The tiger was already dead when they spotted it, the hunters said—a furry, ocher mound against the snowy backdrop of Primorye, a sprawling region eight time zones from Moscow, in Russia’s Far East.
The seven men took a picture with the massive Amur tiger, their arms casually slung around each other’s shoulders, the straps from their Soviet-era rifles hanging askew. The warmth of the carcass had already begun to melt the snow.
Four of the men smiled as they looked over the photo. But they demurred when wildlife crime researcher and National Geographic Explorer Allison Skidmore leaned in and asked if she could photograph their prized tiger picture. It’s been illegal to kill tigers in the country for nearly 75 years, they told her, and they didn’t want anyone to think they’d committed a crime.
Yet how to explain the bullet-ridden carcass?
“Poaching fluctuates with how likely people are to run into tigers in the wilderness,” says Roman Kozhichev, a wildlife ranger who works in northern Primorye. But far from being accidental, Skidmore says, “run-ins” are often hunters looking to poach tigers.
Amur tigers, sometimes called Siberian tigers, are the only ones found in northern climes. They may weigh more than 600 pounds and stretch 10 feet from nose to tail tip, likely making them the largest of the six surviving tiger subspecies. (Some experts say Bengal tigers are about the same size.) They eat as much as 60 pounds of meat in a single night.
A century ago, people rarely would have seen wild Amur tigers: Hunting had reduced their estimated numbers to as few as 30. Conservation efforts in recent decades have increased their numbers to roughly 600 Amur tigers, nearly all in Russia, and at least two-thirds of them live in Primorye.
But Skidmore is still worried. Lately, finding—and killing—these tigers has been getting easier as illegal deforestation accelerates and their habitat shrinks.
“A constantly growing road network dramatically increases the opportunity and ease of poaching,” she notes in her work. Now, about 52 percent of Primorye’s taiga, the boreal forest that’s home to the tigers, is accessible to hunters, according to calculations she published in June 2021 in the journal Crime Science.
To investigate the status of Amur tigers in Russia, Skidmore made two trips to Primorye, in 2019 and 2020, totaling five months. She interviewed more than a hundred hunters and 12 buyers of tiger parts. The talks ranged from 30-minute chats to “multiple-day informal conversations” conducted while ice fishing, hunting, drinking, or going through photo albums, she says. Often, poachers introduced her to other poachers or buyers of tiger parts.
More than a third of the men Skidmore talked with—all were men—admitted to being involved in the illegal tiger trade. They described their reasons for poaching, their methods, and how tiger parts are smuggled into China. The findings were published in her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California, Santa Cruz, this past spring, and subsequently in peer-reviewed papers.
Poachers told Skidmore that they drive the roads at night armed with guns and infrared goggles for spotting tigers. They shoot tigers from their vehicles or sell poachers the animals' GPS coordinates. They also revealed their smuggling techniques, such as bribing customs officials at border crossings, hiding body parts in logging shipments, and grinding up tiger bones and secreting the powder in women’s handbags.
Based on what Skidmore heard from the dozen tiger buyers she interviewed, she estimates in her dissertation that between 49 and 73 Amur tigers are poached every year in Primorye. “That’s three to four times higher than what is reported by the Russian government” for the entire country, she says.
She derived the yet unpublished numbers from five years of sales records obtained from tiger buyers. “Buyers know what regions the tigers they buy come from” she says, adding that her data cover a large portion of the Amur tiger’s habitat. The frequency of these kills is devastating, she says. “Even if you took the conservative estimate,” she says, “eventually there’d be a population collapse.” Amur tigers, she says, are very slow to reach sexual maturity and to replace their lost numbers.
Russia’s official count of tigers killed by poachers comes from the Amur Tiger Center, the Russian nonprofit founded at President Vladimir Putin’s behest and charged with researching and preserving the country’s tigers. The center says that 10 to 15 tigers were poached across Russia in 2020, numbers estimated in part by tallying all known tiger crimes alongside reports from citizens and law enforcement of suspicious shipments or hunting activities.
Sergei Aramilev, the director general of the Amur Tiger Center, told National Geographic that Skidmore’s published tiger research is “largely fiction,” premised on “mistakes in facts.”
Biologist Marshall Jones, senior conservation advisor with the Smithsonian Institution, disagrees. He says Skidmore’s findings provide the “best yet recent information” on tiger poaching and methods in Russia. If her poaching numbers are accurate, that would be “terrible” for tigers, says Jones, who previously directed grants for tiger research and conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and helped advise on global efforts to train tiger rangers and habitat managers. “After India, this is the next largest tiger population.”
Tiger poaching is difficult to study, and reports from poachers and buyers themselves are particularly rare, according to Masha Vorontsova, the director of the Russian branch of the International Fund for Animal Welfare from 1994 to 2018. “I think it’s important to bring the truth to the stage and say this is happening,” she said in a phone call from Moscow, adding that she admires Skidmore’s bravery—it’s risky to investigate tiger poaching—and her “fantastic” results.
