Nordens Ark Foundation and the WWF are together running a three-year field project in the Amur Valley in the Russian Far East to secure and develop the wild population of the world’s largest tiger – the Amur. This work is taking place in Anuisky National Park, north-east of Khabarovsk. The project was funded by the Postcode Lottery between 2011-2014.
Return to the Land of the Tiger 2015
After two fantastic and educational weeks, I’ve now landed back in Sweden. It’s a great feeling to be able to return home with good news about the project. The number of ungulates (red deer, roe deer and wild boar) continues to increase, and in the Nanaysky district (including the national park) the tiger population has more than doubled since the project started four years ago. Despite this, we can’t yet relax as the pressure on the tigers from poaching, among other threats, remains high. Something that became very clear to us when we visited the Diagnostic Center of Animal Diseases and witnessed the skins and body parts from tigers illegally killed during 2015. But we have made good progress, and one of the strongest memories I bring home with me from the trip is of all the fabulous people who are battling hard for the Amur tiger’s future.
In Russia there are two centres authorised to rehabilitate tigers. The intention is that these centres should care for tiger cubs that have been confiscated and then return them to the wild. During her visit to Russia, Emma and the others visited one of these centres. On the wall were several photos of tiger cubs that had been sent to various zoos, and suddenly, using her somewhat rudimentary Russian (Emma’s own words), she read ‘This is Sparta. She was moved to Nordens Ark in Sweden.’ ‘Obviously I got excited and started asking questions and talking about our female and her cubs,’ says Emma. Later it turned out that our female is also on a number of other information boards, with pictures from Nordens Ark showing that she now has a good life in our park. Since then the centre has developed a method for rehabilitating youngsters. Naturally it’s a long process, as the cubs have to learn to hunt and also to avoid people. But so far, six tigers have been released on three different occasions. One of them had to be recaptured when he strayed too close to humans, and even killed some dogs. But all seems well with the five others. When we visited there were no tigers at the centre, but there was an Amur leopard that had been brought in because it had a serious injury on a front paw. It’s being kept away from humans as the hope is that it will soon be released back into the wild.
Emma and the other visitors to the Diagnostic Center of Animal Diseases saw, among other things, a tiger skin that had recently been confiscated at the Chinese border. At the centre, animals suspected of having been killed illegally are examined to find the cause of death, which type of weapon was used, and so on. On this particular skin, two bullet holes were found and it was even possible to determine the calibre of bullet used. Poaching is a serious threat to the world’s tigers. Poaching is cruel and ruthless, but unfortunately very lucrative. In spite of the many positive aspects that Emma and the others saw during their trip, this was a reminder that there’s still much to do.
Emma and the others have now left Khabarovsk in eastern Russia to fly to Primorye province in the south. Over two days, they are visiting one of the region’s 12 game management areas supported by the WWF. These are not protected areas, but they belong to the Russian state and permission must be sought to carry out activities such as hunting. These kinds of areas, which function as buffer zones to the national parks and reserves, are vital for the long-term survival of the Amur tiger, since many don’t actually live in the national parks. Something Emma found out straight away when, after just a quarter of an hour, she spotted her first tiger track.
During the visit to Khabarovsk in Russia, diplomas were handed out by Ola Jennersten from the WWF and Lena M Lindén from Nordens Ark, in recognition of the Northern Tiger Project’s first three years. Certificates were presented to the two departments we support and which have done a brilliant job. Alexander Samarin, of the national park administration, and Yury Kolpak of the hunting inspectorate were there to receive the diplomas. Picture: Emma Nygren / Nordens Ark.
Over the past week, we have shared our adventure with some of the rangers working in the park. A team of fantastic people who are doing an unbelievably good job protecting the park’s Amur tigers. When the project began four years ago, there were six or seven tigers in the national park. Today there are 12 adult tigers and six or seven youngsters within the park boundaries.
Had it not been for the hard-working rangers, in all probability things would have been different, and the situation for the Amur tiger in the wild would not have been so good. The rangers are out in the field every day of the week, summer and winter, patrolling in the forest. So a big thank you to all the rangers – you have a critical role in the fight to save the world’s tigers!
