the tiger protector
meet the man safeguarding tigers in
the vast wilderness of russia's far east.
But what Pavel Fomenko does after his morning routine is anything but normal.
Enveloped in a winter suit camouflaged to replicate the bare branches of his forest backdrop, Pavel spends weeks at a time working in one of the most unforgiving environments in the world: the snowy wilds of Far East Russia.
Accustomed to blending into his -30° surroundings, Pavel, Head of Rare Species Conservation, WWF-Russia, oversees a complex system of tiger protection, involving tracking poachers, performing forensics on animal remains and monitoring tiger numbers across the region.
He often spends weeks alone, away from his wife, Yulia, who works in communications for WWF-Amur branch, and their two children. In his small wooden cabin there is no television to provide the digital flicker of company and no mobile phone reception to connect him with the outside world.
Pavel's weathered face speaks of a lifetime spent in the elements to protect this endangered big cat. His experiences in the forest began at a young age, exploring the wilderness of the Russian Far East and studying tigers at university. His extensive knowledge saw WWF snap him up in 1994 to join the team protecting the elusive Amur tiger. Pavel wanted to focus on his conservation expertise and we needed someone who knew the unique terrain like the back of their hand. It was the perfect match that led to over 20 years, and counting, of effective species conservation in the area.
With 40 books to his name, Pavel's personal accounts and scientific studies are an education not only in conservation, but in surviving one of the harshest environments on Earth. He runs wilderness courses for educational institutes and government departments across the country, waxing lyrical about solitary weeks in the snow, with only his dog for company.
Where the terrain allows, Pavel travels by car or snowmobile, but the miles of precarious paths mean most work is done on foot or skis. If you find yourself lost in endless frozen taiga, this is the man you want by your side.
Seemingly small tasks provide huge challenges in this extreme environment. Lighting fires, starting engines, keeping dry. Each situation requires lateral thinking and the wisdom of past experience: "If you don't have medicine on you, you immediately start remembering the natural remedies that can be used as an alternative. If you are having a confrontation with another person, you recall your knowledge of psychology and you try to reduce the level of conflict."
This resourceful streak has probably saved Pavel's life on more than one occasion. His unassuming demeanor underplays the dangers, but this unforgiving landscape has served up some near misses to even this most experienced of conservationists.
It's hard to believe that a human could survive one night under the canvas after the mercury drops below -30, but Pavel once camped for 40 nights in the depths of winter. He recalls one occasion that stirred his most primal survival instincts:
"One night was extremely cold, -40. I used my skis as a bed and my dog as a blanket. That night was a real nightmare. In the middle of the night I accidentally touched the hot plate and my clothes caught fire. I grabbed my knife, cut my tent open. Then I started covering the hot plate with snow. Within five minutes I felt the freezing cold.
I got my flash-light out, got a needle and thread and started sewing the tent back together. I made it through the night without the hot plate and early in the morning I got on my skis and I started making my way. The blizzard was at it all night and I could no longer see my trail, but my dog led the way. He could feel the old ski trail with his paws."
Pavel's detective work in the field extends from tracking tiger pugmarks (paw prints) to investigating the remains of hurriedly abandoned poaching camps. But it’s in the stark surroundings of the Animal Diseases Laboratory in Ussuriysk that his scientific expertise is most tested. This cold interior world, not unlike the monochrome snowscape that Pavel faces outside, is where the remains of tigers are examined for cause of death.
Pavel is trained in a special form of wildlife forensics and unfortunately finds his skills utilised all too often. Annually, over 100 biological and forensic examinations of wild animals are carried out in the diagnostics centre. Pavel's findings form evidence for possible criminal cases in illegal wildlife trade.
It is a job that he does not take lightly: “One must be completely honest, objective and professional. I am fully aware that, as a result of my expertise, a person will get a jail sentence or a large fine.”
A recent case encapsulates the predicament the tiger faces in Russia. A tigress was found dead under a truck and Pavel and his team discovered marks on the animal's bones that revealed an injury from a poacher's trap. The paw wound prevented the tigress from hunting and, as she slowly starved to death, she wandered to a nearby town and rested under the cover of a vehicle. Seeking refuge in the domain of the very species that caused her premature death.
Pavel's mission is to help preserve this balance in Russia, conserve the Amur tiger population and avoid the fate tigers have faced in other parts of the world. Global wild tiger populations have declined by over 95%, driven by hunting and habitat loss.
It's this constant tension between humans and wildlife that Pavel has spent the majority of his life attempting to mediate. The work of his team has made an impact to human encroachment in the area. Poaching continues to be tackled, wild prey is returning to the forests and tiger numbers are increasing.
In 2010, wild tiger numbers were at an all-time low and the tiger range governments agreed that innovative action was needed. Collectively they committed to an ambitious goal: to double wild tigers numbers by 2022, supported by WWF. And it seems to be working. In 2016, for the first time in conservation history, wild tiger numbers showed an increase. In 2010 there were estimated to be as few as 3,200 tigers in the wild; now there are around 3,900. But there is much work to be done if we are to reach our target and Pavel knows that better than anyone.
Luckily for tigers in Russia, President Putin's personal interest in the big cat means he is supporting efforts to protect them. The Russian government has a goal to conserve a healthy population of at least 500 Amur tigers by 2020 and has introduced penalties for poaching and the storage and trafficking of animal parts, restricted logging and improved forest protection.
The latest survey, from 2015, indicates a 15% increase in wild tiger numbers in Russia since 2005. Change, driven by policy and the passion of conservationists like Pavel, is coming in Russia and it's good news for tigers.
At a time when studies indicate potentially irreversible habitat and species decline, individuals can feel powerless to make a change. Pavel, however, is tireless in his pursuit to improve the statistics on his own doorstep: “Some would arrive in the wilderness, burn down all the flora and plough the fields. While others would arrive in an empty field and plant trees. I propose to follow the latter example.”
Pavel claims that he will stay in the Russian Far East for as long as tigers remain. He rarely sees these famously elusive creatures in the wild, but he knows they are out there. Concealed somewhere in the endless entanglement of snow dusted trees.