Counting big cats
Tiger hunting and habitat loss are largely responsible for the global reduction of wild tigers from an estimated 100,000 a century ago to roughly 5,000 today. Aside from Amur tigers, all five other surviving subspecies are found in tropical forests, mangroves swamps, and savannas.
The last official Amur tiger census in Russia, conducted in 2015, estimated the population at 532—67 more than a decade earlier. There are about 50 of the cats in the far north of China, near the Russian border, and an unknown small number may roam in North Korea or undetected in other Asian countries.
Estimating tiger populations isn’t an exact science. The most reliable methods, such as aerial surveys and monitoring by camera traps are too expensive. Instead, Russian teams, according to Russia’s official tiger census, mostly count tiger tracks in the snow and compare their sizes, giving localized, possibly imprecise or incomplete, results.
In 1947, the Soviet Union became the first jurisdiction to make it a federal offense to kill tigers. In 2013, Russia criminalized the possession of tiger parts, and today, areas of remaining tiger habitat, including some 22,000 square miles across the country (16,000 square miles in Primorye), are designated protected nature zones, according to the Amur Tiger Center.
These steps have helped Amur tigers claw their way back, even as tigers elsewhere have disappeared. Kazakhstan, for example, where Caspian tigers were last spotted in 1948, now hopes to introduce Amur tigers in 2025 to replace its lost tigers.
But the recovery of Amur tigers in Primorye is precarious. The deer and wild boars tigers eat are getting harder to find as deforestation destroys pine forests, and fewer trees mean fewer pine nuts, a food staple for the prey animals. On top of that, a global outbreak of African swine fever, which first ravaged members of the pig family in sub-Saharan Africa, then spread to Southeast Asia, Mongolia, Europe, and elsewhere, has wiped out at least half the boars in the region, according to the Russia division of the environmental organization WWF. As a result, hungry tigers sometimes go into communities and snatch people’s livestock and dogs.
More rarely, tigers kill people. Most such attacks, the Amur Tiger Center says, occur in Khabarovsk Krai, north of Primorye in the northernmost region of tiger habitat in Russia. A fatal incident occurred there in August 2021, when a man working as a logger left his trailer and was attacked. His body was dragged into the woods and partially eaten. Before that, in January 2021, another man in Khabarovsk Krai was killed and eaten, the center says. Rangers tracked down and shot both tigers.
‘Ants can wait!’
Hours after Allison Skidmore saw the picture of the dead tiger in the snow, she sat with the hunters by a roaring fire in one of their houses. Tongues loosened as vodka bottles emptied, she says, and their story began to change.
One of the men said they’d shot the tiger themselves, splitting the $4,500 they made from the sale seven ways.
Finding a buyer wasn’t difficult, he said. In neighboring China, tiger bones, penises, and other body parts are in demand for traditional medicine. Others in the group chimed in, confirming this version of events, Skidmore says. The men “were very defensive, saying they didn’t come into the taiga to look for tigers.” She says they told her that “anyone would shoot a tiger if they see it. It was merely about opportunity.”
Skidmore credits her ability to handle a gun, along with her enthusiasm for ice fishing in minus 20°F weather, as giving her credibility in the eyes of the Russian hunters. She believes they saw her, an American woman, as something of a novelty and were more willing to talk freely about their experiences, even sharing names of other hunters and buyers.
Skidmore began her career in conservation biology more than a decade ago studying termites in Zimbabwe. One night, huddled in a tent with colleagues, she heard gunfire. The next day, guided by vultures circling overhead, the researchers came upon three dead, de-tusked elephants. Skidmore says the incident ignited her passion for fighting wildlife crime. “It was like, Hello, broader issues are going on—ants can wait!” she says.
She moved to South Africa and joined up as a ranger in Kruger National Park. Eventually, her interests turned to tigers. She says she wanted to provide “the first empirical evidence about tiger poaching in Russia.”
Most tiger poachers she met said they shoot tigers because they need the money to survive. With international demand for fur products waning, the sable they’d hunted legally in the past—ferret-like animals long valued for their silky coat—no longer paid the bills, so they turned to poaching tigers. A smaller number said they killed tigers that were preying on their livestock or dogs, or that they killed the tigers for fun.
As Skidmore describes in a forthcoming academic paper shared with National Geographic, one man told her he’d killed 10 tigers. “I have two sons in the FSB, so, who will stop me?” he said, referring to Russia’s powerful and secretive security agency.
Skidmore also says some poachers and buyers told her that their transactions were possible only because government officials take bribes. “The people up top are getting money from this. If I wasn’t talking to people in the government, I wouldn’t be able to be a buyer,” one man said.
Along Russia’s border with China, five crossings, including several in Primorye, are the main smuggling routes, according to Skidmore. Buyers told her that some customs officers take small payments, of $50 or $60, for each shipment of tiger contraband.
