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Siberian Tiger and the Spring Unrest

Русская версия: "Тигр и весеннее обострение"
04.04.2012

Изображение
Adult male at a marking tree (Durmin River basin)


In the middle of March several news articles were released (http://www.izvestia.ru/news/518368, http://www.dv.kp.ru/daily/25851.4/2819813) about the upcoming new edition of the Red Book that is being prepared at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Severtsov Institute of Animal Ecology, which, according to the contract, should be finished by November 2012. As it says in the headlines, there might not be a place for the Siberian Tiger in the new endangered species list. The newspaper “Izvestiya” quotes Valentin Ilyashenko, head of the Institute’s Laboratory of Biodiversity Preservation and Management of Biological Resources: “…tiger numbers in Russia have been stable for the last 15 years, reaching 450 animals, they have recovered and explored the entire habitat, and numbers are extending beyond habitat borders”. This is a strong statement, especially about the numbers extending beyond habitat borders. Maybe it is just a journalistic exaggeration, but the problem lies elsewhere.

In major press sources, information about excluding tigers from the Russian Endangered Species List would not appear out of nowhere. It is unlikely that careful Moscow scientists would play with the status of such a significant species, a species that has the attention of royalty and famous people, as well as our new old President. Especially interesting is the comment of Vyacheslav Rozhnov to a reporter from “Komsomol’skaya Pravda”: “According to international criteria, the Siberian Tiger may not get into the Red Book. But we will base our conclusions on the characteristics of Russian nature”.

Dr. Rozhnov is Deputy Director of the Institute and head of the Permanent Expedition of Russian Academy of Sciences on the research of endangered species and other important species of Russian fauna. Scientists of such rank, like Vyacheslav Rozhnov, who recently received the position of corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, do not issue such statements for no reason. It is quite likely that this question, or at least the proposition, has been reviewed and approved by our Russian “main protector” of tigers, snow leopards, polar bears and beluga whales. In any case, it is interesting to ask why, in our independent and stable country, is there such an attention to international criteria? The answer is simple - it is profitable for someone.

Now about the tigers and their habitat themselves. What habitat recovery are our Moscow specialists talking about? On a spur of the Malyu Khingan (Lesser Khingan) mountain range, Shukhi-Poktoi ridge tigers disappeared in the 1970s. At the beginning of the 20th century, even at their lowest numbers, tigers still inhabited that area. This population fed on animals that crossed the border from China. Then the border was closed with fences, the tigers in China were exterminated, and the Khingan population slowly became extinct.

Historically, tiger habitat encompassed almost the entire area of pine-broadleaved forests and included Malyu Khingan, the southwestern part of Burein ridge, the Kur and Urmi river basins, and extended to the Gorin River in the north. This area is all on the left bank of the Amur River (Fig. 1). Almost every year in this area single tigers are recorded, and a tiger has been living in the “Bastak” Nature Reserve for three years. However, there are no records of any litters from the left bank of the Amur, and one cannot say much about the utilization of this habitat by tigers because it would assume a healthy population that includes breeding and raising young - not just the miserable life of single males.

Изображение
Figure 1. Present range and territorial distribution of the Amur tiger in the Russian Far East: 1 - borders of the range, 2 - outlined corridors of disjunction of the range, 3 - areas, with the density of 5 tigers and more per 1000km^2, 4 – areas that completely disappeared from the range (after Yudin V.G., Yudina E.V. Tigers of the Russian Far East. Vladivostok. Dal’nauka, 2009, p.485).


Cases of tigers moving into uncommon habitats, such as northern taiga or the steppe plains of the Prikhankaiskaya Lowland, are just a consequence of trophic discomfort (starvation in plain words) that is caused by insufficient numbers of prey species in human inhabited areas. It causes tigers to wander widely in search of food. Apart from that, extensive movements of tigers, all the way to the eastern side of Lake Baikal and Yakutia, were observed both during periods when the population was thriving (19th century), as well as in the 1940s and 1950s when the population hardly reached 30-50 animals. Therefore, such movements are not connected to overpopulation within habitat borders.

The appearance of a single animal, as we said before, cannot be counted as sufficient to claim re-establishment of the population in a certain territory. Therefore, there is no reason to talk about restoration of the range. Moreover, at the moment the Sikhote-Alin’ region of tiger habitat, previously continuous, is being broken up before our eyes. It is the region that has just recently been fully populated by tigers.

