Battling such entrenched interests can also be risky. During the 2008-09 winter, the summer house of Yuriy Bersenev, one of Smirnov’s WWF colleagues, was burnt to the ground by unknown perpetrators. A day before the fire, which followed a Russian TV story about the organisation’s work, Smirnov said he was also the indirect victim of a ‘traffic accident’ in the countryside. ‘The son of one of our colleagues died in quite a strange traffic accident, and it has still not been investigated,’ Smirnov says.
In particular danger of retribution are the local informants that apprise activists of the situation on the ground. Smirnov says residents in one Primorsky settlement who sent a series of letters to the region’s governor requesting action against illegal logging had the windows of their cars and houses shot out. Local police, he said, then ‘discouraged’ the residents from lodging any further complaints.
In spite of the obstacles, activists say some progress is being made. In 2007, WWF succeeded in getting two forest management officials fired and arrested for their complicity in helping loggers to operate in the Tayozhniy wildlife refuge, a key tiger breeding ground in the Khabarovsk region.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The following year, the US Congress passed an amendment to the Lacey Act, an existing anti-wildlife trafficking law, extending its prohibitions to the import of illegally-sourced wood and wood products. Given the amount of the timber that ends up in US markets – the US diplomatic cable cites estimates that up to 90 percent of hardwoods from the Russian Far East reach the United States – campaigners say large-scale retailers such as Walmart could deal a blow to the timber trade by dumping rogue Chinese suppliers. At the time of its passage, Alexander von Bismarck, the executive director of the EIA, which spearheaded the coalition supporting the ban, said the amendment marked ‘a new phase in the global effort to improve forest governance’.
Whether the US legislation will make any difference remains an open question – due to the lack of monitoring capacity in China, some are sceptical – but the Siberian tiger also has a powerful friend in Russia’s prime minister (and avid outdoorsman) Vladimir Putin. After the international Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg in November, Putin signed into law a ban on the logging of Korean pine, a nut-bearing species vital to the tiger’s survival.
Next year’s APEC Summit, when the world’s eyes will be on the host city Vladivostok, could also provide a spur for the government to investigate forestry crimes, with Moscow keen to transform the image of the Far East as a ‘wild east’ plagued by corruption and neglect. For environmentalists, however, promises of ‘comprehensive’ investigations have a familiar hollow ring.
‘The question is’, says Smirnov, ‘will it be photo campaign, or will it make real changes to the structure?’
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He can be reached at [email protected].