“My guess is that [Russian authorities] have at least an anecdotal idea of what is going on,” the Smithsonian Institution’s Jones says, “but they may disagree with Allison.”
During the well-lubricated conversation Skidmore had one night with four of the hunters in the tiger photograph, it was after midnight when one of them took her interpreter aside and asked if she’d like to meet their buyer, who happened to live nearby. Yes please, the interpreter said, and the hunter made a quick phone call.
The buyer, it turned out, was happy to drive right over and discuss his business—on condition that Skidmore not name him. The close relationships he has with local officials and police, he said, enable his illegal work.
Another buyer in Primorye agreed to talk to National Geographic by phone in June 2021, also on condition of anonymity. He seemed nervous, saying repeatedly that the FSB might be listening to our conversation. In small communities like his, he explained, poachers know he buys tigers as well as legal goods, and they know how to find him. Typically, he said, buyers sell tigers or their parts to an intermediary who arranges to have them taken across the border into China.
He said he was arrested five years ago for selling tiger parts, and a carcass he had with him was confiscated. (He suspects that a competing buyer turned him in.) At the time, he feared he might get a year in jail or a hefty fine but said he still hasn’t had a court date. “I was worried for the first 10 days” he said. “But I don’t worry about it anymore.” (Masha Vorontsova, formerly with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says lengthy court delays are common.)
The politics of tiger conservation
Skidmore’s findings come at a sensitive time. In the summer of 2022, Russia will host the second International Tiger Forum, a global tiger protection summit. Putin, a tiger lover, spoke passionately at the last such forum, in St. Petersburg in 2015, when he endorsed plans to crack down on poaching and pledged to help double the number of tigers across their 13 range countries.
Russia’s official response to Skidmore’s findings has been frosty. Aramilev, the director general of the Amur Tiger Center, said her findings were incorrect and that more Amur tigers live in protected areas in the Russian Far East (20 percent) than the older, peer-reviewed number of 3 percent to 4 percent she cited in her published work.
In March 2020, while Skidmore was carrying out research in Primorye under a scientific exchange visa, her trip was cut short. She learned from hunters she met that FSB agents who were following her had shown up at their homes asking questions about her. “I knew the walls were closing in,” she says.
Russian officials finally confronted her at Vladivostok airport on March 18. She’d been planning to take a domestic flight to Khabarovsk, about 500 miles away in southeastern Russia. “I was terrified,” she says. “I didn’t know if I was going to end up in jail.” She says they seized her computer and phone and other belongings. “They took everything.”
But they didn’t find her handwritten notes of interviews with hunters and buyers. She’d destroyed them nightly after uploading the information and her photos to the cloud—a precautionary step because she feared that “eventually something might go wrong.”
The officials held Skidmore for hours, then hustled her onto a commercial flight without telling her where it was going or returning what they’d taken. After the plane landed—in Tokyo—she raced to a pay phone and asked her parents to buy her a ticket home.
“I knew this work wouldn’t be easy,” she says.
Shortly after she returned home, racist and violent comments about Chinese people were published under her name on social media. She says her accounts were hacked and that she believes the posts were intended to discredit her and her work by making her appear to be a “genocidal racist.”
‘A very big, difficult, and dangerous job’
Pavel Fomenko, who specializes in Amur tigers with the Rare Species Conservation program at the Amur branch of WWF-Russia, commends Skidmore for doing a “very big, difficult, and dangerous job” and says her analysis of the modus operandi of those involved in tiger poaching is sound. He says he’s shared her peer-reviewed findings with regional Russian wildlife management officials but has had no response.
To help combat tiger trafficking, Skidmore suggests boosting custom officers’ pay and rotating staff to make it less likely that any officer who’s accepted a bribe will be working on the day the smuggler who paid him or her crosses into China.
She says tightening the monitoring of guns and heat goggle imports would help and that better regulation of general hunting permits would reduce the number of hunters with illegal “opportunities” in tiger habitat.
Skidmore also calls for anonymous tip lines that offer rewards for actionable information about tiger crimes. She urges the Russian government to pay hunters to reforest old logging roads and advocates use of camera traps that provide dated proof of the presence of tigers. The Amur Tiger Center says public tip lines already exist that give rewards “if the information is credible” and that natural tree regrowth occurs quickly along disused logging roads.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has slowed international travel, it hasn’t eliminated the cross-border Amur tiger trade, according to the buyer National Geographic spoke to. Poachers told him they’d recently killed “five or six tigers,” he said, and they’d likely soon sell them.
Without tiger sales, the buyer said, he couldn’t support his family. Over the years, he’s tried other work and now is employed as an electrician, but the salary is only about $300 a month. “You can find a job that pays little—those are available—but it’s hard to afford food,” he said. Tiger money is just too hard to refuse.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Allison Skidmore’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers highlighting and protecting critical species.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.