulder and weighing up to a third of a tonne, the tiger is so powerful it has been seen to bound over a fence with a cow in its jaws.

In the past two years, it has killed, and eaten, six Russian hunters and one English zoo keeper. But this terrifying force cannot protect it from the men who come to slay it for money. “In that time,” says Shetinin, a game warden who risks his life to protect the tigers, “a third of them have been killed … if we can’t stop this, they will become extinct.” The Siberian tiger, once absolute ruler of a kingdom the size of eastern Australia – from the Okhotsk Sea to Lake Baikal and Beijing – is now reduced to a tiny, fugitive population, mainly in Primoyskye, Russia’s maritime province. There are probably less than 250 left in the wild, fewer than the number in zoos around the world.

Since the turn of the century, when 100,000 tigers roamed the earth from the forests of Bali to India and Siberia, five of the eight sub-species have become extinct. Total numbers have fallen to less than 7,000. The Tiger Trust, a British conservation group, says the Siberian tiger may vanish from the wild by the next Chinese Year of the Tiger – 1998.

Shetinin has driven us deep into the taiga, in his clapped-out four-wheel drive, to the Ussuri national park, some 115 km north of the great naval base of Vladivostok. In his armpit holster he is packing a pistol that fires tear-gas bullets – he would prefer the real thing to protect himself from the poachers, but the Government won’t allow it.

“These men are extremely dangerous,” he says. “They will do anything for money.” He displays a cache of 23 weapons confiscated this summer from hunters – everything from Kalashnikovs to crossbows and a homemade pipe-gun found fixed to a tree, designed to fire a burst of steel shrapnel at anything triggering a trip-wire.

The trade is driven by money – money beyond the dreams of the population of Russia’s most expensive region, where people struggle on $40 a month. Smuggled across the border into China, or over the sea to Taiwan, Japan or Korea, a whole dead tiger is worth at least $40,000.

Shetinin’s sidekick, a ranger named Vladimir Dukov, pulls a sack from the vehicle and unrolls a magnificent silver, black and orange Siberian tiger pelt, with two neat holes from the bullet that killed it. “This might be worth $10,000,” he says. “Around here, men will kill for a lot less than that.” The bones are even more valuable, to the Chinese who believe that – soaked in mao tai, a sorghum spirit – they provide a potent cure-all, good for anything from flagging virility to rheumatism. Newspaper advertisements in the Chinese city of Harbin offer $330 per kg for tiger bones – at that price, a decent femur could be worth as much as an apartment.

Some of the dramatic decline in the Siberian tiger numbers can be put down to the clear-felling of huge tracts of its habitat, the taiga, by Japanese and Korean logging companies; some to over-hunting of its prey, the deer and wild boar that were once prolific. But the greatest threat is poaching. In the past two winters – winter is the tiger-killing season, because hunters can follow the tracks in the snow – Dale Miquelle says that about 60 tigers were shot. Miquelle is a wildlife biologist from Idaho University who has been capturing tigers and fitting them with radio collars for the past three years to solve some of the mysteries about their lifestyle before they vanish.

One of them was Lena (the 11 tagged tigers all have Russian names), a female and the second tiger Miquelle tagged. One winter’s day, the radio signal froze – they drove out into the forest and found only the discarded collar and Lena’s four orphaned cubs, two of which later died.

“No-one knows whether there are 100 or 500 still alive,” he says. “They are mysterious and elusive creatures and they cover a vast area – the males we are tracking roam over as much as 3,000 square kilometres of territory.

“But what we can say for certain is that this level of killing is unsustainable. Unless something is done soon, that population will become extinct.” Ironically, the latest, greatest threat to the tiger has come as post-communist Russia opens up to trade, and controls on the once-heavily guarded border with China are relaxed. The tigers have survived four wars and two revolutions this century – now perestroika may do them in.

“It is ironic to me,” says Shetinin, a Cossack whose people suffered more than most under communism, “but under Stalinist repression, numbers increased. During World War II, they came back almost from extinction. Now we have freedom, so-called, they face their greatest danger.” Shetinin concedes that Russian courts refuse to convict poachers, cash-strapped customs and shipping officials are turning a blind eye to cross-border smuggling, and even some wildlife officers have been involved in the trade. Last year, he was lucky to escape with his life when a “sting” operation backfired. Shetinin was posing as a dealer to try to buy five tiger skins from a poaching ring in the town of Yaroslavka. He was betrayed to the gang by one of his own rangers and finished up without the skins, his car and the $2,000 “bait money” – the poachers stole the lot.

