On a cold frosty morning, three members of the Phoenix Fund got into an off-road vehicle and headed to meet colleagues from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Throughout the history of its existence, Phoenix always worked closely with the representative office of WCS-Russia, which has led to synergetic effects and impressive results. Now, these relations have moved to a new level of even greater solidarity towards a common goal – the conservation of the Amur tiger, Amur leopard and their habitat.
We caught the guys over breakfast: on the table there were hot dumplings – hearty food for people who spend hours in the winterly forest, and some tea with waffles. There in the warm and cozy kitchen we had a chance to talk a little bit about field trips, current projects and personal life stories of four employees of the Wildlife Conservation Society, whom we would like to introduce to you.
Perhaps the most unexpected person in this company is a young girl Christina. In her 28 years Christina, a Terney native, has already experimented with a wide variety of jobs, from fish processing to journalism. Clearly a jack-of-all-trades, she feels at home in the forest, can repair her vehicle by herself, knows how to operate a snowmobile and makes her guests feel welcome, treating them with tea. With a degree in economics, Christina quickly realized that the office work was not her calling. Two years ago, she “accidentally”, as she puts it, got involved in a project with WCS, and initially helped with the management of the Terney Research Center. After that, she joined the small carnivore research project as a WCS volunteer. Christina’s fondness for cats was the beginning of her devotion to field research work; that same devotion offsets all the hardships and difficulties that come with the lifestyle she has chosen.
There is a special warmth when Christina speaks of Terney and the people who have influenced her course of life. At the top of the list are her grandfather, who was a woodsman, and her favorite teacher Galina Maksimova, who is the head of the “Uragus” eco-center and is a rare example of a caring and inspiring teacher.
Living in Terney, Christina has monitored trends in local people’s attitudes towards the Amur tiger. She thinks people have become much more aware and even more proactive about preservation of their natural wealth. For instance, she cites the fact that in recent years the number of attendees at the annual Terney Tiger Day Festival is steadily increasing. More and more local residents support and take part in various environmental actions. The anti-poaching efforts of Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Nature Reserve have improved significantly since the arrival of a new director and introduction of an advanced law enforcement monitoring program called SMART.
Across the table sits Christina’s colleague Roman, who became a volunteer at WCS more recently, in October 2016. Although Roman was born in Dalnegorsk, he grew up in Terney and is tied to this place with all his heart. While serving in the army and working at the Fire Department of Vladivostok airport for four years, Roman consistently felt a desire to return home to Terney. When he finally made the return trip, he found work as a mechanic at a local logging company, but after the typhoon Lionrock hit Primorye, Roman decided to quit this job and officially became a volunteer at Wildlife Conservation Society. From his first days at WCS he was involved in a large-scale work on clearing the roads and reducing the impacts of the hurricane on Sikhote-Alin Reserve. In December 2016, Roman walked his first routes during winter tiger tracking, and now is busy installing camera traps for the monitoring of rare predators. With great enthusiasm he talks about living in the taiga and looks quite happy in his new-found role.
Two other members of the team, the old-timers at the WCS, are Vladimir and Alexander.
Vladimir is a former state inspector of Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Nature Reserve, who has had dozens of encounters with tigers and consequently has many fascinating stories to tell. It is unbelievable that a person who met more than fifty wild tigers sits here in front of us so safe and sound?! With a big smile on his face, Vladimir explains that tigers are not aggressive, they are intelligent and proud. If one respects their nature and observes basic safety rules, he can quite easily live side by side with such a frightening predator. In fact, the tiger is very vulnerable creature itself. Vladimir remembers the time when he just started to work in the joint project of the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, Pacific Institute of Geography and the WCS on the study of Amur tiger, and experts had found several cases of tiger mortality from distemper. In those years, there was a drop in the numbers of foxes and raccoons in taiga as well, and they most likely transferred the dangerous disease to tigers. Nowadays, the populations of these small predators have declined significantly.
Meanwhile, the recent typhoon, unequalled to any big storms that hit Primorye during the last hundred years, has brought new challenges to dwellers of the taiga. Before the New Year, Vladimir with the rest of the WCS staff was actively engaged in clearing up the roads in the reserve. He compares what he saw in the reserve to a meteor strike: giant fallen trees were scattered throughout the forest. Such conditions may cause lots of troubles for hoofed mammals, although some animals, like the yellow-throated marten, will likely thrive in such conditions because it is agile and can easily negotiate the fallen trees, putting its prey, like the diminutive musk deer, at a real disadvantage. As yet, Vladimir thinks it is too early to tell what would be the consequences of the typhoon on the local population of the Amur tiger.
Packing the bags with equipment we found one of the oldest (not by age but by experience) WCS employees Alexander. He came to Primorye from the Donbas region of the Ukraine back in 1997 and settled down in Terney. His work at the Wildlife Conservation Society began a year after his arrival. A mechanical engineer by profession, in 2008 Alexander received a second degree in ecology in the Far Eastern State University. Being an employee at WCS, Sasha was involved in several projects, such as the study of bears, tigers and leopards. Alexander is a unique specialist capable of capturing and immobilizing wild animals. He has been directly involved in resolution of many human-tiger conflicts. Sasha spends a lot of time on the road monitoring the Amur tiger cubs that were released into the wild after rehabilitation, but tries not to get attached to the animals he once saved. Over the years, Alexander has had to meet many tigers and leopards. He saw most of them from a safe distance – from an airplane while tracking radio-collared tigers. Sasha remembers seeing 12 tigers in one day! Since 2006, Alexander has been studying the Amur leopard in southwest Primorye, conducting research with the use of camera traps and biomedical studies of the individuals.
It’s time for the team to head to the forest to install the last camera traps before heading home.
In the doorway Christina seeks us out to say one final thing: “I almost forgot to mention the most important thing! I have found myself! I have finally found the place where I want to be. ”
This is not the kind of work for everybody, and certainly not to everyone’s liking, but if you have a love of the taiga and its inhabitants, this is a job you can grow to love.
This inspiring meeting helped us understand better what drives people to work in harsh conditions to preserve nature. We hope to continue to introduce you to the passionate and experienced team of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
It should be noted that the successes of the WCS’ projects are possible due to the professionalism of their employees as well as to close collaboration with Far Eastern protected areas and environmental organizations such as Sikhote-Alin Reserve, A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the RAS, Pacific Institute of Geography, Institute of Biology and Soil Science, FEB RAS, PRNCO «Tiger Centre», Phoenix Fund and others.