No More Tigers

These are desperate times for the world's largest cats, and for the people who are killing them. Can Siberia save itself, or will it soon be a land of no more tigers? In search of Panthera tigris altaica, icon of a culture that assumes the worst for itself and always finds that assumption confirmed.

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The Russian in the next seat on Aeroflot flight 001 — Moscow to Vladivostok — is returning from a business trip to Peru. Alexander is in his midthirties, a husky man in a rumpled flannel shirt and faded jeans. He’s part owner of a fishing boat, and he informs me in excellent English that he has just arranged to import what he hopes will be the perfect product for Siberia’s thawing markets: low-cost Peruvian saunas.

“But why are you on this plane?” he asks. “There’s nothing to do in Vladivostok. You’ll have a terrible time.”

I tell Alexander I’ve heard that a few hundred wild Amur tigers live in Primorye, the Maritime Territory of the Russian Far East.

“Ah,” he says. “You’re a hunter.”

I remind him that hunting tigers is illegal, and he responds with a shrug of indifference. “Tell it to the tigers. Ask them what good the law’s doing them.”

I’ve done a little reading on the subject — there isn’t much to be done — and I know the answer: The Amur tiger, Panthera tigris altaica, the world’s largest cat, is on the fast track to extinction. In 1985 there were about 400 tigers in Primorye, a wedge of territory about the size of California that runs north and south from Vladivostok between China and the Sea of Japan. Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its strict hunting and border controls, poachers began their harvest. Today there are at most 250 tigers in Primorye. And that, I tell Alexander, is why I’m on this plane: I want to see a tiger in Russia, and time’s running out.

“So you’re a hunter without a gun,” Alexander says. “A typical American weirdo.” He laughs amiably and assures me: “I like American weirdos. Look at me, importing sauna baths from the Andes — very weird, yes? No, this is business, and business is normal and stupid and boring. You have a different kind of dream. A tiger is almost impossible to imagine, and when they’re gone we will only be able to imagine them. You aren’t content to imagine. Someday we’ll all die, and you want first to see this rare animal. Very existential.”

I hadn’t quite thought of this trip as a preemptive strike against death’s darkness, but I’m glad Alexander approves. I pour him some duty-free scotch; he drinks and then stares into his empty glass. Minutes pass. Alexander appears to have descended suddenly into melancholy. Or is it jealousy? He sees me as a man of luxury, an environmentalist playboy, a Yankee sahib. I’m guessing, of course; I don’t know how he sees me, only that he appears to be brooding. I pour him more scotch. He nods, and tosses it back.

“You know,” he says. “My first love is archaeology. I once dug with my professor in the ancient Chinese ruins along the Amur River. But that was another era.”

In Russia today, even teenagers speak of five years ago as another era. It’s a fact stated with all-knowing weariness in a country where everything is suddenly unknown. How many times on this trip will I be told, “It’s everyone for himself now”? To some it’s an anthem of opportunity; to others, a declaration of terror. Now Alexander says it again: “You must eat or be eaten.”

He smiles at me, an expression drained by the exhaustion of three days of nonstop international travel. “Still,” he says, “I, too, would like to see many things before it’s too late.” And with a slight shift of his weight, he’s asleep.

I squirm in my seat, unable to sleep. Our talk has left me restless. The world has a lot of problems, Russia has a lot of problems. Perhaps tigers aren’t so important. Nearly all of us already live without them, and we don’t really miss them. But Alexander is right: Knowing that tigers are out there allows us to imagine our world differently than if tigers were history. Which leaves me to wonder — if I do see a tiger, will I really know what I’m seeing?

A few hours later, I am awakened by the sharp tilt of the plane banking south along the Amur River, over the eastern limit of Chinese airspace at the Russia-Manchuria border. Six thousand years ago the cave-dwellers on the banks of the Amur decorated their walls with sacred paintings of tigers, and from those early times until very recently, the tiger was sacred, totemic, and to the successful hunter the trophy conferred a status of nobility and authority.

Today, the Chinese and Korean descendants of the lost Amur tribes still revere the tiger, and it is their reverence that’s driving the beast to extinction. Forget the stone ax and the glory of the hunt. Tiger killing is now a criminal industry, an affair of sneak-thieves with high-power rifles and spotlights cruising forest roads at night, and smugglers and corrupt customs officials shunting the tigers’ remains over the border to the Chinese folk-medicine market.

