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On the Last of 9 Lives.

The Siberian tiger has almost vanished from the Russian far East. To survive, it needs habitat-and that means trees.

Today we will see tiger tracks." It was the second of our six days in the Russian Far East touring the site of our most unique Global ReLeaf International project--reforesting habitat for endangered Siberian, or Amur, tiger. Our partner, Sergei Ganzei, deputy director of the Pacific Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said, "Wait. He will bring." And in walked a grinning forester with a plaster of Paris tiger track made by a one-and-a-halfyear-old tiger.

It wasn't the same as seeing actual paw prints in the wild, but it was still exhilarating. The paw was about the size of my hand, and I imagined that foot silently padding through the forest in search of a meal. And this tiger wasn't even full-grown.

It was May and I was in the city of Vladivostok with Rick Crouse, our senior vice president for marketing, and Zane Smith, a field representative for AMERICAN FORESTS with extensive experience working in Russia. We had traveled for two days to reach this city on Russia's eastern coast near the Sea of Japan, eager to see for ourselves the last phase of planting of native Korean pines that will provide habitat for the big cat whose paw print I had just touched.

We also wanted to cooperatively determine opportunities for future plantings. Because tigers are a common sight in large zoos, it is easy to forget just how few of them are left in the wild. A century ago some 100,000 tigers roamed throughout Asia; now somewhere between 4,600 and 7,700 survive. Ninety-five percent of the population disappeared over the course of seven generations. Of the eight known subspecies, three--the Bali, Caspian, and Javan--were extinct by 1979. Five remain--Bengal (or Indian), Indochinese, Siberian, South China, and Sumatran.

There are only about 450 Siberian tigers left in the wild, but some experts believe that, because of the opportunities that exist for expanding its habitat, it is the subspecies with the best chance of surviving long into this new century. Most of those tigers are in the Russian Far East, where hunting was banned in 1947.

Tigers have disappeared from Bali, South Korea, south-central China, Mongolia, and near Russia's Lake Baikal, each time for the same reasons: poaching for tiger parts; prey (rabbits, wild boars, spotted deer, and elk) lost to hunters; and habitat lost to logging, agriculture, fire, mining, and war.

The situation for the Siberian tiger in Russia is grave--you need 500 members of a species for it to he considered genetically viable, and the Siberian hovers at or below that mark. Planting trees to expand reserves and create corridors between protected tiger reserves is one tangible way to help them survive and multiply.

GLOBAL RELEAF FOR THE TIGER

While others study population and trends, AMERICAN FORESTS is the only group doing extensive habitat improvement. We're doubly proud of our contribution, because it supports both the tiger and the local economy. By providing grants for tree planting, we're giving economic opportunities both to our partners and to the people they contract to do site prep and planting.

Our project began with a call to our Russian partner, the Far Eastern Branch of the Pacific Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences. Zane spent long months in consultation with our partners before the 300,000 Korean pines were planted. Together with the Primorsky Krai Department of Forestry, suitable planting sites were identified and prepared and the seedlings grown to be planted in four areas where tigers are known to live.

The tree of choice: native Korean pine, which produces a nut similar to pinon pine that is coveted both by tiger prey and by nearby villagers. Nuts are produced annually, but every five to seven years the tree yields a bumper crop. This is why the tree, which is protected by Russian law, is known as "the bread of the forest."

AMERICAN FORESTS' Korean pines were grown by a nursery near Vladivostok using some of our Global ReLeaf grant money, and officials there proudly showed us their fertilizing and climate control system, which used American technology. (They confided that their only problem so far has been the eight months it took for the equipment to clear Russian customs.) Additional funding and technical assistance was provided by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which supports forestry work in the Russian Far East. ESRI donated GIS software to help track the tree plantings.

The first phase of what we hope will be a long-term project was funded by ExxonMobil (see page 19). The company also has worked with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save the Tiger Fund on ways to protect the endangered cat. The USFS sponsored our site visit to Russia.

JOURNEY THROUGH TIGER LAND

As we approached the airport at Vladivostok it became evident why tiger experts look to the Russian Far East with hope. The area is called the taiga, which refers to the great expanse of forest that stretches from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific.

We stepped off the plane to temperatures of about 60 degrees, cooler than normal for May 2 but still warmer than I expected. Spring had arrived late this year and trees were just starting to bud. All along the road from the airport to downtown people were planting potatoes and other staples at their dachas, their outlying summer homes.

We were met at the airport by Sergei Ganzei, our partner from the Pacific Institute of Geography, and a graduate student and Institute intern named Oleg Boitsov, who was to serve as our driver. On the way into the city we passed a cemetery that stretched for miles, where Russian families were visiting their loved ones. Closer in the road was lined with large apartment buildings, each connected by massive coils of 6-foot diameter centralized heating duct that snaked along the road.

Vladivostok is beautifully set on a large harbor, with water on three sides and mountains to the north. Huge magpie nests fill the street and the yard trees, and it stayed light past 9 p.m. Zane marveled at how the city, often referred to as the San Francisco of Russia, has improved both in appearance and attitude since he last visited in 1994, and throughout our trip we found the Russian people infused with a spirit of hope.

