Authors: John Vaillant
Tiger poaching is the most visible symptom of an environmental problem the size of the continental United States: Siberia’s forests represent an arboreal subcontinent covering 2.3 million square miles; altogether, they account for a quarter of the world’s total wood inventory and more than half of its coniferous forests. They are also one of the planet’s biggest carbon sinks, helping to mitigate one of the chief causes of climate change. While tigers were being stolen from the forests, the forests were also being stolen from the tigers, and from the country. The combination of a desperate need for hard currency, lax forestry regulations, and vast markets that lay only a border crossing away set loose a monster in the woods, which is wreaking havoc to this day. In the Far East, legal and black market logging (along with every shade in between) continues to jeopardize the habitat of tigers, humans, and the game that supports them both.
The most valuable timber in the Far East grows in Primorye, and a person can be murdered here for showing too much interest in the means by which southbound railcars and freighters are loaded with the perfectly symmetrical cylinders of aspen, oak, larch, and poplar that the Asian market demands. Much of what China makes from this Russian wood finds its way into American big box stores. The reason chain store prices—e.g., $20 for a solid oak toilet seat—seem too good to be true is because they are. Stolen hubcaps are cheap for the same reason. In the Far East, paying protection money to the mafia and bribes to customs officials is cheaper than legitimate timber licenses and export duties. On a late night drive through the snowbound woods of the Bikin valley, it is not unusual to meet the black-market night shift—a Toyota van loaded with fallers and their saws, followed by a flatbed crane truck—heading in to work.
Because Russia’s forests are so big and so vulnerable, some American scientists became concerned in the early 1990s when they realized that perestroika had opened the door to a run on Russia’s natural resources. A handful of journalists reported on this and, when they looked more closely, they noticed the tigers, which came as a surprise to many Westerners, who had no clear idea where “Siberian” tigers actually lived, or even what color they were. At the same time, Vladimir Schetinin and other local biologists and hunting managers realized that, in addition to other forest crimes, the number of tigers being killed and smuggled out of Russia was accelerating at a frightening rate. Federal and local governments were in turmoil at the time and offered little support; in some cases, they actively contributed to the problem. Meanwhile, wardens charged with forest protection were surviving on miserable salaries, and many were turning to poaching themselves. According to Schetinin, the tide didn’t really start to turn until the summer of 1993, when an American freelance writer named Suzanne Possehl published a detailed article in the “Environment” section of The New York Times. “Her article was a very important trigger,” said Schetinin. “I will be grateful to her until the end of my days.”
This, and other prominent articles published around the same time, focused the attention of international conservation groups on Primorye, and had a galvanizing effect. It was at this point that the idea of highly trained teams dedicated to intercepting poachers and smugglers, and working with local people to minimize human-tiger conflicts, began to take shape and attract crucial funding from abroad. While Schetinin deserves much of the credit on the Russian side, the person who masterminded the structure and methodology behind Inspection Tiger was an American named Steve Galster. Galster is a fearless and legendary American criminal investigator who, even in person, appears larger than life: he is strikingly handsome and stands about six-feet-four. For the past twenty-five years, he has been analyzing, exposing, and disrupting the traffic in humans, arms, and wildlife across Asia, and he has designed a number of wildlife protection programs that are now well established around the continent. In 1993, before coming to Russia, Galster led a successful investigation into China’s largest rhinoceros horn smuggling syndicate. In 1994, he founded the Global Survival Network, which evolved into WildAid and, later, Wildlife Alliance, which is currently focused on illegal wildlife interdiction programs in Southeast Asia.
What Galster brought to Russia was a formidable list of contacts, compelling presentation skills, and a clear understanding of the synergistic relationship between law enforcement training, weaponry, rapid deployment, and video documentation. Galster called this new agency Operation Amba, and Schetinin was cast as “Commander Amba,” but Inspection Tiger was the name that stuck in Russia. Galster and Schetinin were an effective, if unlikely, pair; by the start of 1994, they had negotiated full inspector status for their teams, and attracted funding for trucks, cameras, radios, and uniforms from the U.K.’s Tiger Trust and the World Wildlife Fund. More followed and, by 1997, half a dozen fully equipped inspection teams were working across Primorye.