Consumers of these medicines believe that tiger-eye pills and tiger-bone wine, tiger-brain lotion and tiger-tail soap can cure everything from acne to malaria. They believe that eating tiger hearts and tiger meat can bolster courage and prevent snakebites. They believe that tiger whiskers can serve as a talisman against bullets and that burning tiger hair will drive away centipedes. They believe that tiger penises, brewed in a soup, are a potent aphrodisiac — so potent that Taiwanese men of withered capacities pay $320 a bowl to put a little tiger in their tanks.

In Vladivostok, too, they revere the tiger; it is the city’s mascot, and its image appears on a public fountain, on suburban train cars, T-shirts, tractor-trailer hoods, and the tattooed skin of drunken sailors. Russians have been in this area only since 1860, when minions of the czar came and drove out the Chinese and Koreans. But the self-importance and the ambition to grandeur that made the early city fathers claim the tiger as their crest does not appear to have borne fruit. After 70 years of Soviet rule, Vladivostok is a metropolis of hardship and poverty.

The setting is magnificent, a ring of steep, windswept hills around the sheltered coves of Peter the Great Bay, but I find the monumental buildings along the main drag battered and crumbly, the harbor crammed with rust-hulled ships. Young soldiers and sailors skulk along the sidewalk and huddle outside a cinema that features an erotic thriller with the fabulously unappetizing title Women Piranhas of the Avocado Jungle.

Along the busier sidewalks, exhausted, skinny children hawk fruit and newspapers for pennies; men walk to offices in repeatedly darned shirts, carrying patched briefcases, wearing broken shoes; an old woman sits on the curb beside a bathroom scale, charging 200 rubles (about seven cents) to weigh yourself. And these are the working poor; idlers are everywhere, and most of them are drunk.

A tiger, I suspect, would be distressed to be associated with this place. The last tiger to visit Vladivostok, a 440-pound male, came in mid-March 1986. He wandered into the snowy predawn desolation of the city, killed a dog, and ate it for breakfast. When people discovered the pet’s bloody carcass surrounded by the four-inch-wide paw prints, the city was placed under a curfew. A posse was organized, and a helicopter was dispatched to lead the hunt. Finally, at dusk, the all-clear went out: The tiger had been gunned down at a suburban trolley stop.

Plainly, Vladivostok and its mascot are at odds, and it strikes me that the fate of the tiger largely lies in the balance of this mismatch. The tiger of the imagination makes a nice mystical-macho tattoo, but in the flesh it’s viewed as a public nuisance, and dead it’s worth tens of thousands of dollars on the international black market.

Riding into the city one morning on the electric commuter train, I see three sailors with huge sheath knives guarding a handcuffed prisoner with a shaved head. Another day I see a boy smash a bottle and cut his wrists badly, splashing blood over the floor and walls of the car. Nobody expresses much shock at these sights; nobody really pays any attention.

With freedom, and the hardship in freedom, has come great desperation. To imagine the tiger is to imagine a fat stack of $100 bills. There are plenty of people who will kill another person for less, and with a person, of course, the hunt is much easier.

At the Vladivostok offices of the Primorye Regional Committee of the Ministry of Conservation of Environment and Natural Resources of the Russian Federation, I am greeted by Vladimir Shetinin, the committee’s deputy chairman, who tells me that since 1992 poachers have killed at least 50 tigers a year. At that rate, extinction will come before the end of the century.

“But the public doesn’t worry about tigers,” Shetinin says. “Even our local first deputy governor has said, ‘It’d be better to kill all these tigers and be done with the problem.'”

Shetinin is a stout, gray-bearded woodsman with a gentle but adamant manner, and his eyes grow damp as he paces his bare office. “The World Wildlife Fund and Tiger Trust gave us some money to start antipoaching brigades. We bought a few vehicles and some uniforms. Now it’s August. No more money. Does Moscow help? No. Is our equipment as good as the poachers’? No. We have no guns, no radios — almost no men we can trust absolutely. Some game wardens, I’m afraid, are very good poachers. Even if we catch someone, the prosecutors might forget to prosecute. Everyone is connected. Only the tigers have no connections.”

Of course, Shetinin points out, in the first quarter of the century the situation was much worse; back then there wasn’t even a pretense of hunting regulation, and by the end of the 1930s only a few dozen tigers remained. Then came World War II, when most men who could hunt were drafted, and after the war tiger hunting was outlawed and new nature preserves, called zapovedniks, were created in Primorye. Under Soviet rule, 170 zapovedniks were kept like military bases: closed to recreational use, authorized personnel only. Together they formed one of the most effective wilderness-preservation systems in history and, says Shetinin, a key to the tigers’ slow comeback during the Cold War.