One of the most obvious examples is the basin of the Zhuravlevka River (Chuguevskiy region of Primorskiy Krai), which is situated in the center of Primorskiy Krai. Lands surrounding the villages of Samarka, Saratovka, Koksharovka, and Lesogor’ye were famous for their pine forests, had an abundance of hoofed animals (especially wild boars), and tigers were feeling quite good there. Until the 1990s there was a healthy population of tigers that were breeding and raising young successfully. Now a random resident tiger (and we’re not talking about any litters at all) is a rare occasion. Why? Pine forests have been mutilated by multiple felling, ungulates are reduced to low numbers, and the tigers themselves are being chased. Forests in this region look quite pitiful (Fig. 2). And were the tiger to move into these lands, there would be no conditions for him to live there permanently. The trophic and protective qualities of the region are not sufficient for it. Another territory with a similar thriving status in the past and pitiful condition at the present is the upper Ussuri River surrounding s of the villages Izvilinka, Verkhnyaya Breevka, Arkhipovka, Medvezhiy Kut, and Yasnoye. To meet a tiger there these days is a rare event, and the reasons are all the same. Completely extinct are populations of the Kema, Amgu and Maksimovka river basins in the northeast of Primorsky Krai (Terneyskiy district). You won’t meet permanently resident tigers these days in the basin of the Podkhorenok River (Vyazemskiy district of Khabarovskiy krai), once the very heart of tiger abundance. We can talk about these areas specifically, because during the last several years we have been direct witnesses to the ongoing changes.

Изображение
Figure 2. Typical modern look of Siberian Tiger habitat (Zhuravlevka River basin in Primorskiy Krai)


Another local population of tigers that has been under our observation for the last few years is located in the middle stream of the Khor River basin, and the upper streams of the Durmin, Obor, and Kiya rivers (Lazo district, Khabarovskiy Krai). This area is the monitoring plot “Khorskaya” (№ 8, Fig. 3), which is 130,000 hectares in size. Despite seemingly good conditions (the plot is frequently visited by six to eight adult tigers) the situation there is not stable. The elimination rate of adult animals is high, which is a limiting factor to reproductive success. Just within the last decade three males and three to four females of the resident tigers that visit the Durmin River basin (the area with the highest density) were presumably killed by poachers and replaced by new individuals. This happened within one decade (!) while the natural lifespan of a tiger in the wild, given good conditions, could be more than fifteen years. Moreover, not a single litter of cubs that survived to the age of leaving the family group has been documented from the area. The Khroskaya local population in nothing more than a forced concentration of predators that stay in the area because of the higher density of prey species compared to other locations because the territory is protected from hunting. Sex distribution there is close to 1:1, which is typical for the northern part of tiger population in general and is not a normal distribution in optimal conditions (Yudakov, 1974; Yudin, Yudina, 2009). There are plans to start gold mining and other mining operations in the Durmin and Obor river basins by 2015. Realization of this project will bring an end to the Khorskaya local population of tigers.

In general, in the entire area of the tiger’s range there is a tendency for the population to break up. At the same time, habitat destruction due to logging (pine, as well as pine-broadleaved forests) does not leave any hope for the tiger population to re-establish. It is worth mentioning that in the second half of the 20th century, after protective measures were in effect and tiger numbers began to grow, both habitats and prey species were still thriving. And nature reserves, due to the small area they cover and the great distances between them, are incapable of ensuring the tigers’ future.

So how can we talk about range recovery?

Now about stable numbers. Simultaneous (frontal) surveys of the entire area of the tigers’ range, which would provide actual numbers and not just experts’ estimations, are only being conducted every ten years due to the large scale of the operation. The last complete survey was conducted in 2004-2005, and the next one is due at the beginning of 2015. Maybe Moscow scientists are re-evaluating the status of tigers a bit too soon?
From surveys of the monitoring plots, scientists estimate a stable population of 450 animals that they extrapolate over the entire range. There is a total of 16 monitoring plots or, actually, 15 because there have been no tigers recorded since 2007 in the Bolshekhekhcirskiy Nature Reserve (Fig. 3, #10). Plots occupy 15-18% of the entire habitats that are suitable for tigers (http://www.wcsrussia.org/ru-ru/homeruru.aspx).

Изображение
Figure 3. Tigers are being monitored on 16 plots throughout their range in Russia. Green - Nature Reserves; Red - hunting lands, national parks, and preserves. Wildlife Conservation Society map.


