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The Great Cats of Russia
The life of the terrible and beautiful beasts today entirely depends on the willingness and ability of the people to live side-by-side with them.

By Boris Zhukoy, Itogi Magazine


If you ask a Russian man what is the most well-known and remarkable wild animal in his country, he will probably say the bear, the wolf, or the elk. The Siberian tiger, which is often featured in books, newspapers and on TV, is not easily remembered. The image of an exotic rapacious beast is too unusual for Russia. And the fact that two more giant wild cats live in the country - the Far Eastern and Snow Leopards, - is not known by many people.

Nevertheless, these magnificent animals, the image of which is so connected with the Eurasian civilizations, remain a reality in Russia. But, unfortunately, one cannot say for sure "and will remain". All three species of the big wild cats are now included in the international and the national Red Books. For two subspecies, their Russian ecotopes are the last refuge on Earth.

How many tigers can lodge in taiga?

Less than half a century ago, there lived eight subspecies of the tiger in the world. Now, three of them remain only in zoological museums and lucky hunter's collections. And while the tigers of Java and Sumatra, who lived only on these islands, diminished because of their narrow geographic space, the same can not be said about the Turanean tiger. It lived on a great territory, from Turkey to the East Kazakhstan and from the costs of the Persian Gulf to the upper stream of Yrtysh river. It's name was given to one of two main rivers of Mesopotamia. In the poem, "The Knight in a Tiger Skin", the hero was wearing its skin. It was last seen in 1969. In 1973, zoologists received a newly-stripped skin. That is all that remained of the beast, which was unlucky enough to live in places that attracted mankind.

Their grievous fate could be shared by the fourth subspecies - the Siberian tiger. In the middle of the 20th century, its wild population was only 30 to 40 animals. They were scattered throughout the isolated remote corners of Sikhote-Alyng, Manchuria and Amur region. The life of the tiger subspecies was saved by a miracle: in 1947, when the work of "taming the Nature" was in full swing, the USSR unexpectedly declared a perfect prohibition on shooting this dangerous carnivore. And in spite of the fact that some limited trade was going on (shooting some tigers which ambushed at people or cattle; poaching; catching some tiger-kittens alive for the circus and the zoo), the population of the Siberian tiger stopped dropping, and from the middle of the 1960s, it began to grow swiftly. By the end of the 1980s, there were about 400 wild Siberian tigers. In addition, through the world's zoos, even more Siberian tiger were saved. There are now more than than 600 Siberian tigers.

This splendid result was nearly ruined in the 1990s, because, among other reasons, commercial trade was added to the usual poaching, there were confrontations between tigers and field hunters, the defending of cattle and dogs, and shooting tigers for fear or for fun. Poachers always worked by the request of the many army officers, who, upon leaving the Far East, wanted to have a tiger or leopard skin as a souvenir. Now many of the military settlements around Habarovsk and Prymorie are desolated, and for those few officers who continue their service, the tigers are not interesting because they have a lot of other problems. But today, the poachers supply the foreign markets of alternative medicine - primarily China. This sort of trade can swallow any number of fells, skins, bones, glands and other parts of a tiger, and the purchasers can pay a "fabulous" (in local calculation) price for them. By the middle of the last decade, about 100 beasts were killed every year, dropping the population to 250. But financial support received from international ecological organizations helped establish an effective anti-poaching team, and kept closer control over the preserved territories. At the same time, China took on very hard punitive measures against the dealers and consumers of the tiger-based medicine. It did not stop the criminal business altogether, but the menace to the existence of the tiger population was avoided. The last estimate of the population of the tiger in Russia was between 400 and 450. There are, at best, 20 wild Siberian tigers outside Russia; possibly they are the same beasts, continually crossing the Russian-China borders.

