On the trail of the tiger
I have dreamt about the Siberian Tiger since I was a child. Giant ten foot-long tigers walking in the snow? As a kid growing up in France it was beyond my wildest imagination.
A few years ago I went to Siberia to do a project on the Amur leopard, the rarest cat on Earth. Six months later I decided I wanted to go back to do something on tigers. I had all the connections among local people and NGOs to set this up, which is how I arranged to work in a zapovednik, a completely closed-off reserve, near the city of Vladivostok. My plan was make both a photo story and a short documentary.
I stayed in a little village just outside the Ussurisk zapovednik and worked with the rangers for two months, going into the reserve every day and trying to find evidence of tigers. Rangers are the real heroes of conservation. They usually have very poor salaries, poor equipment and no insurance. In Siberia, they go out in the freezing cold forest for days at a time where they take on armed poachers who want to kill tigers and export their parts to China. It’s a very difficult way of life and work. But they were incredibly welcoming to me. Each time I turned up in their camp in the taiga (Russia’s boreal forest), one of the rangers, a big guy wearing a Kalashnikov, was so happy to see me that he would open all the drinks he could find for me.
Siberia used to be a place where people would hunt to eat. It was not a sport. Now, it’s turning into one. There’s a road that cuts the zapovednik in two. Guys break in and travel down it in their cars with their rifles, shooting everything they can see through the window, including tigers. Often the group that kills the animal speeds off and another car arrives, in which no-one is armed, and picks up the body. The rangers have to confront them, and they say they didn’t kill the animal, they found it dead and didn’t want it to go to waste. It’s a frustrating situation, particularly when the hunters may be rich and well connected. The rangers are also worried about the forest being cut down by illegal loggers, destroying the tigers’ habitat.
Tiger populations are tracked with thousands of camera traps, which photograph the tiger’s stripes as they pass. Each tiger’s stripes are unique, they act as a sort of barcode, and by comparing images of them you can track individual tigers. This technique has been around for a decade or so: before that, populations were monitored through tracks in the snow or mud and it was very difficult to be precise.
In May 2015, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources announced that the population of Siberian tigers had grown by 15 percent over a decade, due to increased penalties for poaching, the work of rangers and the protection of habitats. I do believe the population is increasing but you’ve got to factor in the incentives for the authorities to show a big step forward. If you can show an increase in tiger numbers you can bring in extra money from conservation organisations, so there’s a temptation to inflate numbers. Some of the people I met who were working in the field were surprised at the size of the increase in official numbers.”
“Bhutan has taken an unusual path in terms of conservation. Under the terms of its constitution, a minimum of 60 percent of its land always has to remain as forest – it’s currently at 72 percent – and each citizen has a legal duty to prevent ecological degradation. In 1999 it created 12 biological corridors to connect up all nine protected areas in the country: the corridors were designated as a ‘Gift to the Earth’ from the people of Bhutan. In these corridors development is banned, which ensures that animals such as tigers can roam free and unimpeded, from the subtropical southern forests to the northern alpine areas. It seems to be working: a government survey in 2015 showed that the tiger population has risen from 75 to 103 in ten years.
The photography project in Bhutan was a collaboration with WWF UK and WWF Bhutan, which are participating in the TX2 programme to double global tiger numbers from 3,200 in 2010 to more than 6,000 by 2022, the next Chinese year of the tiger. The photoshoot lasted for three months, during which we camped in one of the biological corridors, a big T-shaped chunk of forest which connects three national parks. Tigers are highly elusive but they don’t walk around randomly in the forest, they have certain paths which they’re circling all the time looking for prey. We found one, at an altitude of 3,500 metres, installed the camera, and I got our first image (pictured right) a month after the first camera installation. That was a big moment, and it is the first high definition image of a tiger at that altitude in the Himalayas.
There’s a really deep link between the Bhutanese people and the tiger. For Buddhists, the tiger is one of four protectors of Bhutan. What’s interesting is that the rest of them are mythical: the dragon, the snow lion and the garuda, a cross between a bird and a human. At one point I asked a monk, ‘How come the tiger is the only non-mythical one of them?’ He was surprised by my question. He said: ‘No. You’re wrong. All those protectors used to roam the Himalayas. But they have all been killed, they all disappeared. Now, we only have the tiger, it’s our last protector.’ So now they’re really scared that this very last protector animal could be killed by the destruction of the forest, and they teach kids in school about how important it is to preserve them.”
“We did see some signs of tiger poachers. It is not as major a phenomenon in Bhutan as it is in other parts of Asia, partly because there isn’t a strong transport link with China, the biggest market for tiger parts. There’s a giant mountain range between Bhutan and Tibet, and there’s only one road which leads out of Bhutan and it goes to India. But still, to rehabilitate the tiger population you need to get to zero poaching – and for this you need a lot of rangers, as the tigers roam across huge areas.
Bhutan is looking for a way to finance the protection of its natural habitats in the long term, including hiring more rangers. It’s at a crossroads at the moment, because it is expected to be reclassified shortly from a ‘least developed country’ to a ‘middle income country’ in the UN rankings. This will mean a decline in foreign aid, which will make conservation a greater challenge. In response, the government and the WWF have launched a project called Bhutan for Life, designed to raise the funds to develop Bhutan’s protected area system and maintain it in perpetuity.
Preserving habitats is vital. While the numbers of tigers in Bhutan are rising thanks to increased conservation efforts, the numbers of Sumatran tigers are going down – their population fell by 16.6 per cent between 2000 and 2012. One thing I’ve learned in following big cat stories is that if you cut back the forest, as they have done in Sumatra to cultivate palm oil, you immediately have a huge impact on the tiger. This is why we call it an umbrella species, because when you protect tigers, you are protecting the whole forest. And as the forests act as the lungs of the planet, that’s a very important thing for all of us.”
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