Monitoring plots are situated in the best tiger habitats, in many cases in territories of nature reserves. Due to many reasons, such as hunting bans in protected territories, minimal poaching in areas open to hunting due to strict regulations, and little or no tree felling, prey species’ densities are much higher than in other areas. This creates a concentration of tigers in certain parts of their range and it is there they are being counted. And indeed numbers in those areas are stable, and in some can even be very high. And then the results are extrapolated over the entire range like some of the areas from where the meat is being supplied to roadside cafes, tiger bones are taken into China and pelts - into Moscow, where all the forests are cut down - both pine and spruce, that support ungulates populations during snowy winters.

In the monograph by V.G. And E.V. Yudiny, “Tigers of the Russian Far East” (2009), there is the following account of ungulate numbers:
The total biomass of ungulates in the 1970s-1980s in the southern part of Khabarovskiy Krai was 15.1 thousand and in Primorskiy Krai 32.1 thousand per 1000 km^2. In the beginning of the 21st century, biomass of the ungulates on the slopes of Sikhote-Alin‘ declined to 6.1 thousand per 1000 km^2.

The only high number we can find are in nature reserves or well-managed hunting grounds, which, as we mentioned before, only comprise 15-18% of the entire tiger range. But periphery areas and areas that have been degraded by mismanagement to the status of biological desert are of no great interest to heads of the tiger monitoring programs who claim to be concerned with the fate of the tiger. Why don’t we instead establish monitoring plots in Spasskiy, Lesozavodskiy, Anuchinskiy, Yakolevskiy and Partizanskiy districts of Primorskiy Krai? Tigers have lived there and still occur, but the possibility of the existence of a healthy local population is almost zero.

And there are no prerequisites for the increase in the ungulate numbers in the entire tiger range.

There are, of course, official reports about numbers of ungulates, upon which the assigned quotas are based. And according to them, there is no decline at all and ungulates are doing just fine. But in fact these numbers do not represent reality in the least. Hunter communities that are meant to conduct this monitoring, except in some rare cases, record whatever number is convenient for them. And it is physically impossible to control them, even if someone wanted. But institutions that are meant to control them are quite happy with this situation. For example, after a particularly snowy winter of 2006 that followed an autumn with poor forage plant growth the Far Eastern branch of the All Russian Institute of Hunting and Game Management estimated that 70% of roe and 64% of wild boar populations were depleted. However, there were no subsequent restrictions, let alone a ban on hunting.

We do not blame hunters for all sins and problems; hunters, as well as tigers, are interested in high numbers of ungulates. Moreover, hunters are the only ones who take measures to support ungulate populations by putting out food and mineral supplements, and planting meadows with forage plant species. Not all of them, of course, and to a small extent, but it is something at least. And in fact, for competent hunters, the tiger is a more favorable competitor than a wolf. Tigers basically have lower hunting success than wolves due to their solitary lifestyle and also rarely kill multiple prey animals at one time, which is typical for a wolf. An increase in wolf numbers also points to the decline of the tiger population. This fact was mentioned in an interview in Komsomol’skaya Pravda by Dmitriy Pikunov, head of the Laboratory of Ecology and Wildlife Conservation of the Far Eastern Institute of Georgraphy of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In favorable conditions, under a hypothetical hunting ban, ungulate numbers would increase greatly within a few years, especially wild boars at first because they have the highest population growth rate. But where to take such conditions? Native pine-broadleaved forests are disappearing. In November 2010 before the International Tiger Forum (that for some reason was held in St.Petersburg), a governmental resolution was issued concerning the new edition of “List of tree species that are not allowed to be logged” that finally included the Siberian Pine. However, loggers of all sorts are still developing nut-wood zones, which used to be closed for exploitation in Soviet times (the term does not even exist anymore), and oak logging is not controlled at all. Apart from the deterioration of the foraging base, cutting spruce forests eliminates the protective qualities of the forests during snowy winters. Even though at first the active new growth of deciduous species produces food sources for Roe and Manchurian deer, after a short while when it grows taller, it gets out of reach for the deer, which is then neither a source of food nor shelter. And successful rearing of tiger litters depends on the availability of easy and available prey, such as wild boar piglets of the first year. And where to get enough for everyone?

To satisfy the interests of hunters, loggers, and miners, and to preserve tiger habitats at the same time is a difficult task. And the only stakeholder to fulfill this task is the government, but there is no indication that the government is actively involved.

Although, in 2010 Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia in collaboration with the Institute of Animal Ecology and WWF Russia developed “The Strategy of Conservation of Siberian Tiger in Russian Federation”, which included a plan of action until 2020. The above-mentioned Vyacheslav Rozhnov was the head of the working group, by the way.

