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An infrared, motion-triggered camera catches poachers spotlighting along an old logging road in Primorye, Russia. Photograph © WCS Russia

This article, written for Earth Day 2017 and in support of the March for Science, first appeared on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Medium page.

I’m a wildlife conservationist and I work in Russia. Here is a tiny example, from that corner of the world that shows how maintaining a grounding in scientific principles benefits both humans and wildlife.

Ternei County (in the Russian province of Primorye) is remote, forested, and sparsely populated. There are few opportunities for steady employment here, with the logging industry being one of the few exceptions. In fact, a single logging company acts as the primary employer in at least four of the ten villages scattered across this 11,000 square mile area.

Over the past thirty years, more and more of Ternei County have been opened up for timber harvest, driven by global demand, with logging roads reaching further and further into these forests of pine, oak, and birch.

As a wildlife conservationist I was concerned that poachers were using old logging roads to shoot deer, wild boar, and even tigers, but intuition was not enough to guide change in logging management practice. The forests appear vast and limitless to anyone passing through them, so how can I measure the impact of logging roads?

My team designed a study.

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A Russian hunter on a Buran snowmobile. Photograph © Wildlife Conservation Society Russia Program

Somewhere around Day Fifteen of the winter 2014 field season a hunter named Strogov happened past our camp in his pickup truck. Strogov, a prematurely-grey, stocky forty-year-old with eyes of cold-blue steel, occasionally provided us with meat and gave us news of the outside world. He was surprised to see us still working in the area. I asked why.

“Because of the bear that killed that guy about ten kilometers from here,” he replied.

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Poaching Prey

I recently translated a book by Vladimir Arsenyev, a Russian explorer and naturalist who, a century ago, walked the same forests of the southern Russian Far East that I do now. The following passage—modified here for brevity—describes Arsenyev’s encounter with some trappers who had set up a drift fence to catch musk deer, a strange, shy animal that boasts fangs instead of antlers.

Keep in mind that Arsenyev’s description of a drift fence is from 1906:

“It was a fence 1.2 meters tall constructed of wind-fallen wood, which was staked down to keep from shifting. Drift fences such as these are always placed in the mountains blocking musk deer trails but with intermittent gaps that contain a suspended noose of rope. When a musk deer walks through, its head slips into the noose. The more the frightened deer struggles to escape, the tighter the noose becomes.”

This could easily be a description of the above photograph, a drift fence I found in 2004 just outside the border of the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve. The same method has been used by trappers in the Russian Far East for a hundred years.

Arsenyev continues:

“In this particular drift fence there were twenty-two nooses, and there were dead musk deer in four of them: three females and one male. The trappers dragged the females off to the side and left their carcasses to be consumed by ravens. When I asked why they would discard something they had caught, the trappers responded that only male musk deer have the commercially-valuable musk gland. According to them, each winter season they killed up to 125 musk deer, of which 75% were females.”

Given this sustained, incredibly wasteful, and non-selective form of trapping, no wonder musk deer are in trouble.

To see a photo of a musk deer, and to better understand why they are hunted, see a related post here.