We’re now back in Khabarovsk after almost an entire week in Anuisky National Park. Together with the park ranger, we travelled along the Anuisky river to discover how the project has developed during the year. We saw the places where wheat, oats and soya are now being grown to feed wildlife over the winter months. This is one measure intended to boost the number of prey animals for the Amur tigers.
The national park is teeming with life, and we have seen traces of red deer, wild boar, brown bears and even tigers. The Anuisky river is almost boiling with keta (salmon) and Siberian salmon trout. In the sky we’ve seen sea eagles, peregrine falcons and ospreys following us on our journey on the river.
On Monday, Emma travelled with the WWF’s Ola Jennersten to Khabarovsk in eastern Russia. It’s time for the annual assessment of the tiger conservation project. They’ll spend two weeks there finding out how things are going for the Amur tigers. Right now they’re heading into the Anuisky National Park by boat, and we’re awaiting the first reports with bated breath.
Northern Tiger Project: Travelogue, by Emma Nygren, 2014
Today we fly off to visit our tiger project in Russia’s Far East – a project run by Nordens Ark Foundation in conjunction with the WWF. It’s a three-year field project financed by the Swedish Postcode Lottery. The aim of the trip is to evaluate the project’s conservation results and discuss the feasibility of the work continuing long-term. As Nordens Ark’s new project leader, I’m travelling with Ola Jennersten, international programme manager for the WWF; Nicke Bäcklund, headmaster of the Högra Samskola high school in Gothenburg, which is working with Nordens Ark in various capacities; and Viktor Nikiforov, from WWF Moscow.
This is my first visit to the Russian Far East – in fact my first time in Russia. Like everyone, I had a mental picture of what it would be like to travel there in the middle of winter. I expected to be confronted by a bitter, icy wind and a snow-covered landscape, but to my surprise we arrive in a rainy Vladivostok. We are met at the airport by Yuri Darma, director of the WWF’s Far East office. He had been called to Moscow so was unable to participate in the rest of the trip. He gave us a quick update at the airport on the programme for our visit, and told us briefly what had happened in the project. We then went to the WWF office for a meeting with Pavel Fromenko, the WWF’s Russian tiger expert, communicator [DO YOU MEAN INTERPRETER?] Yulia Fromenko and assistant Anastasia Kirilyuk. Pavel ran through the WWF’s tiger work and the tiger situation in the Russian Far East. The positive trend we saw in the tiger population seems set to continue, something that’s obviously extremely pleasing to hear. Results show that the protection afforded by the park has led to an increase in the number of tigers. Alexiev Surovi, head of the region’s hunting inspectors, came and told us about their work and about illegal hunting. In the evening, we had supper at a fish restaurant by the harbour, together with Sergei Aramilev, head of the new Amur Tiger Centre, and Andrei Subbotin, Pavel and Yulia. The Amur Tiger Centre is a new NGO initiated by President Vladimir Putin. The organisation administers the large fund that Putin created for the tiger work. The organisation has a co-ordinating role between federal and regional authorities and other non-profit organisations. After a very pleasant supper, I was exhausted and it was at last time for bed.
After a good night’s sleep, I felt as good as new and was looking forward to an exciting day. The dreary weather of the day before had been replaced by sunshine. Our day started with a visit to the customs academy, where we met legendary chief trainer Professor Sergei Lyapustin for discussions on CITES and illegal trade. He gave us a historical perspective on the illegal trade, something he believes is important in order to understand the problems we face today. We were shown confiscated skins of tigers, Amur leopards, snow leopards, Pallas cats, and brown and polar bears. It was distressing to see four of the species we work with at Nordens Ark in front of us on the table, and it certainly made us realise how important it is to continue the battle to protect these and other species. The visit now moves on from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, and to my great delight it means I get to travel on the trans-Siberian railway. OK, not the whole 9,288 kilometres to Moscow, but the first stage.