We also found a culture steeped in tiger lore. The orange cat is visible on municipal signs, local brochures, food packages, and vodka bottles. There's even a giant bronze tiger statue on the waterfront where families and tourists like to have their picture taken. Russians are very proud of their big cat!

The next day, joined by Institute director Peter Baklanov, we met the Russian Academy of Sciences' premier tiger expert, Dmitri Pikunov. Known as "Mr. Tiger," Pikunov has studied the big cats for more than 30 years, most recently helping the respected Hornocker Wildlife Institute in Moscow, Idaho, with its Siberian tiger research in Sikhote-Alin.

Pikunov, who has devoted his career to studying the tiger and protecting its habitat, is an advocate for the approach we've chosen--creating a network of ecological corridors that connect existing tiger populations with suitable habitat in the remaining primary forests of the taiga. He has endorsed our Global ReLeaf Forest efforts, as has the Hornocker Wildlife Institute.

George D. Davis, founder and past president of Global Associates in Sustainable Development, Inc., has said of the project: "The Global ReLeaf project of AMERICAN FORESTS and its Russian colleagues in Primorsky fits perfectly as a vital piece to the jigsaw puzzle that will eventually mark the implementation of the Russian-Chinese-American sustainable development program developed for that region. It not only expands the habitat necessary for the survival and recovery of the Siberian tiger, but it does so in a manner consistent with other sustainable uses of the land."

The heart of our trip, of course, was site visits, so we met with representatives of the Primorsky Krai forest office of the Russian Federal Forest Service. The office, which coordinated our plantings, is responsible for 32 million acres of forestland that includes 31 species of trees, primarily Korean pine, oak, birch, fir, and maple. This area, a transition zone between boreal and temperate forest, enjoys a diversity of species uncommon to the rest of Russia, and many other rare and endangered species are found there: Amur leopards, Himalayan bear, and Steller's eagle.

Fire is the preeminent danger in these diverse forests. Although most fires in the North are caused by lightning, in the South--where most tiger habitat is located--they more often result from debris burning, campfires, and careless smokers. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the current economic situation has made fire detection and suppression very difficult. While everyone we talked to in Russia appreciated the new freedoms they had, we detected a slight yearning for the days when collective mobilization was more easily coordinated.

We headed out to visit two of our three Global ReLeaf projects, both in the southeastern portion of Primorsky Krai. Our projects included planting 50,000 seedlings adjacent to the federally protected Ussuriysky preserve, and 100,000 on each of two sites next to another federally protected preserve, Lazovsky. (Our third project planted 50,000 trees to extend wildlife corridors next to Sikhote-Alin, an international Biosphere Reserve in the east-central portion of Primorsky Krai.) As we headed for the forest, we bumped along in a large all-wheel-drive military-type vehicle over the roughest forest roads we'd ever experienced.

Support for our project runs high locally, even though nearby villagers are understandably concerned for the safety of their livestock and pets. The plantings offer much-needed income and will improve habitat for wild boar and spotted deer, which the villagers hunt. We were pleased to learn that when trees were removed to lessen competition for the pines, the Forestry Department made a gift of the wood to local World War II pensioners.

All the work involved in getting the trees in the ground was done by the Krai Department of Forestry paired with trained contractors, many of them women from nearby villages. Follow-up treatment, monitoring, and fire patrols are a part of the management of each site.

After a planting demonstration at our Ussuriysky preserve site, we all washed up in the river for a picnic. Boards nailed to stumps formed a sturdy table and benches, and kabobs were readied on the open wood fire.

The spread was incredible: soup with pork, hard-boiled eggs topped with caviar, boiled potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, and bread and cheese. Fiddlehead ferns collected in the forest were boiled, then spiced and sauteed. We washed it all down with mountain cranberry, rose, and birch tree juice.

It's true that Russians love their vodka. Three short toasts started off our meal. The first, by our forestry hosts, acknowledged the partnership and thanked us for our support. The second--ours--expressed gratitude for their work and hospitality. The third toast is traditionally dedicated to women, and the men all stand in recognition. Today, we also used this toast to thank the women for the wonderful meal they prepared for us. Over the days we would enjoy many more toasts and many more expressions of thanks, not only for our partnership but for the extraordinary freedoms Russians now enjoy.

We came away invigorated by what we saw and experienced and determined to redouble our efforts. With support from its members and friends AMERICAN FORESTS' Russian partners could grow and plant 1 million trees for tigers in the Russian Far East per year. There are 24,700 acres (10,000 hectares) of critical tiger habitat along the border of China, additional areas that need trees near our planting sites at Ussuriysky and Lazovsky, as well as areas that have been intensively logged or burned and require reforestation near the Sikhote-Alin tiger reserve.

The Russians are wonderful, open people, warm and caring as they cope with severe economic hardships. They may not have much during these dire times, but we found them willing to share anything they had with us. Their newfound freedoms parallel the extraordinary wildness of the magnificent Siberian tiger. Our combined efforts can prompt a resurgence of this elegant animal. That would be another extraordinary event in Russia's history and a milestone for the entire world.

For that, we can all lift our glasses in a toast.

Deborah Gangloff is AMERICAM FORESTS' executive director; Zane Smith, our Pacific field representative; and Rick Crouse, senior vice president for marketing.
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Author:Crouse, Rick
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Words:2101
Previous Article:A Perilous FLIGHT.
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