Despite the fact that the “The Strategy...” is rather a declaration of intent than a scientifically grounded program of actions, and the wording is full of glib bureaucratic phrases like “strengthen the collaboration” and “provide the dialogue”, there is no hint of possibility of excluding the tiger from Red Book list before 2020. So what new have Moscow specialists learned about tigers during these one and a half years since then, that changed their opinion on the status of the species?

In 1996 a special inspectorate group “Tiger” was founded that was funded by international foundations. After the laws were changed and the special inspectors lost the authority of the government inspectors, international funding ceased. But once the government became interested in providing funds, inspectorate quickly created a Moscow branch consisting of 30 people as opposed to 20 Far Eastern inspectors, and then shifted the inspectorate completely to Moscow and a branch office was formed in Vladivostok.

From 1995 through 2010 all surveys and monitoring of tigers were funded by the American Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and its specialists were invited to analyze the results as late as last year. But the 2011-12 season was the first when all monitoring was funded solely by the government.

The Permanent Expedition of the Russian Academy of Sciences for the Study of Endangered and Other Important Species of Russian Fauna started it’s activity with the program “Siberian tiger” in the summer of 2008. It all started after the famous interaction of the premier-minister with a tigress (http://bigcats-ru.livejournal.com/117787.html). Fieldwork is being done in the territories of “Ussuriyskiy”, “Kedrovaya Pad” and it’s sub-division - the federal reserve “Leopardovuy” (“Leopard”), as well as on the elite hunting grounds “Borisovskoye”, “Nezhinskoye” and “Pavlinovskoye”, which are all situated in the southwest of Primorskiy Krai. The only hint as to what’s going on in other parts of the region is based on some tiger excrement samples collected for the agency’s specialists from several model plots.

We think that the geographic coverage of the studies yields a non-representative sample size that is not sufficient for such an important decision.

Because there have to be more serious reasons to exclude the tiger from Russia’s endangered species list than some mysterious “international criteria” that seem to have appeared out of nowhere (why have the WWF and WCS not heard about them before?), we have come to the following conclusions:

1. The activities of the Permanent Expedition was largely a PR-project by Putin himself and his government. Here is the planned gas and oil exploration in the High Arctic and at the same time touching concern for indicator species of marine ecosystems – the Beluga Whale – and the top predator, the Polar Bear. Gas and oil pipes as well have been carved into Far Eastern landscapes to pump energy into the neighboring friendly country at a very friendly price (http://www.novayagazeta.ru/society/51591.html), while simultaneously advertising worldwide about concern for the fate of tigers and leopards that are serving as a furry and ecological cover for the oil-gas interests.
Those, who were generously shifting money from the pockets of oil developers into those of the scientists (who obligingly started the whirligig with the Aldrich snares that cripple animals (http://www.rhythmjournal.com/download_file.php?download_path=issue_3/archive_files/page_0.pdf) and non-working GLONASS satellite collars - why did the GLONASS/GPS/Argos collar tagged leopard thad died in November 2011 was lying dead until he was accidentally found by inspectors and not tracked with the satellite?), got what was wanted. Including an old new post. Six more years of guaranteed stability are provided. Now he is no longer so interested in tigers. The performance is over, but it is still nice to maintain some sort of good appearance, especially because the Expedition was promoted as Permanent. But eliminating the tiger from the endangered species list will automatically justify closing the program down.

2. In the above mentioned “Strategy of tiger conservation” there is a quote about the conflict tigers that were shot under permits from 1985 untill 2005, 2,8 animals per year on average. There is no subsequent information on this subject after 2005, probably because after the attention that Putin showed to the tigress, any question about issuing such permits drove local officials into a stupor. Unfortunately, other measures of dealing with problem tigers are not being introduced (http://www.debri-dv.ru/article/4846). Of course animals were, and are being shot without any permits, and not all the cases are made public knowledge. And every year there is a number of tigers that are starving due to various reasons and wander into human settlements after dogs or livestock. Sometimes these are injured (usually shot) animals, and sometimes they are young tigers from dispersed litters. On one hand, it is a serious problem; they should not be shot without any controls. Permits have to be issued from Moscow, but to get one after 2008 was virtually impossible. Capturing them and, after a holding period, releasing them into another more favorable areas is very costly, technically difficult, and time consuming. And in reality there is no one to conduct such an operation at the moment. It’s not the right format - it is not a photo shoot with tigress, but an every day hard and selfless labour. One wouldn’t make much money on it.

