“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Four years on from quoting Mahatma Gandhi at a global meeting on tiger protection, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be hoping that his Chinese neighbours think something similar.
This follows news that a Siberian tiger called Kuzya – which was released by Putin himself into the wild – is reported to have gone astray in Chinese territory.
Kuzya was found starving as a cub in a forest near the Sino-Russian border two years ago. The male tiger was taught to hunt and released in May. He then crossed into the Chinese province of Heilongjiang at the start of October, the first tiger to swim the Amur River for years, according to Russia’s Daily News.
Conservationists are supposed to be able to track Kuzya via a satellite-positioning device on his collar, although its signal weakens as he moves through the dense forest in the region. But last week he was reported to have broken cover, smashing up a henhouse in Luobei county and eating five chickens.
Eugene Simonov of the Rivers Without Boundaries Coalition, which is coordinating search efforts, has insisted that Kuzya has been wrongly accused. “He didn’t eat the chickens,” Simonov told The Telegraph in the UK. “I checked the exact time they claim the coop was ravaged and at that time the tiger was 35km away.”
Russian officials are worried that local farmers won’t know that Kuzya is a Putin favourite, increasing the risk of an “accident”, says Qiangjiang Evening News. However, a Chinese wildlife expert told the newspaper that it was unlikely the animal would be shot because its hunters would get at least 10 years in prison.
In the meantime Kuzya seems to have strayed back into a nearby nature reserve, where authorities said that they were prepared to “release cattle” into the area to feed him. But Jiang Guangshu, a senior official at the State Forestry Administration, said the Russians had asked for no special menus for the visitor. “The tiger received special training before being released. It has been kept away from human beings. The food it needs, such as wild boars and rabbits, can all be found in the area where it is staying.”
There are about 450 Siberian tigers in the Russian Far East but probably only about 20 in China. And the Russians are probably right to be anxious about Kuzya’s prospects on Chinese soil. Trade in tiger parts can be lucrative, with at least 5,000 animals reared on tiger farms. Such demand spurs hunting in the wild too, especially when poachers can make at least $10,000 by selling tiger carcasses.
Many of the weibo comments about Kuzya’s arrival didn’t reflect tremendous concern for the Russian visitor. “We didn’t want Leninism, and we don’t want your tigers either,” growled one contributor.
Hopes that the animal will be treated sympathetically because of his links to the Russian president also looked a little forlorn.
“If the media hadn’t told us it was a Putin favourite, I guess it would be safer. But now people who want make a bit of money plus those who want to hit out at Putin both have reasons to trap the tiger!” another netizen warned.
“Why don’t we send Putin a bottle of wine medicated with tiger bones as a token of our concern,” a third proposed.
“How long before this poor animal becomes a rug in some rich official’s house?” wondered a more sympathetic respondent, seemingly confirming the fears of sections of the Russian press that the animal’s chances of survival might be limited.
“We can only hope that Kuzya is sensible and swims back to Russia as soon as possible, before the river turns to icy slush,” said newspaper the Novaya Gazeta.
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