"Comfortable even when the temperature hits -40º C, Fomenko can glide through the deep snow like a cat, carefully placing one foot in front of the other, so his footprints disappear in the steps of his prey. Now and then he stops, sable hat in hand, to do what he does best: listen to the forest.” So wrote TIME magazine’s Andrew Meier about Pavel Fomenko—the first Russian to receive the title “Hero of the Planet,” awarded by TIME with the support of the Ford Foundation.
Fomenko, whose official title is “biodiversity program coordinator in the Russian Far East for the World Wildlife Foundation Russian Program Office,” saved the Amur Tiger (widely known as the Siberian Tiger) from extinction. By the mid-1990s, the Amur tiger population in Russia had declined to just 250, mostly because of savage poaching. Taking advantage of the nearly transparent border with Russia in the Far East, Chinese profiteers crossed over to Russia and sought out the tiger for the allegedly miraculous healing properties of some of its body parts. Some 70-100 tigers were being poached each year.
The crisis of the 1990s was not the first for the Amur Tiger, however. In the years preceding WWII, mass hunting resulted in a virtual extinction of the animal in the Far East. Then in 1947 the Soviet Union imposed a ban on hunting the Amur Tiger. The population stabilized and the noble carnivore came to symbolize the harmony and integrity of the region’s ecosystem. Whereas other large carnivores have virtually disappeared around the globe—pushed into extinction by encroaching “civilization,” the Amur Tiger was spared.
In 1994, public and non-governmental organizations joined efforts to develop a strategy for preservation of the Amur Tiger in Russia. Pavel Fomenko was instrumental in this action. Today he oversees more than 50 people in 14 anti-poaching units supported by the WWF and Russian authorities. Fomenko also plays an educational role: his colleagues are mostly former hunters who could well have joined the ranks of poachers.
Fomenko and his team enjoys surprisingly wide powers: they can carry guns, search cars and confiscate prey, conduct surveillance and arrest poachers. Indeed, over the course of six years, Fomenko and his comrades have confiscated some 700 rifles, and have seized parts and skins of over 40 tigers. Thanks to Fomenko’s effort, the Amur Tiger population is now about 450, and considered stable.
A native of Siberia, Fomenko is a former professional hunter who decided to “take the cloth.” After earning his living for many years shooting and trapping Siberian mink and sable, he witnessed himself the damage that illegal hunters were doing to nature. What is more, he was a trained hunting specialist and had long been an active member of the anti-poaching movement. He had actually joined the ranks of professional hunters only after becoming disenchanted with his work as an employee at the Academy of Sciences.
Fomenko, 38, is a typical Siberian. Despite receiving the prestigious TIME magazine title and traveling to San Francisco to receive the award, Fomenko is the same man he was when WWF handpicked him for the job of saving the Amur Tiger. The imperturbable Fomenko ponders his words, is reserved and seems to be tired of the unexpected stardom which fell upon him. As WWF Press Officer in Moscow Katya Pal said, Fomenko is tired of “being a celebrity”—all he wants is to keep protecting his beloved taiga from uninvited guests/poachers.
For now, Fomenko’s work is far from over. To begin with, the number of Amur Tigers still needs to be increased. Experts believe it must reach 500-600 animals before the species becomes self-regulating. What is more, there is an even more endangered cat in his region—the Far-Eastern Leopard, of which only 40 remain (see page 10). The leopard could not have a better guarantor of its fate.
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