During the night we had been transported from spring to winter, and now, in Khabarovsk, Russia at last lived up to my expectations. It was cold! The wind penetrated to the core, and it would be getting colder still as we continued our journey. We’d be spending two days in and around Anuisky National Park, and the visit began with a meeting with park manager Alexander Samarin, teacher Marina Riedel and others. Afterwards we were introduced to some of the young people involved in the training centre which the project sponsors. We were treated to poetry readings, traditional Nanai folk tales about the Amur tiger and presentations on the various ways that the young people have become involved in the local environment. After lunch we visited two of the park’s 46 feeding sites. Two TV stations and two newspapers came to report on our visit and on the increased winter feeding that the park has started. It’s mostly wild boar that come to the feeding stations, and their numbers have increased dramatically since the national park opened. Our project has been part of this positive development. It was here I saw my first tiger track – probably that of a male, since the ball of the foot measured 11cm in diameter. It’s so thrilling to think that where I’m standing right now, a tiger stood just a few hours before!
The second day started early. We were up at 6am, and today it was seriously cold – the thermometer showed minus 30. The day would be devoted to testing the stocktaking routes in and around the national park by travelling about 50 kilometres by snow scooter. Cool! How fantastic, driving around on a scooter all day looking for tracks – it doesn’t get much better for a Norrlander. We saw tracks of tiger, red deer, moose, musk deer, sable, wild boar, hare and Siberian squirrel. This will undoubtedly sound rather nerdy, but the absolute highlight of the day was finding the remains of an Asian black bear that had been killed by a tiger. Pavel is a brilliantly skilled tracker and he was able to work out where the tiger killed the bear, where the bear came from and roughly how old it was, as well as where the tiger finally took its victim to devour it. Incredibly exciting
Next day we visited the village of Arsenovo, deep in the south of the kidney-shaped national park. The village is of strategic significance for monitoring and guarding against poaching, since many villagers are probably using the national park illegally for hunting. The village’s ultra-orthodox inhabitants live separately from the ethnic people and Russians. We called on a family in the ultra-orthodox part, where we met Michail Diev and his wife Irena. The family, who also included seven children and nine grandchildren, are honey producers with about 150 hives, and they sell all over the country. We arrived unannounced but were still invited in. First we sat in the hallway and interviewed Michail. It was all a little formal, and he kept apologising that there wasn’t much to offer us as they had just started fasting. Just as we were thinking it was time to leave, we were invited into the kitchen, where the table was set with dried and smoked fish, boiled potatoes, tomatoes, pickles, the most amazing bread you can imagine – and honey, wonderfully sweet honey. As soon as we sat down, the formality was blown away and it turned into a really nice occasion with a lot of laughter and warmth. Such hospitality!
The day started with the 200-kilometre trip to Troitsky and Utyos Tiger Rehabilitation Centre. It was a gloriously sunny day amid beautiful countryside and little villages. Each year the centre takes in ‘problem tigers’ that stray too close to humans. The current female at the centre arrived in December after becoming one of these problem tigers. She would hang around the villages to hunt dogs. When she was captured, it was found she had intestinal parasites that had made her very weak. When she arrived at the centre, she simply lay down. After being operated on, she is well again. She will be released back into the wild when all the tests and vaccinations are done.
Our last day was spent meeting Nordens Ark’s partners, Alexander Ermolin and Yuri Kolpak from the wildlife management department in Khabarovsk. We talked about how the monitoring work had progressed over the previous year. It was felt that an increased presence around the national park, with cars being regularly checked, was a good preventative measure. Extra work would also be needed during the spring, when a lot of animals migrate. Next year comes the major tiger inventory across the whole region. This is done only every ten years.
Time to say goodbye to Russia. We take off at 3.30pm for Stockholm, via Moscow. But before we set off, I take a walk to see the mighty Amur river. As I stand and gaze out over this giant frozen river, with the cold biting my cheeks, I can’t help wondering what it would look like on a hot summer’s day. It’s been a fantastic trip!
Emma Nygren, Nordens Ark