To tell the truth, many scientists whose main interest is in the tiger, suppose that the registration of footprints is hardly accurate. Galina Salkina from the Lazo Reserve thinks that there are 250 tigers. So it is possible to relax a little - the Siberian tiger managed to avoid extinction. In the future, the beast will live constantly side by side with man. Neither man nor tiger are ready for it.

For a full life, the tiger needs to eat at least one hoofed animal (a sika deer, a boar, a musk deer, a roe, for example) a week. The tiger is not very squeamish and easily changes its "menu". To supply such food, there must be a herd of not less than 300 animals. It should probably be even larger, about 400 to 500 deer and boars. Such a herd needs a large wooden place of habitation. For example, the plot for a female tiger is between 300 and 500 square kilometers, because she is more settled than a male tiger, and she uses the sources of food more efficiently. The accounts show that even if the Siberian tiger inhabits all its former territories, including the left shore of the Amur-River, there will be place for only 550 or 600 beasts. But for this purpose, people must help the tiger to return to the left shore, and the living space of the woods must stay in tact.

However, all accounts are for people: the tiger cannot count. When the wood that fed its prey is being sawed down district by district, the tiger will not care that the local forest service is planting some cedar saplings at some determined territories. It is difficult for a tiger to follow its deer and boars because the nearby ridges and valleys have other striped owners who are not eager to share their prey with an impoverished neighbor. At the same time, at the edge of the woods, in the taiga, the tiger sees some grazing creatures, which look and smell quite edible.

There is a folk omen in Prymorie that say if the cedar wood is cut down, the tiger is sure to come and kill their cattle. When it happens, the beast is considered to be "dangerous" and will be shot. Indeed, if the Siberian tiger belongs to mankind, why must poor Far Eastern settlers support it.

In some countries, people harmed by rare and protected animals are compensated by a benefit payment. Certainly only naive persons can expect any benefits from the Russian government today. But in the Terney region of the Prymorie, a benefit "farmer's fund" has been in place for several years. It was established by Far Eastern zoologist Eugene Smirnov, one of the most competent science researchers at the Sikhote-Alyng reserve. Smirnov spoke about a conversation he had with the owner of 50 cows, two of which fell victim to a tiger. When the owner was convinced that he could receive money for his cows, he asked frankly: "Can you make the tiger eat the other 48 cows too?" Taking into account that the theft of cattle is a habitual thing in Far-Eastern villages, it is not difficult to predict the result of paying adequate compensation for the tiger's deeds.

Another problem is the tiger's abhorrence to dogs. The beast attacks the cattle when it's ordinary fare is scant or when the temptation is irresistible (say, a horse grazing in the wood at night), but it never misses a chance to throttle a dog. There were cases in villages when the tiger snatched away a dog from the master's hands. Maybe the tiger treats dogs as wolves - they are food competitors, and the wolf is a threat to kittens. It is well known that where there are many tigers, wolves never live. Hunters' dogs become victims of the tiger more often than others. In such cases, there is no use to speak about any financial compensation: an angry man with a gun cannot forgive the beast for the murder of his friend. So it is not without reason that further from cities and the closer to taiga, the attitude of people towards the tiger is worse.

The tiger attacks people too, but immeasurably less than people attack the tiger. There were never tiger-man-hunters in the Far East, as the case was in India, because they simply did not have time to become such, for after killing one or two people the tigers were killed, too. From 1976 to 1997 only four tigers tasted human flesh in the Far East. Some attacks had special reasons, in which the man was to blame. The bodies of killed tigers were marked by old bullets or scars from hunting traps. The men were attacked by scared or wounded beasts, or by the tigresses defending her kittens. The incidents of non-motivated aggression are usually told by the victims, who could have reasons not to tell all the details, or who may not have known that they had broken the "tiger law". Still, it can not be said that the tiger is dangerous only for fools and felons. It is far from the blood-thirsty monster of old books and hunter's stories. But it is not also a striped pussy-cat of the animation and books for children. The more rare instances it comes across to people at a short distance, the better it will be for both of them.

