More people have flown into space than seen a Siberian tiger in the wild

Operation Snow Tiger sees Liz Bonnin in search of the world's biggest, most elusive cat

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More people have flown into space than seen a Siberian tiger in the wild
Written By
Terry Payne

Were there a soapbox in the functional, glass-walled office inside the BBC’s shiny new central London HQ, Liz Bonnin would be clambering up onto it. The Voice that once purred pop song now has a tired, despairing tone to it. “We’re supposed to be the most sophisticated species. We’re supposed to be the most intelligent. Well it’s time we showed that we are, show that we are responsible custodians of this planet, because this is boring me now.”

What’s vexing the pop starlet turned scientist presenter is the declining fortunes of the Siberian tiger, the largest cat in the world and also one of the most elusive. The most quoted fact underlining its scarcity is that more people have visited space than have clapped eyes on a Siberian tiger in the wild.

A better measurement is that it’s never been filmed in its habitat by the BBC’s Natural History Unit. Until, so the programme trailer will undoubtedly trumpet, now.

Fewer than 350 Siberian tigers are thought to exist in the wild. Having once roamed vast tracts of northern Asia they are now confined to a remote, mostly snow-blanketed part of far-eastern Russia, north of Vladivostok.

Bonnin, who studied tigers in Nepal as part of a Masters in wildlife biology, ventured there twice last year to report on their fate. It was, for many reasons, a life-altering trip.

“I was bracing myself for something very harsh, not just the terrain, but the people. I worried about whether I would be taken seriously. It was the most hostile place I have ever been to and it’s still something of a man’s world. I didn’t want anyone to think, ‘Oh, she’s only a woman.’ I had all these preconceptions, but they were turned upside down the moment I met Victor. That man has changed my life.”

Victor Lukarevsky is a 50-something conservationist – a steely, blue-eyed terrier of a man whose passion for tigers is matched only by his fondness for vodka. “If you make a Russian a conservationist, there is hope,” says 36-year-old Bonnin with a laugh. “They never give up. ‘No’ is not in their vocabulary. Victor has the force of 1,000 people. He is the most unbelievable human being I have ever met. We worked really long days and he would still be going.”

But the Russian conservationist – particularly one operating near the Chinese border – is himself something of an endangered species.

Chinese medicine men continue to underwrite a massively lucrative and, it goes without saying, utterly obscene trade in tiger body parts. While conservationists like Victor provide the promise of salvation for the Siberian tiger, the poachers prescribe only damnation.

“The demand for tiger parts is higher than ever,” says Bonnin. “Poaching is utterly and absolutely the biggest threat. In this modern day we still haven’t broken that culture and mind-set. There are amazing organisations like WildAid who realise that to save the tiger you have to get into China with marketing agencies and start putting out ads to saturate the market and stop this mind-set. There’s a beautiful campaign that says if the buying stops, the killing will too, but it’s easier said than done.”

Bonnin, who was born in France to a French father and Trinidadian mother and later grew up in Ireland, witnessed at first hand the destructive impact poachers are having on the Siberian tiger population. Three cubs were orphaned when their mother was slain. The BBC team filmed conservationists tracking and saving the starving and bewildered infants, one of which was desperately close to death.


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Their future, though, may not be in the wild. “They’re in a rehab centre now and will stay for at least a year, learning the things their mother would have taught them. But the centre doesn’t have enough money to keep them cordoned off, so the tigers are getting too much human contact, which obviously decreases their chances of survival. We are trying to raise money for the centre so that they can improve the infrastructure. But they’re struggling, and I’m scared to hear the updates about how the cubs are faring.”

Because the tigers are nigh on impossible to observe in the wild, the filming team deployed 30 small, tree-mounted cameras that were activated when the animals passed. Far from diminishing the quality of the footage, the covert manner of their capture enriches the intimacy of the scenes. Bonnin also tracked them through deep forest snow, following giant paw prints.

“Magical is the only way to describe it. You have moments where you sit and think, ‘This is what we’re letting go.’ At one point we were in the car and I knew a tiger was only 50m away, because its locator collar was beeping. It was right there on a kill and, even though I couldn’t see it, my heart was beating through my chest because I knew it was there. That’s part of it perhaps I’m so obsessed with them because I can’t see them.”

The thought of the tigers disappearing permanently from view both haunts and motivates Bonnin, so it’s gamely back on the soapbox.

“I do not want to seem like a romantic, naive woman who wants to save all the cuddly tigers. I hope my studies have provided me with more insight than that. We want this documentary to inspire people and I hope it will, but we have to be realistic – the Siberian tiger stands a very real risk of becoming extinct.

“I get quite emotional, because it’s not a positive outlook. As much as it’s important to make these programmes, I get frustrated that we are still here repeating, ‘Tigers are still on the decline, they’re still being poached, they’re still losing habitat.’ Just stop it now, enough, come on. We can sort this out. We can do this.”


TIGERS IN CRISIS: THE NUMBERS

There are now thought to be just over 3,000 tigers left in the wild. Here are the worst-case estimates of how they’re faring.

* Siberian Tiger (Russia) 350

* Indo-Chinese Tiger (Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam) 360

* Sumatran Tiger (Indonesia) 450

* Malayan Tiger (Malaysia, Thailand) 550

* Bengal Tiger (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, India) 1,870

* The South China tiger has not been sighted in the wild for more than 25 years and is now said to be “functionally extinct”.

All figures from globaltigerinitiative.org

See Operation Snow Tiger, Sun 8:00pm, BBC2 


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