Vladimir Aramilev: We will ask zoos to provide leopards for the reintroduction centre

Vladimir Aramilev: We will ask zoos to provide leopards for the reintroduction centre

5 December 2016

Vladimir Aramilev, director of the Lazovsky Nature Reserve and Call of the Tiger National Park, told RIA Novosti about how the leopard reintroduction centre was formed, the shishkari (pine nut collectors) offensive and why poaching punishment should distinguish between barbarians killing animals and old ladies picking mushrooms.


Question: Mr Aramilev, you have been head of the Joint Directorate of the Lazovsky Nature Reserve and Call of the Tiger National Park for a year. What has changed during this time?


Vladimir Aramilev: First of all, I fired the staff who violated animal protection instructions, five people in total, and some of them chose to leave after I toughened the discipline rules. We have set up three new emergency inspector groups and supplied them with the necessary equipment, including video recorders and satellite phones. We have also refurbished the ranger stations, done the repairs, installed solar batteries and purchased new essentials.


The changes in staff and infrastructure have positively affected the reserve’s operation. A recent aerial survey of hoofed mammals found no traces of cars or snow mobiles, fire smoke or huts. It means people are beginning to understand that this is a nature reserve and no hunting is allowed here. Of course, poaching for game animals persists, but it is latent.


I essentially believe that it is important to distinguish between poachers in terms of the damage they cause. When animals are killed or a fire is started – it is one thing, and when an old lady from a neighbouring village picks some mushrooms – it is totally different.


I think we could gradually set up recreation zones within the specially protected areas for the local residents to have access to nature resources like mushrooms and berries. People should be treated with respect. For example, the village of Preobrazheniye is surrounded by the nature reserve and only has access to the “road of life” on the coast. So the local residents sometimes still trespass on the reserve’s territory.


Last year, however, it was difficult to keep in check the advancing shishkari (pine nut collectors) as pine nuts were aplenty. Prices for pine nuts went up on the rising dollar rate, and people could earn 2,000-6,000 roubles per day. We launched proceedings against 200 violators in that prolific year compared to the usual rate of 40-50 protocols per year.


Question: Last year, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry decided to set up a leopard reintroduction centre in the Lazovsky Nature Reserve to restore the spotted predators’ population on this territory, which used to be their habitat. How far have you got with this project?


Vladimir Aramilev: The resolution to set up the reintroduction centre has been passed, but there is still no federal funding. We have the opportunity to attract other funds that the Amur branch of the World Wildlife Fund has found. We have explored the area to choose the centre’s location, developed protocols on leopard breeding and sent them to foreign experts for assessment and recommendations. Now we are ready to do the feasibility study on the centre’s construction. As soon as the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry sends us instructions, we will get the construction project off the ground.


Our centre will most likely operate in a similar way to the Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Centre in Sochi, whose operations I have closely studied. However, we will have an advantage here: while leopards have to be transported to the Sochi centre by helicopter, we will simply have to open the door of the open-air enclosure.


Question: Where will you take the leopards from? Is it possible for you to use the Primorye leopards living in Land of the Leopard National Park?


Vladimir Aramilev: No, we can’t take them from there. They have about 50 leopards, and their population is so small that taking away even a few animals could damage the population both physically and genetically. We are going to request leopards from zoos all over the world. There are two options: bring in a couple, create conditions for their reproduction and release leopard cubs into the wild once they are mature enough to fend for themselves. But then, the released predators will also be brothers and sisters, and that is bad for the genetic diversity of the population.


Hence, the second option, which I see as more preferable: to bring in young leopards, adapt and release them. But the majority of the zoo staff are opposed to this idea.


We have already made our initial steps: our foreign partners have handed over two leopards to the Russian Far East – one to the Shtykovo safari park and the other to the Khabarovsk Zoo.


Question: Leopards are the future of the nature reserve. And how are the current inhabitants of the reserve, the Amur tigers?


Vladimir Aramilev: We have organised the tiger count strictly on the applied methods, twice a year: in December and in late January-February. Presently, we are continuing to monitor the tigers with camera traps. The results relating to the age-gender composition of the tiger population and their migration will be the basis for research articles.


Question: How do you estimate the population density of the tiger in the Lazovsky Nature Reserve – are there many of them or few? Is there any chance to increase their population?  


Vladimir Aramilev: The striped predators feed on hoofed mammals, and the density of their populations directly depends on the amount of food they have in the area, while hoofed mammals’ population may go up and down. When there is a lot of food, there are more animals. When breeding, sika deer eat all the understory, grass, branches – now, for example, the forest in the nature reserve is all clear like a park. If there is less food, the hoofed mammals’ population drops, especially in snowy winters, when their numbers can shrink by 70-80 percent.


The maximum for the Lazovsky Nature Reserve is 14-18 tigers. This number includes the animals that permanently live here and the ones that occasionally drop in. The habitat of a female tiger covers 12,000-25,000 hectares, and it is more expansive in the north than in the south. At the moment, we have at least 12 mature tigers in an area of 120,000 hectares, which means only 10,000 hectares per animal, and this is very high density for the Amur tiger population.


Luckily, the neighbouring game reserves feed the hoofed mammals, and our tigers go there to hunt but breed in the nature reserve. But this requires the territory to be protected against poachers and fires. However, the predators are rarer in the north of Call of the Tiger National Park, which has a certain potential to boost their population.


Incidentally, speaking of the sensational appearance of tigers near Vladivostok and Artyom, this is an absolutely normal and natural phenomenon. There is a good forest on the Muravyov-Amursky Peninsula inhabited by several hoofed mammal species, which is why these places attract tigers.


Question: Are you planning to launch any new eco-tourism projects in the nature reserve and the national park?


Vladimir Aramilev: This year, we have built three new trails in Call of the Tiger National Park: two along the Milogradovka River (one of the most beautiful places in the south of the Far East) and one going up the Sestra Mountain, the highest peak of the Lazovsky District. We have calculated the time of the trails, built the paths, refreshment stations, and put up signs. The trails may take you to the 15-metre-high Chertov Bridge (Divny), across the Terpovy spring, and then through the famous admirable blue and pink rifts. Tourists can also arrive through our ranger station at the bottom of the river along the current and visit the magnificent waterfalls on the Milogradovka River. There are about 10 of them. We have presented our trails to travel agencies, which began taking visitors along the routes in summer.


We have also upgraded one of the most popular walking trails on Petrov Island. The Tiger student team has helped restore the path and cover parts of it with a wooden walkway. We have also redirected this trail to avoid areas with bare tree roots. We have made the route more secure – put up railings around the observation decks, covered them with a flooring surface, moved one of the observation decks to a more convenient place and smoothed a steep hillside. Earlier we had to wait for a long time until the trail in the yew grove dried out after the rain, but now we can take tourists there in all weather.


Next year, we will focus on stairs and climbing routes.