Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fears Over Tigers in Logging Dispute

TERNEI, Primorsky Region -- Loggers in the Far East have started cutting away at a winter habitat of the endangered Ussurian tiger, ignoring protests by tiger conservationists and Russia's Environment Ministry.

The Terneyles logging firm Tuesday started cutting pines and oaks on 57,000 hectares of natural forest bordering the Sikhote-Alinsky nature reserve, which is home to two dozen of the estimated 200 Ussurian tigers left in Russia.

Anatoly Astafyev, director of the reserve, said he had been trying since 1991 to convince local authorities to transfer the state-owned lot to his park, arguing that it is a major winter refuge for dozens of tigers from both the reserve and the rest of the region.

While logging scares away the tigers and their prey, Astafyev said he is more worried about the indirect effects of the timber business. New roads, built for the loggers, will also enable poachers to enter the rugged region and hunt the tigers, he said.

Most poachers in the region stay on the main roads, shooting from their trucks and disappearing quickly with their catch before police or park rangers can interfere.

By expanding the number of guards, the reserve has managed to protect all of the tigers it monitors since one was killed in late 1992. But Astafyev added that poachers have killed 10 tigers this year alone just outside the park.

There are only about 200 tigers left in Russia, with poachers killing close to 50 each year, he said.

Natalya Danilina, head of the nature reserves department at the Environmental Protection Ministry which has supported Astafyev's bid to obtain the land, said that the governor of the Primorye region had agreed informally to an immediate transfer of the land but had yet to sign an official decision. Until then, Terneyles was free to log the land, she said, adding: "A lot can be destroyed in very little time."Astafyev said that Terneyles moved in and started logging the tract as soon as it found out it was about to lose the land.

Vladimir Shcherbakov, director of Terneyles, confirmed he had started logging in the region but said that Nazdratenko had only agreed to consider transfer in three to five years from now.

"It doesn't hurt the tigers," Shcherbakov said, adding that the disputed lot was "a vital source of income for our firm."

Shcherbakov said that 200 workers in the impoverished region would be out of a job if his firm was not allowed to log on the disputed land before it was handed over to the park.

While he acknowledged that the logging would also enable poachers to enter the region, Shcherbakov said it was the state's responsibility to hire more rangers to protect the tigers outside the reserve. "That's what we pay taxes for," he added.

Astafyev said loggers have moved closer and closer to the park in recent years, as privatization and profitable contracts with Japanese and South Korean trading firms encouraged logging firms to cut more and faster.

"Earlier, they had no equipment, no roads and no profit motive," he said. Now, Terneyles uses Western machines that cut and strip a tree in less than a minute. "If they had had this kind of equipment before, the region would have been deforested 20 years ago."

Shcherbakov said his firm cuts only 30 to 40 percent of the pines and oaks to enable the forest to recover naturally, denying accusations that the firm is clearcutting.

Seen from the air, it is clear that only the less valuable birches are left standing in most parts of the region where the loggers have been at work..

Two hundred kilometers north of the park, the Korean Hyundai company has been logging timber as well, defying protests by environmentalists who charge the company with clearcutting.