New Delhi: Sergei Bereznuk has never seen a Siberian tiger in the wild. For someone who has been championing the cause of this variety of nearly extinct big cats for 17 years, it isn’t really a curious confession to make.
“In the Russian far east, it is easier to meet a poacher than a tiger,” Bereznuk, 52, a winner of Rolex Award for Enterprise, said in an email interview .
There were once nine varieties of tigers found in Asia. Three have become extinct and numbers of the others have dwindled as forests were cleared and poachers ran rampant.
Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica), also called the Amur tiger because it is found around the Amur river in northeastern Asia, have been reduced to barely 500 in the taiga forests of Sikhote-Alin mountains in eastern Russia, bordering China and the Sea of Japan. There are no clear estimates as to how many tigers existed in the wild previously.
It was perhaps providential that Bereznuk was born in Tigrovaya, or tiger street, in Vladivostok, the main city of Primorsky Krai, not far from Russia’s borders with China and North Korea.
“It was my destiny to be connected to tigers,” he says. “My first memory of a tiger is from the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. I spent my childhood in Novosibirsk, Siberia, where there are no wild tigers, but I saw tigers in Novosibirsk Zoo and I remember the Soviet era movies such as Circus and Striped Voyage, where tigers are featured as intelligent big cats.”
After graduating with an engineering degree from Vladivostok’s Polytechnic Institute in 1982, Bereznuk worked in imports and exports, a typical occupation in the port city. But the turmoil in the erstwhile Soviet Union in the early-1990s forced a career change. This time, he turned to his longstanding love for the Russian wilderness and saving the Amur tiger became his calling.
“I was 35 years old in 1995 when I made my career transition,” he says. “As deputy chief of Inspection Tiger, special department of Primorsky Krai State Committee on Environmental Protection (Goskomecology), I often met rangers with a great passion for tigers and strong commitment to nature conservation.”
“I wondered about the driving force behind their enthusiasm and why they were ready to risk their lives to protect nature. I learned a lot from them,” says Bereznuk. “That was a turning point in my life, when I decided to dedicate my life to nature and tiger conservation.”
From 1995 to 1999, Bereznuk served Inspection Tiger as deputy director before joining the Vladivostok-based Phoenix Fund, becoming its director. Under his leadership, the organization has grown into a leading conservation non-governmental organization (NGO) in Primorye province, developing anti-poaching measures and educating the local people about the importance of preserving the tiger.
Bereznuk provides anti-poaching teams with a specially designed software, a management information system (MIST) developed to gather data on animals and poachers: “Through the MIST software, we analyse data collected on the field and check the effectiveness of various types of patrolling,” Bereznuk says. Anti-poaching teams use global positioning systems to record their patrol routes and inspectors document incidents on specially designed MIST data forms. MIST has the advantage of providing regular and rapid information on illegal activities and ranger performance, and, as it doesn’t require sophisticated computer skills, it’s easy to use, Bereznuk says.
His project is the first example of using a cutting-edge, anti-poaching method and raising environmental awareness through extensive educational and outreach activities in Russia’s far east. These include developing educational materials, films and holding annual Tiger Day Festivals in Vladivostok and other regional centres.
Bereznuk’s six-member patrol team (his NGO collaborates with Russian state agencies) is equipped with an all-terrain vehicle, wireless radio, video and photo cameras, GPS, a rubber motorboat, a personal computer and notebook, and pistols for self-defence. In comparison, India’s forest guards who patrol tiger reserves are armed with only batons, except in Assam’s Kaziranga, where they are provided with rifles.
To check poaching, Bereznuk’s team patrols hunting grounds by car. The rangers check vehicles moving out of the forest; motorboats patrol the river, and fishermen often have rifles as they visit hunting cabins located near riverbanks. Raids on logging camps are conducted in winter and rangers often find illegal rifles hidden in logging vehicles. Night ambushes on logging roads and near farmstead fields are conducted from time to time, and the team uses all kinds of tactics to lure poachers, even by imitating the stag’s mating call and laying a trap for would-be hunters.
Bereznuk is also working to strengthen action against illegal logging and stop habitat-destroying development like road-building, which contribute to the Siberian tiger’s dwindling numbers. “We see the tiger as a symbol of Primorsky Krai. The province and the tiger are inseparably linked,” says Bereznuk. “I want the world to remain beautiful as long as possible so that our children can see tigers in the wild, not in cages.”