Friday, April 24, 2009

Russia's Amur tigers threatened by economic crisis

24 Apr 2009

Primorye, Russia – Loggers in Russia's Far East increasingly are cutting down Korean cedar pine, raising concerns that the endangered Amur tiger could lose critical habitat and its prey could lose a major food source.

Under pressure from the ongoing economic crisis, loggers are turning to the more lucrative Korean cedar pine (Pinus korajensis) as commodity prices for other types of wood fall, which in turn has led to large-scale illegal logging operations in the Ussuriiskaya taiga in Primorye, according to WWF-Russia.

"Chinese importers of the Far Eastern wood have sharply dropped prices and demand for oak and ash wood as an answer to the world crisis," said Denis Smirnov, head of the forest program at WWF-Russia's Amur branch. "These species were the most desired ones for poachers before, but the demand was reduced after export customs duties for these species of timber had been increased from Feb. 1."

"At the same time, Korean pine wood is still highly demanded both in domestic and international markets and is sold at rather high prices," Smirnov said.

Russia's Far East Korean cedar pine forests were heavily logged during the second half of the 20th century, particularly in the late 1990s, which resulted in a 50 percent reduction and left only around 2.88 million hectares of the forests today.

Although P. koraiensis is not nationally protected in Russia, its logging is either prohibited or regulated in certain provinces of Russia and China. However, loggers typically exploit loopholes in regional regulations to launder illegally logged wood, often taking advantage of lax customs controls or by under-declaring the volume of legal exports.

"This rampant and mindless logging is shocking and disturbs the habitat and prey base of some of the rarest animals in the world including the Amur tiger and Amur leopard," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, Director of the Species Programme for WWF-International.

In the Amur region, tiger conservation hinges on protecting the Korean cedar pine. Pine nuts from the tree represent an integral food source for the Amur tiger's prey, such as wild boars. Korean pine-broadleaved forests also provide habitats for the Far Eastern leopard, Asiatic and brown bears, sika deers and many other species. These pine nuts are also sold internationally, benefiting local communities as well.

Awareness of the recently increased demand for Korean cedar pine surfaced after WWF staff, with members of Russia's Internal Affairs Department, the Primorskii Province Forestry Department and Rosselkhoznadzor -- the Federal Service of Veterinary and Phyto-Sanitary Supervision – raided a wood exporter platform in January in the city of Dalnerechensk.

They found about 10 to 15,000 cubic meters of Korean cedar pine originating from illegal logging sites in Dalnerechenskii, Krasnoarmeiskii and Lesozavodskii districts in central and northern Primorye.

Two largest of logging sites, with total volume exceeding 3,000 cubic meters, were found close to the village of Malinovo in an area leased by one of the biggest logging companies in Primorye – JSC "Dalnerechenskles," which is part of the "Dallesprom" group.

Before enforcement of a new Russian Forest Code in 2007, Korean pine held a special status as a species protected from commercial use, which contributed to its conservation. Korean pine has now lost its protective status and increased demand for Korean pine timber along with the complete inaction of regulators and forest control services to address the need for a new special status for the Korean pine have made it an easy target for illegal logging.

The only way to stop the complete destruction of the Far Eastern Korean pine forests is to impose a moratorium on its harvesting, according to WWF. The conservation organization asks that provincial and federal authorities come up with a proposal to urgently add Korean pine into the list of species forbidden to harvest, and to inform importing countries accordingly.

The Amur tiger, which can weigh up to 300 kg and measure around three metres from its nose to the tip of its tail, has come back from the brink of extinction to its highest population for at least 100 years. Only about 40 were alive in 1950 but nowadays there are around 450, one of the strongest tiger populations in the world.

http://www.panda.org/wwf_news/?162901/Amur-tigers-threatened-by-economic-crisis

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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org

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