On the verge of non-existence

While there are threats to the Siberian tiger, the Far Eastern Leopard could only envy its life. These two carnivores are alike not only because they belong to Panthera species. They are both extreme forms of tropical species, who managed to adapt to cold and snowy winters in Eastern Asia. Both of them hunt hoofed animals. Unlike the tiger, the leopard seldom hunts for adult deer and boars. for they are too big for this cat. Both of them were isolated from neighboring subspecies, devastated on the main part of their territory in Manchuria and Korea, and survived only at the Northeastern brink of their area - in the Russian Far East. But for the tiger, this "brink" included the whole of the Prymorie and the southern part of the Khabarovsk region. Lonely male tigers sometimes wandered as far as north as the Baykal Lake and south to Jakutia. Even diminished by one-third, the territory proved to be sufficient for several hundred tigers. But the leopard, even in the best times, always lived only in the southern part of the Prymorie. This was the place where the biggest herds of sika deer - the main prey of the leopard - lived. But it was driven away from the sea by humans. When people settled in the vast valley stretching from the Khanka Lake to the Japanese sea, "Leopard land" was torn in two and the animals, who were in the Sikhote-Alyng Mountains, lost contact with the population near the Manchuria border.

Studies in the 1980s showed that there were no traces of the leopard in North Korea or in the Sikhote-Alyng. There have not been any in South Korea since the 1960s. Single leopards were spotted near the borders of Manchuria, having likely passed from Russia. Settled leopards were found only on a small territory (3,500 to 4,000 square kilometers) in the extreme Southwestern part of the Prymorie, at the Black Mountains and Borisov Plato (Shu-Fang). The entire world population of the Far Eastern Leopard - 30 to 40 of then -live there.

Their life is not safe, although almost half the area has a reserve status. The leopard, as well as the tiger, is hunted for the illegal export to China. It perishes in traps set for smaller creatures, like the badger and raccoon dog. When many hunters begin deer and boar chases their dogs drive leopards into trees, and hunters yield to temptation to get a rare trophy. Often pregnant and nursing female leopards settle down near deer parks, where the sika deer are being bred for their antlers. Such places give the beast easy access to constant prey, but they doom the leopard to a fast death because the owners do their best to get rid of the plunderer. And although the Phoenix Fund at Prymorie pays practical compensation for every deer killed by leopards, only two of 10 deer parks signed a treaty with the Fund.

But the main difference between the big cats is the fact that a neighborhood with a tiger is dangerous for people as well as for the tiger, and such side-by-side existence with a leopard is absolutely impossible. The Far Eastern Leopard, unlike its Indian relative, was never a man-eater, and those rare cases when it attacked people were due to the fact that the animals were wounded or trapped. It does not throttle dogs, and does not kill cattle - except deer from parks. It simply goes as far away from people as possible. Perhaps even into non-existence.

"I'm afraid we can lose the leopard altogether", says Gennady Kolonin, the chief expert of the Goskomekologia (the State Committee for ecology monitoring).

"We are losing it", concurs Eugene Schwartz, the director of the Russian WWF.

In this situation, there might be hope for the extra population of the leopard in captivity. It is well known that about 200 Far Eastern Leopards live and reproduce in the zoos of the world. But the overwhelming majority of them have so-called "Number 2 male" among their ancestors. It was a beast of obscure origin, attributed by mistake as a Far Eastern subspecies. Some of his offspring are melanists - black panthers - and there was not ever a black leopard in the Far East. The population with his genes would be an imitation, an artifact. And there are only 10 beasts not akin to him in the world, and they are the only real thoroughbred Far Eastern Leopards. But to increase the reserve population means to take the wild animals, and now it is equal to participation in their devastation.

