For two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Udeghe tribe has struggled to protect the Bikin River basin from intruders. Through a 49-year-lease with the federal government that was signed in 2009, the tribe now controls 1.1 million acres, the heart of the largest tract of virgin temperate forest in the northern hemisphere.
The basin plays a critical role in the survival of the endangered Amur tiger, known to Westerners as the Siberian tiger. They are the world’s largest cats, with the average male adult weighing nearly 400 pounds.
About 400 tigers live in Russian Far East, and the Bikin River basin is home to 50 of them.. Tigers rarely atack people.\\In 1997, an injurted tiger attacked and ate two Russians in Bikin River basin. The tiger was killed.. One of the Russians was a poacher.
The Udeghe are among the eight indigenous tribes in the Russian Far East. Udeghe means, “forest people” in the Udeghe language.
There are 2 million ethnic Russians in the region. There are only 1,700 Udeghe, and Krasny Yar, the largest of the four Udeghe settlements, is their capital.
The Udeghe as a culture may face greater obstacles for survival than the tiger.
The Soviets banished or killed the shamans when they finally gained control of the mountainous area in the 1930s. They also discouraged native people from speaking their own language and taught them Russian school.
Today, only elders can still speak the Udeghe language fluently. Children only know certain words and phrases, such as “bugdifi,” the Udeghe word for “hello, and “loosa,” which means “Russians.”
The Udeghe are now trying to save their language. Ihila’s friend, Maria Kunchuga, 17, this fall will study the Udeghelanguage at a university in St. Petersburg and then return to the village to work as an Udeghe teacher in the school.
At the Udeghe festival, she recited a poem in the Udeghe language. Although few people understood her, the symbolism of the moment was not lost on the crowd: a young person was speaking Udeghe
When I asked why she want to study Udeghe, she replied in Russian, “It’s important to me. It’s my culture.”
Udeghe men hunt and trap for a living, as they have done for many centuries, a cultural heritage that sustains them and has allowed them to remain in this mountain valley as cohesive group.
The Udeghe and the Amur tiger share this forest. Both the tiger and the tribe face the threat of extinction but for now each is holding its own.
In their struggle to survive, their interests are protected by the existence of the other. In a sense they are allies.
“As long as there are Udeghe here, they won’t cut the forest,” says Evgeny Smernov, a forest ranger with the provincial agency, the Institute of Geography, based in Vladivostok. “The Udeghe won’t allow it. There would be a war.”
In the ancient pagan beliefs of the Udeghe, the tiger held the status of gods. Just to see one was considered a sign that one has done something wrong and would require a prayer for forgiveness.
Today, while modern Udeghe hunters may not all see tigers as gods, they still view them with both fear and respect.
Russian and Chinese poachers are hunting the tigers —often with the use of a live dog as bait. During our visit, police arrested a Russian man in another town after finding in his home the skins of three tiger cubs and four grown tigers.
Pound for pound, the tiger is the most valuable animal in the taiga. Its various parts are sought by the Chinese for use as medicine and for its supposed powers as aphrodisiac. A tiger corpse can fetch as much as $20,000 on the black market.
An Udeghe hunter during the four-month trapping season can earn about just 45,00 rubles, or about $1,500, before expenses.
For the Udeghe, killing a tiger remains taboo, a violation of a deep cultural value.
“The tigers keep the forest healthy,” says Yuri Sun, 51, an Udeghe hunter who keeps 150 traps in an area 15 kilometers upriver from Krasny Yar.
“It’s good that the territory has tigers. They bring balance to the forest,” he says. “If there were no tigers, there would be wolves, and they would kill everything.”
Sun is among the 47 professional hunters/trappers in the village. Each is allotted a territory in which they trap fur-bearing animals, such as mink and sable.
Sun traps from November through February, when animals have their heavy fur coats and before they produce off spring. While Sun just works during the four-month trapping season, other hunters also work year round. Both in the outside the trapping season, they hunt deer, elk and wild boar. They and also fish in the Bikin River, pursuing a trout-like fish called Shuka.
“The hunters are fiercely protective of their territories, and Russian law is lenient in situations when a hunter shoots an intruder,” Smernov says.
Smernov, who is married to an Udeghe woman and lives in Krasny Yar, says hunters are protecting their livelihoods, not the tiger. But their vigilance has had the effect of keeping poachers from intruding into the basin.
The Udeghe are also politically active in fighting back attempts by logging companies to harvest the forest. Just last year, nearly the entire village traveled to Luchegorsk, the nearest significant town, and a four or five-hour drive on dirt roads to demonstrate against a proposal by a logging company to log part of the Bikin Basin.
The demonstration, along with 25,000 signatures gathered by the World Wildlife Fund, convinced the authorities in Moscow to kill the plan, says Yuri Darman, director of the Amur branch of WWF Russia.
In 1992, the chaotic year that followed the collapsed of the Soviet Union, a South Korean logging company tried to move into the basin to log it and was met by armed Udeghe hunters. The South Koreans turned back.
They have since then successfully fought off several proposed logging operations that followed.
“If there were no Udeghe people in Krasny Yar, all this country would be logged out,” Darman says.
The tiger population in the basin is stable, says Smernov, whose job includes keeping a census of the tiger population in the basin. Tigers need large territories to sustain themselves, and there is no room left in the basin to support more of them.
Logging operations in the Khor River basin have driven tigers there into the Bikin River basin, putting pressure on the existing tiger population in the basin.
He says the tiger population in the basin has reached its maximum for the amount available food. An individual tiger needs a territory of about 20 hectors, an area of 20 kilometers by 10 kilometers.
The territory of an individual tiger — or a single male tiger at its harem of females — is similar in size to the territories of individual Uedgeh hunters.
Efforts to save the Amur tiger from extinction in recent years have brought world attention to the Bikin basin. German and American environmental organizations have given grants to Community Tiger, the local group that controls the timber rights and hunting activities, to build an Udeghe museum and new housing for teachers and help with annual rent payments to the provincial government.
Some of the money has been used to buy a billboard hung on the outside of the school, showing a photo of a tiger and the words, “We save the tiger together!” and a similar poster in the interior of the school, about the rarely seen Amur leopard.
During the Udeghe festival this summer, a group of children repeated the slogan at the conclusion of their skit about a poacher killing a tiger and leaving its cubs motherless. My 16-year-old daughter, Ihila, played the poacher.
Vladimir Putin, who wants to be known as the “tiger president,” has made saving the tiger a priority. Putin’s interest in the tiger may help the Udeghe efforts to win federal protection for the Bikin River basin.
Krasny Yar’s population has declined about 20 percent over the past two decades. There are fewer children and families here. Many young adults, particularly women who go off to college, have moved to cities for more opportunities.
Still, in the economic turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the village is healthier than most villages in rural Russia, some of which has have simply lost so many people they are become ghost towns.
The money from abroad has helped sustain the village, says Daria Zhuralova, 23, who grew up in the village and now works as an English interpreter in Vladivostok. In addition, the attention has helped efforts to preserve the Bikin Basin, which has won preliminary approval to be named a World Heritage site.
Zhuralova, who uses her English skills to arrange ecological tours of the region for Japanese groups, is hopeful that both the tiger and the Udeghe have a future.
“Now the population of the world is concerned about the protection of nature, and now they see that the way the Udeghe have lived is the right way, not the way of civilization,” she says. “Now they are trying to do everything they can to save it.”