November, 2010: There was an eerie silence in the wintry Russian air as we slowly assembled on the side of the empty road, jostling and peering over each other’s heads at Olga. She stood quietly, waiting for our whispers to die down. She was our translator for this second day journeying across eastern Russia. An hour prior to this, we had been exploring a nature reserve, where we had examined fir trees and snowy pawprints of leopards in the vain hope that they would convey to us the secrets of the mystical Siberian Tiger. Now, our coach had stopped here, in the most unimaginable of locations.
This road seemed no place for tigers and their prints. There was nowhere to go; no trodden pathways, no complicated Russian nature reserve signs. No birds were singing.
The road stretched on into the never-ending distance.
Someone leaned towards me and asked quietly, “do you know why we’ve stopped here?”. Our police escorts on the other side of the road stopped talking, and watched us keenly.
Somehow, it felt colder here.
The guide started to speak, in quick, chopped Russian.
“This,” Olga began, “is a popular crossing for wildlife here in this area. The deer cross over here, and the wild cats, and the leopards. Tigers cross here too.” She paused to listen to the next part of our guide’s speech. Foreheads creased on the faces of the few Russian ambassadors gathered with us.
Slowly, Olga and the guide raised three black-and-white pictures, all of the same image. The photographs seemed to blend into the white of the landscape around us, yet none of us could look away.
“This tigress was hit by a car, and knocked to the side of the road, where we are standing now. She was very badly injured. The authorities and the WWF were contacted, but they could not save this tiger, and she died a few hours later.
“The punishments are very harsh here in Russia. If the driver had been found, he would have been faced with a $75,000 fine and a criminal record. A four-month investigation was launched, but we could not find who did this.”
She hesitated, before her final sentence. “We cannot put signs up to warn motorists that this is a tiger crossing… it will attract the poachers to this area.” The gaps of translation and meaning were filled slowly among those around me.
For once, in this area, we could not help to save the tiger. Nothing would attract poachers more than a sign ‘warning’ them that tigers were near.
Somehow, it was all so poignant, so bleak. The tiger did not deserve this. No animal, no living creature, deserved this.
I still recall the biting cold as other delegates in the party began to raise their voices, to argue and question this, to ask whether surely some system could be put in place, some way of slowing down motorists, surely… but Olga and our guides shook their heads sadly. And still this lingering silence continued, relentless, unwielding.
The group began to move to the coach, perhaps a few moments later, perhaps an hour later. Three words remained in my head. These are the only words I noted down in my notepad, and yet I still can remember her entire speech on that dark day. One helpless shrug, three words.
“That’s Russian reality.”
As I returned to the bus with quiet and sombre thoughts, I knew inside that these little moments of darkness were the reason for why we were there. We needed to see it, to experience it, in order to tell people, “This is what happened. This is what we will do, to stop it happening again.”
We must change people’s minds and people’s hearts, from apathy to change, from helplessness to hope.
“Russian reality” can, and will, be reversed, so that we can visit this country and know that, because of us, somewhere in the snowy pawprints and the fir trees, there is a tiger, roaming, breathing, living.
In November 2010, the St Petersburg Tiger Summit was held amongst world leaders, the first summit of its kind. At the same time, I travelled to the other side of the world, to Vladivostok in eastern Russia, in order to represent WWF-UK at the Youth Tiger Summit. WWF held this Summit for us, as youth ambassadors of the 13 tiger-range countries and of the United Kingdom, in order for us to discuss and implement plans of action for the youths of our respective countries. We passed our plans for saving the tiger through a video link to the St Petersburg Tiger Summit, speaking directly to Vladimir Putin (Prime Minister of Russia), Wen Jiabao (Premier of China) and the World Bank leader, Robert Zoellick.
For previously mentioned reasons, the location of this tiger crossing cannot be named. However, WWF is currently raising funds for a designated project to stop crossings over this road, and to allow them to cross in another safer place. If you wish to help this project, please consider adopting a tiger at the WWF Website.