By sheer coincidence, another Russian-American tiger initiative was launched at almost exactly the same time: in 1989, before anyone envisioned a poaching crisis in the Russian Far East, a summit meeting of Russian and American big cat biologists took place around a campfire in Idaho. The Americans were doing cutting-edge research on mountain lions using radio collars to track their movements, and one of the Russians suggested they collaborate on a similar study of Amur tigers. In January 1990, two researchers from the Idaho-based Hornocker Wildlife Institute paid their first visit to the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik, a 1,500-square-mile biosphere reserve on the Pacific slope of the Sikhote-Alin mountain range.
The Americans were deeply moved by what they saw and, two years later, in February 1992, at virtually the same moment that Amur tigers began dying in numbers not seen since the early twentieth century, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Siberian Tiger Project was launched. Dale Miquelle, a former moose researcher who had just come off a one-year tiger project in Nepal, was there at the outset and he has never left. In 1995, he was joined by John Goodrich and, together with their Russian colleagues, they have been tracking, trapping, and radio-collaring tigers in the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik ever since. As a result, a much more complete picture of the behavior, habits, and long-term needs of the Amur tiger has emerged; chief among the latter is better protection: over the years, a number of the project’s collared tigers have been killed by poachers, in spite of the fact that they reside in a protected area. The Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik is considered one of the Amur tiger’s key breeding grounds and, because of this, one of the six Inspection Tiger teams was based there.
Vladimir Schetinin assigned Trush to lead the Bikin unit, whose territory encompassed the northwest corner of Primorye, including the confluence of the Bikin and Ussuri rivers. It was a good fit because Trush had already lived and hunted in the area for five years. He and his wife, Lyubov (Love), still make their home in Luchegorsk, a mining town of twenty thousand, and a “four-minute” stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The town’s location seems counterintuitive—the train station is twenty minutes away, down a long dirt road—but this is typical. Most of Siberia and the Far East were settled by Central Committee: a map would be spread out in Moscow, or maybe Irkutsk; a location would be chosen, usually with a particular industry in mind, and a village, town, or city would be thrown up—in many cases by forced labor, or soldiers (which, in Russia, amounts to almost the same thing). Construction was generally hasty, with little thought for the long term, and the harsh utility of these settlements suggests a thinly veiled gulag. Main roads in and out are punctuated by checkpoints manned by armed guards. It is only when you get past the steel bulkheads that pass for apartment doors here that you are allowed to return to a world of color, warmth, and human scale.
One visiting scholar described the Soviet urban anti-aesthetic as “Terminal Modernism,” and Yuri Trush’s forty-year-old hometown, perched as it is on the rim of a vast open-pit coal mine, is a classic example.2 The town proper is a battered collection of urine-stained apartment blocks placed at irregular intervals along potholed, gravel-strewn streets. In some cases, these slab-sided, wire-draped five-story buildings are arranged around grassy commons littered with bits and pieces of playground equipment so badly damaged that they look as if they had weathered some kind of natural catastrophe. There are strangely few children and fewer dogs, but many cats in a state of what seems to be permanent heat. Trush’s building is a short walk from the town square, which is overseen by the once obligatory statue of Lenin. This particular Lenin—a two-tone plaster bust—faces the town’s digital thermometer, which spends months in negative territory while the father of Russian communism looks on from beneath a luminous skullcap of snow. From his vantage he can catch a glimpse of a rickety but gaily colored Ferris wheel that stands, motionless now, several blocks away. Over his left shoulder is the power plant.
Luchegorsk means “Light City”; it is home to the region’s biggest coal-fired power-generating station, and its belching stacks are visible from fifty miles away. About ten hours up the Trans-Siberian from Vladivostok and four hours down from Khabarovsk, Luchegorsk is a place where no one stops unless they have to, but this is true of most communities in the Far East. There are far bigger towns in Primorye where the first inquiry made of a stranger can easily be “So, what brings you to this asshole of the world?”3 Yuri Trush, however, is a bright spot on the landscape; he is well known around town and has a vigorous handshake, hug, or slap on the back for many of the people he encounters. But he had a different greeting for Vladimir Markov.
