Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate

The first drinks appear in a bottle, the vodka crisp and clear. It is when the alcohol starts being delivered in plastic tubs that the conversation turns to the wildlife subject those present love the most: how best it can be killed.

One man, dressed in a battered baseball cap and full camouflage fatigues, is gorging himself on a fish plucked from a river. Beside him his two friends clean rifles as they talk. Around them hunting dogs scramble. It is an unusual setting – and even more unusual clientele – for a gathering of conservationists.

But conservationists are what these men are, whatever their love of shooting. For in the expanse of forest that makes up the Siberian taiga of Russia's far east, it is hunters such as these that hold the best hope for the survival of the region's remaining tigers.

The story of the Siberian, or Amur, tiger cannot be separated from that of hunting.

When the first settlers arrived in the 19th century, they brought with them their guns, and they soon used them to gather the skins that they could send west to the markets in Moscow.

After the Second World War, so few tigers were left, some 50 at most, that they faced extinction. That was when the Soviet leadership acted, ordering their protection and enforcing its directive with an iron fist. With wildlife rangers sent to the region and anyone caught killing a tiger ruthlessly punished, numbers rose, accelerating through the Sixties and particularly the Seventies till some 500 roamed the forests.

The USSR has long gone, however, and with it the ability of the Russian state to exert its will with such unquestioned force. In its place, the wildlife charities now working in eastern Russia have had to look to other options. That means enlisting those who kill animals to help save them.

"Sustainability is what matters," explains Pavel Fomenko, the World Wildlife Fund's programme director for the region, "and that requires the help of hunting lodges. They work so closely with the countryside that they know the state of the tigers that live there and the animals they feed on – and so can help us work to grow numbers."

Although the tiger is already heavily protected by Russian law, a system of licences is now being enforced to put a limit on the number of other wildlife that can be hunted. Lodges are also working with the charity to put out food supplies during the brutal winter months.

 

Some 10 such lodges have so far signed up to the WWF's initiative, the land they husband covering some 15,000 square miles of barely-inhabited territory. Many border each other, enabling the tigers to migrate from one to the other freely.

Their motivation is partly patriotic. Ever since Vladimir Putin took up the cause of the Amur tiger as his own, the animal's survival has become increasingly associated with the virility of the Russian state.

"The tiger is special to Russia," says Valerii Matvineko, the 50-year-old owner of the Medved bear hunting lodge where the huntsmen are staying. "We have to know there is enough wildlife to hunt as if you want the number of tigers to go up then we have to ensure they have something to feed on." The Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, is among those, he says, who have stayed at his lodge to see the work it is undertaking.

But the motivation is also practical. For hunting lodges to flourish, they need a ready supply of wild deer and boar to shoot. Excessive poaching can cripple those populations, which could mean bankruptcy for their businesses.

Deer and boar are the tiger's meal of choice, too. A declining food stock therefore results in a declining tiger population. And, when the tiger disappears from a region, packs of wolves – previously terrified by its presence – move in.

Wolves quickly decimate wildlife stocks. That means no sport for anyone. As the huntsmen drinking in the lodge know. "Wolves," the man in the FBI cap looks up from his fish to growl, "they leave nothing".

Save the tiger: How to donate

Text: TIGER 70060 to make a £3 donation

Phone: 0844 7360036

To adopt a tiger: http://www.wwf.org.uk/adoption/

To donate to WWF Russia: wwf.org.uk/protecttigers

This is a charity donation service for WWF-UK. Texts cost £3 plus one message at your standard network rate (age 16+; UK mobiles only). WWF will receive 100% of your £3 gift. WWF may contact you again in future. If you would prefer that they didn't call, please text NOCALL WWF to 70060. If you would prefer not to receive SMS messages from WWF, please text NOSMS WWF to 70060. If you wish to discuss a mobile payment call 020-3282 7863. Except for the Adopt a Tiger programme, donations made through the provided links and telephone number will go towards WWF's tiger projects in the Russian Far East. For more details, visit wwf.org.uk/tigerterms. WWF-UK, charity registered in England number 1081247 and in Scotland number SC039593.

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