An infrared, motion-triggered camera catches poachers spotlighting along an old logging road in Primorye, Russia. Photograph © WCS Russia
This article, written for Earth Day 2017 and in support of the March for Science, first appeared on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Medium page.
I’m a wildlife conservationist and I work in Russia. Here is a tiny example, from that corner of the world that shows how maintaining a grounding in scientific principles benefits both humans and wildlife.
Ternei County (in the Russian province of Primorye) is remote, forested, and sparsely populated. There are few opportunities for steady employment here, with the logging industry being one of the few exceptions. In fact, a single logging company acts as the primary employer in at least four of the ten villages scattered across this 11,000 square mile area.
Over the past thirty years, more and more of Ternei County have been opened up for timber harvest, driven by global demand, with logging roads reaching further and further into these forests of pine, oak, and birch.
As a wildlife conservationist I was concerned that poachers were using old logging roads to shoot deer, wild boar, and even tigers, but intuition was not enough to guide change in logging management practice. The forests appear vast and limitless to anyone passing through them, so how can I measure the impact of logging roads?
My team designed a study.
A Russian hunter on a Buran snowmobile. Photograph © Wildlife Conservation Society Russia Program
Somewhere around Day Fifteen of the winter 2014 field season a hunter named Strogov happened past our camp in his pickup truck. Strogov, a prematurely-grey, stocky forty-year-old with eyes of cold-blue steel, occasionally provided us with meat and gave us news of the outside world. He was surprised to see us still working in the area. I asked why.
“Because of the bear that killed that guy about ten kilometers from here,” he replied.
Brown bear fur and claw among oak leaves. Photograph © J. Slaght
It was time to look for a dead bear.
This corner of northeast Asia is the only place in the world where tigers and brown bears live in the same forests, and the prospect that John and I had stumbled upon evidence of a direct and fatal encounter filled me with oscillating waves of exhilaration and trepidation.
John unholstered his canister of bear spray—a concentrated dose of capsaicin that presumably worked against tigers as well—and passed me a Russian hand flare. These devices, shaped like a runner’s baton and designed for use by distressed sailors, ignite when a string is pulled to release a meter-long, blindingly-bright flame accompanied by two minutes of smoke and a monstrous roar. It is the last line of defense in a large carnivore attack. John suggested I remove the lid and have the ignition string handy; if unexpectedly charged by a tiger or bear it would be unfortunate if my last act on Earth was the frenzied unscrewing of a flare cap.