I’m not sure what Shetinin’s trying to tell me with this history lesson. Is totalitarian rule the only way to save the tigers? “I hope not,” he says. But when I ask whether the Amur tiger can be saved in the current climate, he has to think for a minute. He presses his hands together over his chest, then holds them out empty. “We have a little time and a chance to change the situation if we work hard and cruelly,” he says. “But actually we have no defense.”

Downstairs, in a spacious corner office with two phones on the desk, Mikhail Bibikov, the chairman of the environmental committee, affirms Shetinin’s gloomy prognosis. And it’s not just the tiger that’s at stake, he says; it’s the whole taiga, the boreal forest habitat that blankets Russia with more than a fifth of the world’s woodlands.

Bibikov bends back one finger after another as he enumerates his concerns. “It’s impossible to protect just one species without protecting the entire ecosystem. Today’s commercial poachers take many more elk and wild boar, the food of the tiger. The same mafia is involved in illegal lumber cutting, taking the Mongolian oak and Korean pine that are the food of the elk and wild boar and so the prefood of the tiger. Quite simply, the process of control is out of control.”

I’m impressed by the frankness with which Bibikov and Shetinin proclaim their professional despair, but I’m perplexed by it too. Both say they refuse to abandon the struggle to save Primorye’s wilds, and both say the struggle is hopeless. I don’t know what they really believe. I don’t know whether they are sure themselves. It occurs to me that Russian writers have achieved greatness, in large measure, by describing in acutely realistic terms the state of being overwhelmed by life’s contradictions to the point of becoming absolutely uncertain about everything. The predicament is hardly unique to Russia, but every society lays hold of certain themes, and over time, as art imitates life and life imitates art, those themes anneal into a culture. In Russia, hope and despair seem to enjoy a peculiar symbiosis, and I’m beginning to get the impression that at this moment, in this place, the tiger has acquired its most precarious symbolic role yet, as an icon of a culture that assumes the worst for itself and regularly finds that assumption confirmed.

Russia’s zapovedniks are technically open to the public these days, but to visit them you must have a permit, a place to stay, a place to eat, and a vehicle, and if you want to leave the main road there are no trail maps and often no trails. To get to the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik, a 1,314-square-mile chunk of taiga that is home to about 30 tigers, I hook up with a group of ten Americans organized by REI Adventures in Seattle and fly north for an hour to a deserted dirt airfield in a wide valley of the Sikhote-Alin mountain range, a string of extinct volcanoes whose pyramidal peaks rise abruptly to 5,000 feet within ten miles of the Sea of Japan.

Primorye is so remote that even the far-reaching glaciers of the last ice age passed it by, and the taiga here retains properties of a subtropical rainforest. The forests are tangled in places with lianas, and the ground is bright with rare blooms. The air is hot and heavy in August, which is typhoon season on the Sea of Japan, and although four or five feet of snow cover the ground in winter, poisonous snakes live in the rocks. High on the cormorant-studded bluffs along the coast, the world’s last known flock of wild Goral mountain goats grazes in an alpine meadow where it’s perfectly normal to see a tropical Maak’s swallowtail butterfly — big charcoal wings with velvety whorls — hovering over the edelweiss.

Life at the Blogadotna Lake field station, our base camp in the zapovednik, follows a rhythm of profound serenity. The man who opens the gate emerges from his cabin like a Tolstoyan vision of a Russian hermit — tall, bronzed, shirtless, and barefoot, waving the milling mosquitoes away from his broad face with enormous, graceful hands. In the weathered-pine kitchen shack, Lena, the cook, prepares a fabulous borscht, and then brings out the stew or the salmon, and the fat little pancakes that you lather with fresh cream or wild berry jams and wash down with pots of tea.

After dinner we retreat to the banya, the Russian sauna. There’s no purer cleansing than this routine of sweating by a wood furnace, stoked by the shirtless and shoeless gatekeeper, and then jumping into the pore-puckeringly cold stream outside, sweating again, dumping a basin of warm water over your head, flogging yourself with a bunch of birch or oak branches, sweating some more, and back into the stream — over and over until you can’t stand it anymore, or just can’t stand.

At night, moonlight spills into the bunk room, and from my window I can watch the sunrise over the Sea of Japan and hear the weird gargling cries from a rookery of nerpa seals just off the deserted mile of pebble beach a few minutes’ walk from my bed. I sleep like a stone and sit up abruptly on waking, staring out the window at a sudden soft noise. Could it be a tiger? No — just someone off to the latrine.