On the other hand, lifting the endangered status from the tiger offers the opportunity for elite, incredibly expensive trophy hunting expeditions after the largest member of the feline family. Officially it could be signed off as the elimination of problem animals. The rest would be dealt with on the spot, because the powers that be have long decided that God has an even share with them.

This not a particularly original, but still a quite provocative idea that was already richly and temptingly suggested by the former WWF member Mikhail Krechmar in the article “Tiger hunting - reality or utopia” that was published in January issue of “Russian hunting newspaper”. In the March issue of the same newspaper he received an adequate reply from the Far Eastern expert in gamekeeping and coordinator of the tiger monitoring program for many years in Khabarovsky Krai - Yuriy Mefod’evich Dunishenko. But what’s the use? The seed was planted into a very fertile soil by an able hand (http://www.primlaika.ru/), and after a forced latent period the time has come for the active thriving of such ideas. Even Dmitry Medvedev summoned the government to brind introduce the order into the Nature Reserves system (http://www.novayagazeta.ru/economy/51775.html). Mikhail Arsen’evich Krechmar wrote books about hunting and nature, worked as a deputy director of “Kedrovaya Pad’” nature reserve, and was actively keeping a blog. And it is said that his page was visited by some high level conservation authorities.

And now the most interesting. After the information about the possible exclusion of the tiger from the Red Book, in Krechmar’s blog (and he, apart from everything else has long experience in organizing trophy hunting of Brown Bears) appears an interesting entry:

Mikhail Krechmar’s blog - March 19th, 2012
As you noticed I lingered in Moscow for a while.
Now I can with every right explain the reason of my stay: I was offered an interesting, ambitious and wide project, which combines hunting, weapons, photography, traveling as well as conservational components.
From today I’m starting to work on it.
For about two months I will be only throwing hints about this project - until it starts to come to reality and becomes normal marketable product.
I’m staying in Moscow, because such ship can only be steered from here.
..............
But despite that I will regularly come back to the Far East; and do not consider myself completely moved to Moscow.


What ambitious, broad project that combines hunting and weapons, that can only be steered from Moscow, but requires frequent visits to the Far East and at the moment can only be hinted about is Mikhail Arsen’evich talking to his friends about?

In 1997 the Asian Black Bear and the Leopard Cat were excluded from the Red Book, which came as a total surprise to the Far Eastern scientists and conservationists. No scientific proof, no underlying monitoring work. We are not talking now about how justified it was for them to be in the Red Book at the time, but how quickly and easily the decision was made to exclude them from it. This leads to the thought that it was arranged by someone. Especially since after this the Asian Black Bear became a highly desired trophy species with hunting tours costing thousands of Euros. For the hunt organizers, the money eased problems justifying the legal and ethical side effects such as exceeding quota limits and the appearance of orphaned cubs.

We would love to be wrong about all this. Maybe indeed the specialists from the Institute of Animal Ecology and Evolution will base their judgement on the actual characteristics of our nature, and our suspicions about the upcoming activity of Mikhail Krechmar is no more than paranoid nonsense. And maybe later this article will be written off to the spring unrest and laughed at.

It is fine to turn out a show jester, much worse - to remain indifferent or prostitute one’s views.

Sergei Kolchin
Platon Maistrenko

E-mail to contact the authors: durmin@mail.ru

05.04.2012 Addition from Kovu: Mikhail Krechmar in the comments to his blog entry wrote what project he is involved in. I think he is telling the truth. But it is important to understand that it’s not the current project of Mikhail that matters, but the Endangered status of Siberian Tiger. Should the barrier for elite trophy hunting disappear, there will be many people, not necessary Krechmar, who will jump at the opportunity to make some easy money. And there is no shortage of bastards with thick wallets, who want to satisfy their vile desires and get a fancy carpet.

Update: Krechmar deleted the comment and I did not get a screenshot. But I saved the text:
To clarify - I am not keeping secrets about the project because it is confidential, but because it is still raw and demands a lot of work and tension, so I don’t have much energy left for the blog.

I am assigned a general director and chief editor of the publishing house “Korporativnie Izdaniya” (Corporate Publishings), which publishes hunting literature and magazines. It is a private establishment and has nothing to do with governmental structures.

We plan to get ready for the print two magazines about nature and hunting, in which we are also thinking to include a conservational component.


Translated by Katya Ovsyanikova for BIGCATS.RU.

Originally published at BIGCATS.RU Forums. You can comment here or there.

Tags: bigcats.ru, russia, siberian tigers, tigers
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