Trush had visited Markov’s cabin once before he was killed. A year and a half earlier, in the summer of 1996, Trush and Alexander Gorborukov had been on a routine patrol when they found a dead badger cooling in a metal pot in a creek that flowed nearby. Markov was at home and Trush confronted him. Visibly nervous, he gave a lame story about how the badger had gotten into the pot. Killed by dogs, he’d said. Trush looked closely at Markov, then drew his knife and sliced open one of the badger’s wounds; after probing for a moment with his fingers, he withdrew a shotgun pellet. Markov had no choice but to own up. Because he had neither a hunting permit nor a gun license, Trush was in a position to put him out of business then and there. Instead, he gave Markov a choice: give up his weapon, or get charged on multiple counts. Markov balked at this until Gorborukov gestured toward his hunting knife, which, at the time, required an additional license. “We can write you up for the knife, too,” Trush said. “Or you can give us your gun and we’ll leave it at that.”
Markov told Trush he’d be back in a few minutes and disappeared into the forest. It is because of situations like this that poachers rarely leave evidence of their activities around their cabins. Illegal fish spears, which look exactly like the tridents used by Nanai and Udeghe fishermen a century ago, are broken down, the shafts stored in one spot and the iron tips somewhere else. Nets and traps may be buried or stashed in a hollow tree. Guns are trickier because they are so sensitive to climate. They are rarely kept indoors because sudden temperature changes cause the steel hardware to condense and rust. Typically, they are stored in a paper or canvas bag, which allows the weapon to breathe, and then hidden in some dry location outside. It was to just such a hiding place that Markov had gone. Trush, trained to fix events as firmly as possible in time and space, checked his watch.
Trush and Gorborukov had been through this before, and, with the clock running, they occupied their time by searching the premises. Technically speaking, the nearly windowless wooden box Markov occupied wasn’t a cabin at all but a portable caravan—a sort of no-frills Gypsy wagon that is commonly found on remote worksites around Russia and its former satellites. This one had been taken off its wheels, and a rough, open shed had been built onto the east side. Both caravan and shed were covered with sheets of corrugated asbestos. No formal inventory was taken, but the shed was filled with a random assortment of things, most of which were related to beekeeping: metal tubs and tanks; beehive parts; a large, manually operated spinner for separating the honey from the comb; and a small sledge for hauling water, wood, and supplies.
Inside the caravan, on the rude table jammed between plank beds and a barrel stove, was a kerosene lamp and a jar filled with the saved butt ends of cigarettes, some of which were rolled from newspaper. Beyond this, Trush didn’t find much beyond the typical signs of a man living very close to the bone. There was, however, one detail that struck Trush as somewhat out of character for the average poacher; it was the way Markov handled a cigarette: “He smoked,” said Trush, “very suave and stylish—very chic.” It was an odd conceit given the reality of his day-to-day existence, but it was in keeping with his nickname, which was Markiz—the Russian equivalent of “Duke.” According to friends, Markov also fancied himself something of a gourmet, and several of them remarked on his ability to liven up the most basic meals with wild herbs and mushrooms. Without these, there wasn’t much to choose from: in Markov’s world, rice, tea, potatoes, and meat were the key ingredients for basic survival, though vodka, sugar, tobacco, and pine nuts would have been high on the list as well.
Along with more easily identifiable equipment, a typical tayozhnik’s (forest dweller’s) cabin will have a couple of steel trays, roughly the size of large baking pans, hanging under the eaves. Dotted with crude perforations like a giant cheese grater, these trays are used for stripping pinecones. In addition to being prime building material, the Korean pine produces nuts, usually in cycles of three or four years. These nuts, which grow inside the cones, look like oversized corn kernels in a durable brown shell. Once on the ground, they can remain viable—and edible—for years. They are a cruder, earthier cousin to European and North American pine nuts: not as sweet and with a bit more turpentine. Nonetheless, a taste for them is easy to acquire, and they can be as addictive as sunflower seeds. More than a century ago, Far Eastern settlers called them “Siberian conversation” due to the central role they played in frontier social gatherings where few other delicacies (or pastimes) existed.4 They have also been called “the bread of the forest” because they can be ground into flour; oil can be extracted from them as well. Pine nuts are a staple for bear, deer, elk, and boar, not to mention humans and countless smaller creatures. They have even been found in the scat of tigers.