Ina Voloshina, a wildlife biologist who works in the zapovednik, laughs when I come from breakfast saying, “OK, I’m ready. Take me to the tigers.” Ina has lived in the area for 20 years, and although she has seen a few tigers in that time, it’s the tigers she hasn’t seen that haunt her.

“Sometimes in the field,” she says, “I’ll be washing in the stream, and I’ll feel I’m not alone.” She jerks her head up and stares about with an air of alarm. “What is it? What? I see nothing. But later I see in the mud there was a tiger — his handprints, his fingers. The animal is always wanting to see you, but he doesn’t want to be seen.”

Ina’s story haunts me, too. I know the taiga has eyes, and my own eyes get tired looking back. At first I see only droppings: elk shit, bear shit, badger shit, flying squirrel shit. The zapovednik is no petting zoo; the animals here are wild and chary.

Only the birds reveal themselves. A white-tailed sea eagle cruises the beach, and later I see white-tailed swifts wheeling over the sea cliffs, and black-tailed gulls, and golden eyes that Ina calls stone ducks. And finally a mammal: a flash of brown hide in the taiga, a roe deer. Later, a wild boar crashes through the underbush, and I spot a Himalayan black bear crossing the road with her cub, and a Siberian raccoon dog by the garbage pit.

Still no tiger — not even a trace.

But I would not call the quest fruitless. I have imagined tigers all along my trail, projected them in my mind’s eye into every clearing and behind every bush, and now I find that I remember those places where I didn’t see a tiger far more precisely than I would if I had just been out walking with no particular focus. I’m pleased with this discovery; the sights, sounds, and smells of the landscape are distinctly imprinted on my mind, and the rich detail of the impressions — a little bend in the path, for instance, where a brilliant shaft of sunlight fell across a bowed birch sapling rising from a mushroom-spotted pad of black loam tossed up by an excavating badger — is all thanks to the obscurity of the tiger.

It seems to me that there’s a lesson in this, that if one really wants to see the world and not merely to pass through it, one can do worse than to set forth determined to find something that’s not there — a dodo, say, or a woolly mammoth, or an honest man — something whose absence heightens the immediacy of all that is, in fact, present.

Only there are tigers here, or so everyone says. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong; maybe to see a tiger, I should look for something else.

What’s wrong?” Ina asks the next time we meet. “You look disgusted.” I tell her I’m looking for a woolly mammoth and can’t find one anywhere.

She shoots me a dubious look and advises patience. I tell her I don’t know the meaning of the word, and she says, “Talk to Victor Voronin, the guy at the gate. He knows all about patience, and tigers, too.”

That night, after the banya, I invite Victor to talk, and he speaks for hours about his “first and foremost love — the tiger.” He has had encounters with about 30 tigers since he dropped out of the art history program at the University of Leningrad 20 years ago and drifted east, carried by a love of travel, until he reached the Sea of Japan and settled in the village of Ternej at the edge of the zapovednik.

“When I first came here,” he says, “I wasn’t sure what to do. Then I got an old camera. I started taking pictures of nature, and the thing that stands out most in the nature here are the tigers. So I learned what they do, what they eat, what their tracks look like, and at that time, in the late seventies and eighties, there were a lot of tigers around, and many came into the towns.

“There was one tiger who only ate dogs. He would come in, take a dog, and drag it out into the woods. He always ate the body and left the head, and in some places I found three or four or five heads. When the tiger got a household piglet, it was the same — he ate the body and left the head. Of course, the villagers were very upset, and it was only about half a month before someone shot him. It was very, very sad for me when this tiger was shot. I had followed him for a while, and I saw him sleeping, resting, walking, hunting. When I took his picture he was sleeping, then he saw me and sat up, and I got a great picture.”

“And you weren’t afraid?” I ask.

“No,” says Victor. “I’d seen tigers a lot in the wild, and at that time I was still carrying a gun. But there was an incident, and I stopped carrying it. I’d been following this particular tiger one day, and I saw from his tracks where he was going, so I went up ahead and sat and waited for him. I took off my hat, my camera, my revolver, and I put them down in the snow in front of me. I waited some time. Then I heard a crunch in the snow behind me. I spun around. The tiger was already walking away. I looked at his tracks. He had been sitting, watching me for some time, maybe 15 minutes. It was very strange. He could have done whatever he wanted.”

“So you stopped carrying your gun?”

“Not because I’m a fanatic or an idiot,” Victor says, “but because the only thing that can happen is you can shoot the tiger in panic, and that would be very sad. I know what the tiger will do, and if a tiger wants to get you, he can.”