There is also evidence that the Russian crime gangs that have overrun Vladivostok – murdering about a dozen militia officers in the past few months – are muscling in on the trade. In one notorious case, two gangsters threatened to burn down the house of a hunter if he refused to kill tigers for them. He lured them out into the taiga and shot them both dead.

Both the Tiger Trust and the World Wildlife Fund have put money into conservation efforts. They are subsidising salaries for Shetinin’s 12 remaining rangers and have equipped them with vehicles and radio communications – as well as funding two private anti-poaching squads and various research projects.

But out here, in the vast emptiness of the taiga, you realise the enormity of the task. “Right now,” says Ilse Storch, WWF’s tiger program coordinator in Vladivostok, “the tiger is the flavour of the month, second only to the panda. But we have to show some results – all I can say so far is that we have raised the level of awareness.” If Shetinin and his thin camouflage-green line are having little impact, the Tiger Trust says the Chinese have also failed to live up to their obligations under the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) agreement, which bans trade in tiger products.

Last November, in Florida, the 10 Asian nations, including China, signed a resolution to stop all domestic trade in tiger products – international trafficking is already banned. It was hailed as the last chance for survival for the Siberian tiger, which is now all but extinct in China.

At the Harbin zoo – where six of the great cats pace morosely up and down in foul concrete-floored cells – Professor Sung Chin Cho, a wildlife expert, says there may be as few as 20 left in the wild in the north-east provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin – if that. Harbin and several other zoos in Russia and China have captive breeding exchange programs, but zoologists are wary about the chances of reintroducing them to the wild. Recently, keepers tried to feed a live goose to one of Harbin’s second and third-generation tigers, instead of its normal diet of rabbits and chickens. The tiger ran away.

The Chinese have a larger breeding facility in the mountains near Mudanjiang – about 200 km from the border with Russia – which contains 70 captive-bred tigers. But the Tiger Trust believes these tigers are being bred for the pharmaceutical trade and export to foreign zoos. “The habitat is disappearing and there is not enough effort put into conservation,” says Sung. “China is a Third World country and things like that are not priorities.” In May ’93, in an attempt to woo favour with the US and get admitted to the GATT trading community, China announced it was banning tiger products and held a highly publicised bonfire at which 500 kg of “tiger bones” were cremated.

However, according to the Tiger Trust founder, Michael Day, the whole performance was a charade. At considerable risk, the trust sent Chinese investigators equipped with concealed tape-recorders into medicine factories and pharmacies in northern China to find out the real story.

They were told that many of the bones were in fact from other animals, such as cows. One State-run pharmaceutical factory – which owns a string of 40 pharmacies – boasted it had a nine-year supply of tiger bones stockpiled and was producing 750,000 medicinal plasters, made of pulverised tigers’ bones, daily.

Factory officials declared themselves still in the market for buying and selling tiger products. Shops – although wary of “foreign spies” – were selling tiger wine, tiger balls and tiger plasters.

Across the border, Vladimir Shetinin has given up his search for the poacher – and the tiger. It is only mid-afternoon, but night is falling fast. The taiga is no place to be … for the hunter, or the hunted.

Chinese folk medicine’s cure-all

Bones: Used in plasters for aching joints
Bile: Convulsions in children
Blood: Strengthens constitution and willpower
Fat: Vomiting, dog bites, haemorrhoids, scalp ailments
Flesh: Nausea and malaria, improves vitality
Brain: Laziness and pimples
Eyes: Epilepsy, malaria, cataracts, convulsions and fever
Teeth: Rabies, asthma, penile sores
Whiskers: Toothache
Skin: Mental illness
Nose: Epilepsy
Stomach: Upset stomach
Gallstones: Weak and watering eyes and hand abscesses
Hair: Insect repellent
Testes: TB of lymph node
Penis: Aphrodisiac
Tail: Skin disease

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 11 February 1995
Edition: Late
Section: Good Weekend
Sub section:
Page: 24
Word count: 1512
1. Warden Vladimir Dukov displays the $10,000 pelt of an illegally shot tiger. By Ben Hills
2. The Siberian tiger – experts estimate it will be extinct by 1998. By The Weekly Asahi
Comments: “Chinese folk medicine’s cure-all” joined to story