Dozens of fires are burning throughout Amur tiger and Far Eastern leopard habitat in southwestern Primorsky Krai. Thanks to good snow cover through March, the spring fire season got started later than usual, but is now in full swing, bringing some of the worst fires seen in years, according to local specialists. WCS Russia is working with local government and other stakeholders in order to find a solution to this problem.
Fires in the region are ground fires, which are often set by local people in their backyards, and then are left without attention and burn out of control. Fueled by wind and abundant dry grass in the early spring, such fires can burn entire hillsides and spread into the forest. Indeed, these kinds of man-caused fires have been slowly converting the forests of Southwest Primorye into grasslands for over 100 years. WCS staff visiting the region in early April saw dozens of grass fires already burning out of control.
Southwest Primorye is one of the most biologically rich temperate forest zones in the world, retaining a unique assemblage of natural communities, unusually high numbers of endemic species, and some of the rarest animals and plants on Earth, including a small population of Amur tigers and the last remaining Far Eastern leopards on Earth. Unless changes occur in how fires are controlled, fires could ultimately eliminate habitat for these large cats in Southwest Primorye.
With the support of the US Forest Service and National Geographic Society, WCS is taking steps to improve fire prevention and fire fighting in the region. We are supporting a fire brigade to create seasonal fire breaks through back-burning and to fight fires, and we are working with local government to seek ways to improve enforcement. Because many of the people we work with are committed to trying to fight fires, but have little expertise in this sphere, in May WCS will host specialists from the US Forest Service to provide concrete recommendations about how to improve fire control and fire prevention planning in SW Primorye, and we are hopeful that a long-term exchange will develop. Finally, because we believe that something must be done to combat local acceptance of fires, which have almost become a tradition in the region, we are developing an information campaign to improve local awareness and ultimately change behavior.
Fires will continue to be a threat in Southwest Primorye until early May, when new vegetation comes in. At the end of the spring fire season, we and our partners will evaluate results, and prepare for the fall, when dry leaf litter will again make fires one of the most serious problems in this region.