“What do you feel,” I ask, “when it’s just you and him?”

Victor wraps his arms around his chest and his face contracts in concentration for a moment. Then he speaks, and his entire body expands into movement; his hands wave and clench and open, his feet shift over the floor, and his eyes narrow and take on a look of feral circumspection. “It’s a feeling full of stress,” he says. “One trembles. There’s good in this, but also a negative aspect. For instance, once I came across a female sleeping in a thicket in a scrub forest of Mongolian oak. She was two meters long and about two meters away from me, and her paws were twitching. She was dreaming, and this is awesome and incredible, to be near this magnificent, beautiful, powerful beast. But at the same time it’s terrible to know that with a swipe of her paw she could finish me. These are the feelings of being with a tiger.”

Beneath a stand of tall birches, a clot of bloody hair lies tangled in a bed of crushed grass. A strong, gamy smell fills the air. The broken weeds trace a path along the forest floor — a few yards farther there’s a well-gnawed bone attached to an elk hoof, then a chunk of spine, four blood-black vertebrae covered with flies.

Bart Schleyer picks a few hairs from the ground and says, “Bear. Looks like a bear got in here and cleaned up after the tiger had her fill.”

Bart would know. Before he came to Sikhote-Alin last year to work with the Siberian Tiger Project of the University of Idaho’s Hornocker Wildlife Research Institute, he spent a decade or so tracking grizzly bears in Montana and Alaska. He looks the part, like the exaggerated heros of Soviet monuments: well over six feet of solid muscle, barrel-chested and wasp-waisted, with the hard cowboy jaw and soft drawl of his native Wyoming. After about ten minutes in his company a woman in my group gushes, “I’ve got enough photos for a Bart calendar.”

But Bart seems interested only in the tigress, Katya.

“About a week ago,” he says, “we picked up the signal on the radio that she was sitting here. The signal held for four or five days, so it was a pretty fair guess she was on a kill.”

The Hornocker project studies tigers by trapping them, naming them, fixing them with radio collars, and then releasing them to be followed “on air” by trackers like Bart.

Back on the road, a few hundred yards from the kill site, Bart hoists a multidirectional antenna and tips it this way and that, and the receiver slung over his shoulder gives off a sharp rhythmic beeping — pip, pip, pip, pip.

“That’s Katya,” he says, “and that’s a real good strong signal. She can’t be more than half a kilometer away.”

We jump into the jeep and bounce off down a dirt track that runs through high weeds, dense forest, and a few shallow streams. Bart explains that a tiger’s range can cover 180 square miles and that the chance of bumping into one in the taiga is about one in 10,000. But now he’s putting the odds at 50-50 or better, and since he seems inclined to understatement and I’m inclined to see a tiger, my hopes are high.

“Tigers kill with stealth and a great burst of speed,” Bart says. “They hit 45 to 55 miles per hour in short bursts. And they lunge on from behind and grab hold with their claws. The kill is made with the jaws, a bite to the back of the neck, crushing the spine, or to the throat, rupturing the jugular or clamping down until the prey suffocates.”

I’m loosening my shirt collar as we leave the jeep and set out on foot, tuning into Katya’s signal from time to time as we follow her trail up a streambed.

“I got a real good signal like this one day,” Bart says, “and right while I’m standing there, this little Russian boar came tearing out of the bush, squealing his head off.”

Bart chuckles, but I’m all sympathy for that boar, and I keep eyeing the can of red-pepper mace that Bart carries in a hip holster. How fast, I wonder, is his draw? And how effective is that stuff anyway?

“It works on bear,” he says. “I don’t know about tigers. We keep our distance.”

But we’re closing in on Katya, bushwhacking through weeds as high as my ears. A tiger in here would be like a submarine. I imagine her crouched. I imagine her stealth and speed. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that she’s within lunging distance, and when a breeze ruffles the top tufts of the surrounding grasses, I freeze in terrified anticipation of the charge. It’s all I can do to keep from barking, Turn on the damn radio, Bart.

But when, a few minutes later, he does turn it on, there’s only a faint, uncertain clicking, and then nothing.

“We’ve lost her,” Bart says. “She could be behind anything around here.”

Which is precisely what I’ve been afraid of. Still, I’m sorely disappointed. I feel like the dupe in a carnival ring-toss. Is this what becomes of the tiger when it meets the technology of the late-twentieth-century imagination? This pip-pip-pip-hiss — the tiger as interactive video game? For all I know that beeping on Bart’s box was just feedback from a passing satellite or half-life emissions from a Soviet nuclear sub sunk in the Sea of Japan. But that’s the point, after all; Katya’s elusiveness is testimony to her wildness. As always, in the pursuit phase of a courtship, I find this wild elusiveness maddening, and I find that it only intensifies my admiration and desire.

