The threats to the survival of the world’s last 30 Far Eastern leopards are unfortunately numerous. Leopards and their prey fall victim to poachers, the leopard’s habitat is under pressure from logging and development projects and – as if this isn’t enough – the animals are slowly losing their home due to frequent fires… In response, WCS and the Slavyanka Municipality are conducting an exciting project that could become a turning point in the fight against fires in Southwest Primorye.
The fires in Southwest Primorye, an area bordering on China and North Korea where the last Amur leopards live, are bizarre phenomena. In social surveys conducted a few years ago, almost all local citizens stated that fires are a serious problem. They proposed severe punishments for arsonists – even jail sentences! However, during the fire seasons in spring and autumn, dozens of fires rage simultaneously, and it is clear that many people are involved in setting these fires. Why? When asked, villagers suggest many reasons why other villagers start fires, including; increasing fertility of agricultural fields, clearing forest and shrubs for livestock grazing, killing bugs, and stimulating the growth of ferns (a popular ingredient in Russian and Chinese salads). In addition, people burn the vegetation around their gardens to prevent their house from burning when another fire reaches their yard. In other words: fires to avoid fires…
As a result of all this burning, traveling in SW Primorye during the fire season is an unpleasant experience. Burned vegetation gives the impression of a moonscape, columns of smoke can be seen circling up into the sky in the distance – or very close by – and the smoke tickles your nose… Clearly, it’s best to delay any vacations to the area until after the blackened landscape turns to lush green in the middle of May.
Analysis of satellite images has determined that on average 19% of Southwest Primorye burns annually. Probably no other region in Russia burns as intensively, yet this area also has one of Russia’s highest annual rainfall totals!
As a result of a century-long history of fires, approximately half of the forests in SW Primorye have disappeared. Very old people still remember how in their youth mixed forests, with Korean pine trees, grew all the way up to the coast of the Sea of Japan. Today many stretches along the coast have been converted into shrub and grasslands, and only in remote areas further inland do patches of healthy Korean pine forests remain, providing critical habitat for Amur tigers and Far Eastern leopards – habitat that is getting pushed farther and farther inland by fires.
Many organizations have responsibilities in fire management, including the forestry service, protected areas and the provincial and municipal governments. However, in reality very little is done to stop fires, and many burn unattended for days.
In an attempt to change the situation, WCS and a local government partner, the Slavyanka Municipality, started a fire management project in the spring of 2009.
With assistance from experts of US Forest Service, we designed a comprehensive fire management program for the territory of the Slavyanka, a 460 km2 municipality consisting of several small settlements and extensive forest lands that run up to the Chinese border. In the past, usually only one or two management approaches have typically been attempted in fire projects – establishing a fire brigade to fight fires, or building new firebreaks to prevent fires, or educating people about fire hazards, or prosecuting arsonists. However, in our project all these approaches are combined and implemented simultaneously, and we believe this is our major strength. We expect that education and media activities will become much more effective now that we can announce that arsonists are prosecuted. Similarly, we expect that our firefighting brigade will be more effective because it can fight fires where they meet newly built firebreaks.
A year after our project’s establishment, we are gaining momentum and achieving real results:
· The brigade has significantly reduced response time by setting up high-elevation outposts. As a result most fires were extinguished before more than a hectare had burnt.
· We put out than 52 fires in the spring of 2010;
· Four fire wardens were appointed in local settlements. Local people who want to burn a field or vegetable garden must first receive permission from the warden, who then supervises the process;
· The brigade caught 11 arsonists;
· An ambitious plan for the creation of a 150-km firebreak system has been designed and endorsed, and 25 km of firebreaks have already been built.
After a year of work, we also see clearly that our program has not only drawn strength from its comprehensiveness, but also from the commitment of our partners, including the mayor of the Slavyanka Municipality, Andrey Yurchenko. A sturdy, energetic former army officer with intelligent eyes and excellent wit, after the collapse of the Soviet Union Andrey decided to leave the military and start a new life somewhere in the south, close to the sea. He took a good look at a map and noticed that the southernmost tip of seacoast in Russia is SW Primorye, on the border with China and North Korea. So he decided to move from central Russia to Slavyanka together with his wife and two kids. Several years later he applied to lead a new anti-poaching brigade that local environmental NGOs and the Russian federal agency “Inspection Tiger” wanted to establish for the protection of the Far Eastern leopard in SW Primorye. Andrey traveled all the way from Slavyanka to Vladivostok to offer his services, and he was selected. He led the anti-poaching team as an army operation, and it soon became one of the most successful teams in Primorye, and remains so today. As a result of his success, Andrey became a well-known and respected figure, and when he decided to run for mayor of Slavyanka, he won an easy victory. Andrey has remained a keen conservationist, and he is eager to stop the loss of forests due to fires in Slavyanka and SW Primorye as a whole. His partnership has allowed us to mobilize local government resources to the greatest extent possible in our fire control project.
A final component of our project is monitoring our success. We have updated a database of fires in SW Primorye over the past ten years, allowing us to compare areas burned before and after the start of our project, in order to evaluate our effectiveness. At the end of the spring fire season, we will determine interim project results using satellite images to determine burned areas. We expect we can announce these results on this website in July. If our model project turns out to be successful, we will try to expand it into other parts of SW Primorye.