It is one of the world’s most recognizable animals, thanks to its striped coat, but the Siberian tiger, which once roamed Asia’s forests in thousands is in peril. Sergei Bereznuk is valiantly battling poachers and public opinion to save the biggest of the cats.
The tiger has a powerful grip on the human psyche, symbolizing a potent energy and the power of kings. But, in spite of this infatuation, this charismatic species is endangered – because of human rapacity and ignorance.
Just over 100 years ago, the global population of tigers in the wild was 100,000; today only about 3,500 survive, and the species’ prospects are grim. According to the conservation agency, World Wildlife Fund, three tiger subspecies – the Bali, Javan and Caspian – have become extinct in the past 70 years. The six remaining subspecies – Amur, Bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, South China and Sumatran – live only in Asia, and all are threatened by poaching and habitat loss.
In recent decades, a host of organizations and individuals have taken a stand to halt the tiger’s extinction. Celebrity champions, including film stars and supermodels, donated US$1 million to a 2010 summit for representatives of the 13 countries where the tiger still lives wild.
But one of the tiger’s staunchest defenders is little known outside tiger conservation circles and the far east of the Russian Federation, where he lives. Sergei Bereznuk, 52, is battling poachers, hunters, planning schemes and forest loggers, as well as negative attitudes and extremes of climate, to save the Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) and its habitat. Also known as the Siberian tiger, the subspecies is the biggest felid on Earth, weighing an average 200 kg and measuring about 2 m in length – 3 m if the tail is added. Russia’s Far East is home to 95 per cent of the remaining global population of this subspecies.
Thanks to Bereznuk’s tenacity and inventiveness, the recent history of the Amur tiger provides a glimmer of hope – the possibility that this tiger can survive.
Bereznuk’s first notion of a tiger is taken from a universal source, known to generations of children worldwide – growing up in Novosibirsk, Siberia, a region with no wild tigers, he read Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, famous for its story of the menacing tiger that abducts a little boy, Mowgli.
Thirty years later, Bereznuk, an engineer working in import-export, was forced to rethink his career due to the break-up of the Soviet Union. He found employment as deputy chief of Inspection Tiger, a department of the environmental authority of Russia’s Primorsky Krai (Maritime Province) region. In this new job, in the 1990s, his attitude to tigers and to conservation underwent a radical transformation. It was a turning point for Bereznuk: “From that moment on I decided to dedicate my life to nature and tiger conservation.”
An iconic cat
In 2000, he won the perfect job. He was appointed director of the Phoenix Fund which had been set up two years earlier by foreign conservation organizations and Russian environmentalists to conserve the rich fauna and flora of the Russian Far East, in particular the Amur tiger and Amur leopard, another iconic cat at risk of extinction. In the 12 years that Bereznuk has run the Phoenix Fund, he has won deep respect from leaders of wildlife organizations in Europe and North America.
The main threats to the Amur tiger’s survival are poaching and habitat destruction. Bereznuk is fighting these obstacles with a winning combination of teamwork and government lobbying, new technology and awareness-raising.
As they criss-cross the Primorsky Krai region, an area four times as big as Switzerland, encountering heavy snowfalls and, in some regions, winter temperatures as low as -40C, the rangers gather information about tiger movements and the strategies of those who harm these elusive animals. They focus on four protected areas that are the main habitat for the Amur tiger. Phoenix workers have, thanks to the assistance of conservation agencies all over the world, equipped underpaid government rangers with a spatial management information system – known as MIST – to gather data on animals and poachers, as well as on law-enforcement, improving the rangers’ ability to confront poachers.
Sadly, the poachers embrace all levels of society, from the struggling poor to the rich. Criminals involved in targeted hunting and the purchase of poached wildlife pose a serious menace. Bereznuk recounts that four years ago one gang arranged for a revenge attack on a wildlife ranger from one of the four nature reserves. The assailants have not been apprehended, but “it was clear enough” that a rich businessman from the port of Nakhodka was behind that crime.
The rich hunt the thrill of the sport – sometimes accompanied by corrupt environmental law officers who guarantee their safety. Poaching is also carried out by poor villagers and by people who make a living from killing tigers, bears and other animals and then selling parts to cafés and restaurants. A tiger skin would bring more than an average year’s salary in the province, one of the poorer regions of Russia. And, despite some success in shutting down smuggling for the Chinese traditional medicine market, which attributes almost magical properties to every part of the tiger’s anatomy, it still excites much criminal activity and constitutes a major threat.
Corruption is one of the many problems that Bereznuk faces. The laws are flouted even at the highest of levels. As recently as the late 1990s, a former governor of the province presented a tiger skin to President Lukashenko of Belarus who was on an official visit. “This was a clear violation of Russian and international law,” says Bereznuk. But, despite an official inquiry, procrastination meant the statute of limitations could be applied and no action taken.
Fortunately, many other interventions have been successful. Bereznuk lobbies forcefully for action against illegal logging and to halt development that threatens the tiger’s habitat. In 2006, he protested against a Russian government, multimillion-dollar plan to build an oil pipeline across one of the natural reserves that are home to the endangered Amur tigers and Amur leopards. “We succeeded in ensuring the project designers rerouted the oil pipeline – they chose an alternative location of the terminal 200 km eastward from its initial plan.”
As well as battling poachers and developers, Bereznuk is fighting negative attitudes. Devising imaginative material for kindergartens and schools, along with supporting Vladivostok’s annual Tiger Day festival, he is determined to ensure that future generations will value the tiger as much as he does. “The children here love tigers, and adults now see the tiger as a symbol of Primorsky Krai. The province and the tiger are inseparably linked.”
The Amur has come perilously close to disappearing from the province – in the 1940s, the tiger population dipped to a mere 30. The numbers fell again in the 1990s, but are now stable at 450 to 480, thanks in large part to Bereznuk and his colleagues.
The battle to save the Amur tiger is a long-term project and, with even a temporary drop in vigilance, it could disappear, like the three other subspecies.
With his Rolex Award, Bereznuk is developing materials to educate young Russians about the tiger, supplying rangers and environmental officers with equipment, fuel for their vehicles, bonuses to enhance their low pay, and, most of all, the information necessary to protect the animals and apprehend the poachers. Finally, he is lobbying all levels of government to reduce corruption and strengthen laws and development guidelines to protect Primorsky Krai’s flora and fauna.
“Russia was the first country in the world to ban the hunting of tigers, in 1947,” he points out. He hopes that that model inspires his nation to be the world’s greatest champion of the tiger.
Published in 2012