When the Hornocker project first came to Sikhote-Alin in January 1992, Victor Voronin worked with it for three months. But he didn’t like what he saw.

“It’s cruel,” he says. “Maybe that’s how science is. You’ll see the animals in the snares, tearing themselves, trying to get out. Then they wander around in a daze for two or three days from the drug. And I think of myself with a collar on. Of course, I could go shopping and so on, but — really!”

Bart agrees that “it can’t be very comfortable to be snared.” He even tells a story that suggests the depths of that discomfort. “It’s widely held,” he says, “that tigers don’t climb trees. Well, once when we went in with a helicopter to replace the collar on this one tigress, she had cubs, and she climbed two different trees to chase us away. She was up there, real mad, swiping and snapping at the helicopter. Still, there are very few biologists who’d want to be trapping animals and harassing them if they didn’t think it was for the animals’ good in the long run.”

The long run, however, may be too long. Victor prefers to work as a zapovednik security guard for the “very miserly” salary of $50 to $70 a month, because “in the present,” he says, “I don’t think the Hornocker work is doing anything at all for the tiger.”

The Hornocker people don’t exactly dispute this, though they maintain guarded optimism about the tiger’s survival. About a year ago, they bowed out of a World Wildlife Fund contract to establish antipoaching brigades, leaving that task to the local Russian authorities. They’re scientists, they say, not activists, and Dale Miquelle, the project’s field coordinator, describes their relationship to the fate of the tiger by invoking what he calls “the spotted owl analogy.”

“The question of whether to list the spotted owl as an endangered species,” he says, “came down to a court battle over the quality of scientific information on both sides of the issue. Our goal is to provide the highest quality information possible on the tigers so that a protection plan can be prepared.”

The tiger, however, is already listed in the Russian “red book” of endangered species, and trafficking in tiger remains is already prohibited by international law. What’s more, Miquelle’s spotted owl analogy presupposes the existence of functioning court and environmental-protection systems, and that, as the case of Vladimir Naumenko illustrates, is pie in the sky in Primorye.

You can’t really have a conversation about tigers in Sikhote-Alin without hearing, sooner or later, how in February ’92 Naumenko, a game warden and hunting expert for the local environmental protection administration in Ternej, tried to sell the skin of a 350-pound female tiger to undercover KGB operatives for $5,000. The sting was set in motion by a presidential decree from Boris Yeltsin, who was apparently tired of getting mail from Westerners urging him to do something about the tiger poaching in Primorye. Yeltsin told the KGB to deal with the problem, so it sent agents to Ternej and busted Naumenko.

The most concise account of the case was given to me by Anatoli Astafiev, the director of the zapovednik. Astafiev is a soft-spoken, affable man who sits in his office beneath a photograph of some young Amur tigers lying on a bed of straw in captivity, which is how most Amur tigers now live. There are more than 700 of them in the world’s zoos and private collections, and pretty soon, if the Naumenko affair tells us anything, they will be all the Amur tigers that are left in the world.

“Naumenko,” says Astafiev. “Naumenko broke the regulations. Naumenko went to court. Now he’s back in his old job. We don’t understand this either.”

In court, Naumenko said the tiger had attacked him in the woods and he shot her in self-defense. He said he was intending to use the skin for a rug until the KGB buyers came along and offered to buy it. Poor Naumenko; even the court had to agree that $5,000 — about three times the average annual income in Russia — is more tempting than honesty. Nobody seems to have questioned the appropriateness of a game warden making himself a rug from a tiger that nobody saw him shoot. The court slapped Naumenko’s wrist with a one-year suspended sentence — a stain on his name, perhaps, but nothing to keep his cronies from reinstating him shortly afterwards.

If this is what happens when President Yeltsin throws his weight behind tiger protection, it’s hard to put much faith in the influence of any Hornocker findings. Nevertheless, growing foreign assistance for tiger protection owes something to the fact that the Hornocker team gets money from the National Geographic Society in exchange for an “exclusive” on its Amur tiger story: Meanwhile, the Society claims all first rights on photographs of radio-collared and captured cats. At Sikhote-Alin, several zapovednik employees complain to me that the National Geographic people — known locally as “Hollywood” — have imposed a gag rule against talking about tigers to reporters and other visiting riffraff.

