Shadow falls on the tiger as Russia opens its doors

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THE SIBERIAN tiger's fur shone in the sunlight. The stripes had a blue-black sheen, the body was a rich golden brown. It was a magnificent animal - about nine feet long, a mature adult male in the prime of life. It had the characteristically thick fur and wide paws needed to cope with the winter snows of Siberia.

But this tiger was dead - shot last year by a poacher who attempted to sell the pelt for dollars 15,000 (pounds 10,000) in Vladivostok. He was caught by the authorities and the pelt confiscated, but the harm had been done. Three bullet holes from a high-powered rifle could be seen clearly on the inside of the pelt, which had been spread out on the floor of a private room in the city's Arsenev museum.

Siberian tigers are the largest big cats in the world. They are also among the rarest. They once roamed across huge tracts of central and eastern Siberia, from Lake Baikal to the Sea of Okhotsk, and south into China and Korea. Today there are only about 300 left, mostly in the Primorye and Amur provinces of the Russian Far East.

And their numbers are declining rapidly, as Russia opens up to the outside world and allows poachers and illicit purchasers to operate in ways that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. During the winter of 1992-93, 90 tigers are believed to have been shot by poachers.

The Siberian tiger's predicament foreshadows the problems facing other tigers: in total, there are only an estimated 5,000 living in the wild, compared with 100,000 at the beginning of the century.

Tomorrow, an international meeting to co-ordinate programmes to save all tigers from extinction begins in Geneva. The obstacles to conserving the Siberian tiger are typical: half-hearted law enforcement, relatively large financial rewards for selling a tiger skin, and latitude for bribing underpaid local officials. But several separate initiatives to save the Siberian tiger have been established in the last two years. Whether they succeed or not will depend on local government goodwill, outside funding, and a shift in public opinion in favour of the endangered tiger.

'Now is a critical time for us,' said Vladimir Shetinin, who works for the Primorye local government's committee on ecology, where he is in charge of Group Tiger. 'If we cannot stop the poaching in the next five years or so, I think this tiger cannot survive.'

Mr Shetinin is setting up a programme with the UK group Tiger Trust and the Worldwide Fund for Nature to try to curb the poachers' activities. The conservation groups are providing uniforms, vehicles and radios, and supplementing the meagre government salaries of 15 men to enable them to patrol the taiga wilderness where the tigers still live. In theory, hunting tigers has been illegal in Russia since 1952. Group Tiger's job will be to denounce poachers to the local authorities - if they are prepared to listen and take action.

'At the moment, our government does nothing to stop the poaching,' said Mr Shetinin. 'There are rangers, but either they don't want to confront the poachers or are involved in the poaching themselves.' The rangers get a salary of 30,000 roubles a month - about pounds 13. 'Who wants to work for such a miserable salary?' he asked.

As the Russian Far East opened up at the end of the last century, Cossacks took to hunting the tigers - by the 1930s they were on the verge of extinction. They were probably saved then by the advent of the Second World War, when most young men were drafted into the army and hunting virtually stopped. After the war, stricter government controls prevented any large-scale resumption of hunting and, with little contact with the outside world, there was no market for the skins.

Since the end of communism and the opening of Russia's borders, Chinese and Taiwanese merchants have come looking for tiger bones and body parts for traditional medicines. Japanese and Western buyers are offering huge sums for tiger skins. Customs checks on the Russo-Chinese border and on the ships leaving Vladivostok are, at best, perfunctory.

The US National Geographic Society has set up a programme to attach collars with small radio transmitters to tigers. This will help scientists to monitor the poorly-understood hunting, mating and cub-rearing behaviour of the Siberian tiger. But the programme has already had setbacks: of the four tigers tagged so far, one - a female with four cubs - was shot by a poacher last year, and another died in a freak accident when two trees fell on him.

'It is easy to ruin, and very difficult to restore,' said Mr Shetinin with a sigh.

(Photograph omitted)