A Russian wilderness (Olga Oslina)
Article Words : Mark Carwardine | 01 February

Earning your stripes

Russia's Siberian Tiger is slowly recovering from near-extinction, thanks to the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. Mark Carwardine finds out more

It’s a tough life being a wildlife consultant. When I told friends I was heading to the Russian Far East to look for Siberian tigers, they imagined a beautiful lodge, comfy jeeps, good food and siestas in hammocks or cosy beds. Hah! If only they knew.

This is a land of vast distances, police checkpoints, grey and dilapidated villages, unemployment, unimaginable corruption and thousands of illegal guns.

My trip consisted of four days in planes and airports, two long days of white-knuckle driving on terrible roads and three days of ‘real’ work.

In between, I had a bout of dysentery, was forced to down more vodka than I’d drunk in the past 46 years, was bitten to shreds by encephalitis-carrying ticks and ‘slept’ on mattresses almost as dirty as the water. Not exactly my idea of a holiday.

Beating the poachers

My mission was to evaluate the Siberian Tiger Project and was the first of 13 investigative trips for the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF). The Russian Far East is the only place in the world where wild Siberian tigers live (the name is misleading – they don’t actually live in Siberia) and they face a barrage of threats, from poaching to the logging of their taiga forest home.

DSWF is tackling these issues on many different fronts, and its anti-poaching patrols in particular are having an enormous impact: in just over a decade, the tiger population has increased from fewer than 100 to roughly 500. But more money is urgently needed to pay for extra patrols if the Siberian tiger’s future is to be secured.

Devotion to duty

I spent days in the field with one patrol (accompanied by two heavily-armed secret police) and I can’t remember the last time I was so impressed. These men are well-trained, enthusiastic and devoted, yet poachers frequently attack them with axes and guns. Their families are intimidated. Their work takes them far away from home (typically a two-week shift followed by a few days off) and many nights are spent sleeping rough in the forest.

And for this they are paid just $300 a month.

I can’t stop thinking about them out there in the forest. It reminds me that critically endangered species really can claw their way back from near-certain oblivion thanks to the super-human efforts of a handful of people.

For more information, visit  www.davidshepherd.org