There is something ludicrous and indecent about the idea of a media exclusive on wild animals, as if collaring, or paying for the collar, meant ownership, as if the good of scientists and their sponsors were more important than the good of their specimens. It sounds like something a Naumenko might have cooked up: Hey, comrades, think of the scoop if the last wild Amur tiger existed only in the pages of National Geographic.

It’s my last evening at Sikhote-Alin, and I’m standing in the dirt by the side of the main road, on patrol with Boris Litvinov, commander of the zapovednik’s World Wildlife Fund – sponsored antipoaching brigade. He wears sharply pressed pants, a pale blue shirt with epaulets, big pink-tinted eyeglasses, and an old service revolver in a brown leather holster.

Litvinov’s retinue includes three brigadeers, a militia officer who carries a striped baton, and, for my benefit, a translator named Sasha. We’re all just standing here by the road in the mercilessly hot sun, listening to a Russian pop tune from the radio of one of our jeeps. After a while I ask, “Is this what you normally do? What would be happening if I wasn’t here?”

“Normally,” Litvinov says, “we’d be stopping cars.”

“So,” I say, “let’s stop some cars.”

The militia officer steps into the road with his baton. Litvinov and his crew don’t have the authority to stop cars by themselves, and this is a cause of bitterness to him. He is very earnest about his business, and although his beat is the entire 1,314-square-mile zapovednik, and although as yet he has only two cars and three men, and although they patrol only 20 times a month for a maximum of six hours a night, he expresses determination and optimism about his work. “We will have an impact,” he tells me.

The men stop a few cars; they check the drivers’ documents and look in trunks and under seats, finding nothing. Sometimes they let a car pass, and when I ask why, Litvinov says, “I know the driver.”

I remark that he must know a lot of people around here.

“Only about 30 percent of the people,” he says, looking somewhat solemn. There isn’t a trace of irony in his response.

When I asked Victor Voronin what he thought about the antipoaching brigade, he said: “I’ve never heard of it. But as far as that goes, enforcement’s neither here nor there. It’s the demand. I hear these big numbers — $15,000, $20,000 — that the Chinese and Koreans pay for tigers. I don’t know about that, but I know that with the money from one tiger a poacher here could buy a used Toyota. So it starts from the price of a used Toyota and goes up from there. What’s needed is to change the cultural attitudes that drive the demand, and that will take years, or rather decades.”

Yevgeny Smirnov, a local tiger biologist who works with the Hornocker project, sounds equally skeptical about the usefulness of Litvinov’s efforts. “Only 5 percent of the tiger population lives in zapovedniks,” he says. “So it’s not enough to save the tigers in zapovedniks. That approach would only work if you could kick all the people out of Primorye.”

After watching Litvinov and his team stop half a dozen cars, I’m beginning to suspect that the World Wildlife Fund is wasting its money. These men draw tremendous salaries by local standards — $250 a month for Litvinov, $200 for his troops — but their presence just seems one more futile symbolic gesture in the name of the tiger.

At 8:30 P.M., just two hours after the patrol starts, the militia officer announces that he has to report to his real job, and the patrol is over. As we bounce back up the dirt track to Blogadatna, Sasha tells me that there is something to do with tigers that has always bothered him. He closes his eyes, and in a gentle singsong he begins to recite the poem by William Blake:

    Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
    in the forests of the night,
    what immortal hand or eye
    could frame thy fearful symmetry?

“My problem,” Sasha says, “is how do you make eye rhyme with symmetry?”

Back in Vladivostok, we make a conspicuous party in the hotel lobby: a group of Americans with neon-colored outdoor gear and expensive cameras.

“You guys hunters?” asks one of three young Russians who stop in to buy beer.

I’m not really paying attention, but one of our group, Joe Albright, a reporter who lives in Moscow and speaks Russian, strikes up a conversation. He tells the Russians we’re looking for tigers, and a man who calls himself Russlan asks Joe if he’d like to see a tiger skin. Joe says we’re on our way out of town, but Russlan is tenacious, and Joe says we’ll be back at the hotel Saturday morning at ten. Russlan says he’ll be there, too, with the tiger skin.

I’m ready to put money on it that Russlan won’t be there, and nobody in the group takes the bet. So I’m a little surprised at breakfast on Saturday when Joe reminds me of his appointment and asks if I’d like to join him. He thinks the situation could be dicey, and he’d like to have company. I still think Russlan won’t show, but when I get down to the lobby five minutes early, Joe whispers, “He’s here.”

