RUSSIA: Endangered Siberian Tigers Flee Forest Fires: WWF-Funded Brigades in Action as Blaze Destroys Dwindling Habitat
The Guardian, London, 6 October 2001
By PaulBrown Fires are sweeping through 600 sq km of forest in far eastern Russia, the laststronghold of the critically endangered Siberian tiger. The fires, stoked by high winds, are raging in the territory where the majorityof the remaining 450 tigers live. The area is particularly vulnerable touncontrolled fires because of the dismantling of the Russian forest andenvironmental services, and the resulting lack of firefighting resources. Thefires are being tackled by brigades set up two years ago by the wildlifeprotection charity WWF. Fed by strong winds, they are concentrated in the southof the Khabarovsk region, where the last census reported 90 to 100 tigers, andin northern and central parts of the Primorskiy region, where another 250 live. Dr Paul Toyne, the WWF’s international conservation officer, said: “This isa potential disaster because it means the loss of the most suitable remaininghabitat for tigers. They are strong and fast enough to outrun the fires and willprobably survive, but what do they do then? “They will immediately be in the territory of other tigers and will have tofight for a new territory or move on. If they win they will probably kill thisyear’s cubs of the defeated tiger . . . if defeated, they will probably run outof forest to hide and come into contact with man.” Tiger numbers have dropped to dangerously low levels because of poaching forChinese medicines and loss of forest cover. The range of this sub-species, alsoknown as the Amur tiger, used to extend far into China but the forest now stopsat the Russian border. The range now reaches as far as Vladivostok in the east but further north, wheregame is scarcer, tigers are rare. The main means to combat this year’s fires are six fire brigades funded by theWWF. About 200 people and 30 vehicles are involved in the present operations.The WWF has been working to prevent fires in the Russian far-east for threeyears, with the protection of the Siberian tiger habitat as one of its mainobjectives. “In one sense fires are a natural part of the forest cycle, especiallyduring the dry season,” Dr Toyne said. “But they need to be controlledand not allowed to sweep vast areas.” Major fires occurred in October 1998 and in May and July 1999 in the Khabarovskand Primorskiy areas. The WWF believes the main reason for this year’s blaze isa combination of a very dry summer and carelessness by people hunting, fishingand mushroom picking. The fire brigade project began in 1999. Apart from vehicles, the WWF contributedclothing and special equipment, hundreds of mobile phones and 21 water pumps,together costing pounds 1m. Today we do not have any other equipment to battle against the fires than thatprovided by the WWF,” Nikolai Seltin, a Russian forestry director,confirmed. The WWF’s work to protect the Siberian tigers includes the creation ofanti-poaching brigades and the monitoring of commercial logging. The promotion of sustainable forestry and protected areas has begun to bringabout a reversal in the long decline in tiger numbers, but keeping enoughsuitable forest habitat is vital.