But sometimes extraordinary things may happen. Several years ago a young female leopard with a badly damaged paw was caught by officials in the "Kedrovaya Pad" Reserve. If she survived in taiga, she could have given birth to and nursed a few kittens. In the cage, the broken paw was of no importance. The decision to take her to a zoo was reached, but while the necessary documents were mailed from Moscow, Lusy (this was the name that was given to her) was killed by a poacher - in the cage at the cordon. The villain was taken red-handed and put in prison for several years. It was an unique occurrence, for as a rule the courts generally impose a fine upon the poachers, and instead of money, the murderers send the courts a document proving that they have no wages. But the spotted tribe took one more step to the brink.

In fact, it has been hanging on this brink for decades because in the population of leopards has been constant. But this does not lead to optimism. Any grand accident, for example, a season of big fires, two or three snowy winters in succession, a deer plague, a sudden rise of prices on leopard preparations in China, a hazardous economic activity of the region's authority or something else could extinguish the last breeding ground of these beautiful animals.

Yet there is another timid hope. The officers of the "Tiger" department, rangers of the Lazo Reserve and many of the hunters affirm that the leopards still live in Southern Sikhote-Alyng . This might be regarded as a hunter's story or belief in a miracle. But in October 1998, a young leopard was knocked down by a truck near Tavrichanka. The village lies in the aforementioned woodless and densely populated valley of the Razdolnaya River, just in the eastern part close to the Sikhote-Alyng. This means that the perished beast had come from Sikhote-Alyng, or leopards can get over the Razdolnaya River. Both the variants slightly raise the chance of survival for Far Eastern Leopards.

The biospheric totems

Our third giant cat - the Snow Leopard or "irbis" - lives in the Altay and Sayan Mountains, a long way from the Far East. The native territory of the irbis includes all the highlands of Central Asia from the Himalayas to Sayan. The Snow Leopard populates all these lands now. People have not decided how they could use the irbis. Besides, this cat reproduces in cage easily.

Like the Far-Eastern Leopard, the irbis doesn't want to have any dealings with people and tries to keep away from them. It never attacks people and hunts cattle only when herds drive away its prey: mountain goats, argali and other mountain hoofed animals. The extraordinary furtiveness of the irbis, and the absence of human interest in it lessened man's activity against the beast. For the same reasons, we know very little about Snow Leopards. In 1999, the first special expedition was sent to the region for studying the Snow Leopard. But the irbis was always hunted to enhance prestige, because of its magnificent fur, and for needs of "traditional medicine".

Andrey Pojarkov, the chief manager of the expedition, calls the actual situation a fragile equipoise. It seems all right: the level of poaching does not disrupt the ability of the irbis population to self-sustain, and there is no mass destruction of the ecotype. Moreover, the economic recession allowed wild-hoofed animals to have vacant highland pastures. There is no tense relations between the irbis and local people, except in Tuva, where many people believe for some reasons that the irbis kidnaps babies, rapes women, and that the animal is an incarnation of evil forces. The places where it dwells are far from the centers where its fur would be in demand, and the region has very poor infrastructure. But if something happens, all could crash down. The irbis is too ecologically vulnerable.

This article gives a calculation of how much woodland is needed for one tiger. The Snow Leopard is similar in its consummation to the tiger and the panther, but the rocks are not like the taiga - much less food grows on the stones. So a much broader place is needed for feeding the irbis. There are only 100 to 200 irbises in all of the Altay-Sayan highlands. There must not be noticeably more of them there, but who knows how many guns there are there, and what if only 1 percent of the guns belong to poachers? And if fencers come, and on-line data show they are already coming, the poaching will certainly increase.

It is well known that folks living from hunting and collecting often believe in a totem - an animal ancestor. To a certain extent, that is a kind of role that big carnivores play in nature. They are the last link in the chain - in a "who eats who" world. They can flourish only if their prey prospers, and if the food for the prey is lavish. All this must be in proper amount and on territories vast enough for it. Certainly the need for complex ecological research is evident. And still the tiger, the leopard and the irbis live in Russia. There is hope.