Russlan is a bulky character in his midthirties, with the calculatedly casual movements of a man on edge and the classic look of a Russian heavy: short hair bristling back from a receding hairline, narrow eyes, tense jaw, a raucous Hawaiian shirt open almost to the navel over a deep tan, blue nylon training pants, and sneakers.

We climb into his car and head out the back driveway of the hotel, across a deserted helicopter landing strip — a long, wide stretch of macadam where anyone tailing us would be exposed — and into some woods. Another car is waiting there in the undergrowth. Russlan barks a few words out his window, and the second car follows for another 50 yards until we reach a dead end at the back fence of a soccer field.

We emerge from our cars all at once. The second man, also in the uniform of Hawaiian shirt, training pants, and sneakers, is leaner than Russlan, and he looks meaner, more jittery, with charcoal eyes. He removes a large black garbage bag from his trunk, and through a tear in the plastic I can see a little yellowish leather and some hair.

With the swift efficiency of practiced rug merchants, Russlan and his sidekick unroll the skin and flip out the legs and the tail and finally the head, which is muzzled, bizarrely, in a black nylon stocking. This was once a sizable tiger, five feet from nose to rump, with two or three feet of coiling tail. Between the irregular black stripes — wobbly bands like the shadows of slender saplings — the fur along the back is a glowing orange, blending down the flanks to a pale yellow-ocher, and then a thick white shag at the edges, where the belly was slit and the body removed. It’s an exquisite, almost decadent design, and I’m reminded of those implausible tropical fish and extravagant birds whose coloration leaves my secular mind mystified, reaching for some pre-Darwinian cosmology, wondering how on earth they ever came to be this way.

Russlan peels back the stocking so that we can examine the squashed, empty head. Again, the markings are dazzling, a rippling pool of white, black, and orange. But it’s hard to look at the flattened nostrils and the slack form of the lower jaw, folded out at a distorted angle, so stiff and dry and ugly — so dead. The eyes I had imagined looking at me from behind every bush in the taiga are gone — turned into pills perhaps — and the sockets are flat slits of dry skin.

I bend down and hold a paw. The rough pads are bigger than the palm of my hand, and heavy. “With a swipe of her paw she could finish me,” Victor said. He said that to be near a tiger was “awesome” and “terrible” and “full of stress.” I experience those feelings now, but in such a skewed form, in a skewed setting. The men are terrible, and the tiger’s lifelessness is awesome, and it is we who see without being seen.

Russlan is explaining that with a little stuffing, the head would look “more real.” He is asking whether we would like to buy this tiger that is no longer a tiger. He names his price — $4,000.

We say that’s a lot of money and that we have to think about it. But I’m amazed at how cheap it really is. And it’s only the asking price; Russlan is ready to negotiate.

Joe and I are careful not to pose as buyers. For all we know this could be a KGB sting. We talk about getting through customs, about how we weren’t prepared for this situation when we came. The atmosphere is full of menace. The spot where we’re standing looks specifically designed for the purpose of dumping bodies, and Russlan’s friend is standing now with his arms flexed and his fists pressed hard against the roof of his car.

Joe and I exchange a few soft words, agreeing that we will hold our line as we’ve stated it so far. Russlan studies us, nibbling his upper lip. His partner places his forehead on the car roof between his fists. Russlan remarks that he’s sold ten of these skins, as if to tell us, Relax, it’s no big deal, just fork over the money like everyone else.

Finally Joe and I lie; we say we’ll meet Russlan Monday to tell him our thoughts on the deal. In fact, we’re both leaving Sunday, but Russlan doesn’t ask to see our tickets. He repeats everything we’ve said slowly, as if to make sure that the story contains no loopholes that might necessitate violence. “You need to think about it? You’ll be at the hotel Monday? Ten A.M.?”

We confirm the details and wait. Russlan is silent, shifting his weight from foot to foot. I concentrate on not looking at the other guy. Then Russlan moves. He ducks down and rolls up the skin, returns it to its bag, and puts it in his trunk. The other guy drives off.

“That’s it?” I ask Joe.

He nods, a brief downward twitch of the chin, and we climb back into the car and drive back to the hotel.

Yes, that’s it. Two hundred and fifty tigers at $4,000 a skin. That’s it. One million dollars for the skins of the subspecies. Double that for the whole animal — skin, bones, penis — or triple it: Three million dollars for all the wild Amur tigers in the world. Is that all it would take to buy off the poachers?

I doubt it. Humans are animals of desire, and those who kill reckon killing not as a loss, but as a means of acquisition. The world is not peopled with Victor Voronins, who would rather live in poverty than steal the mystery from what is mysterious.