VLADIVLASTOK - The conflict between the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and logging companies in the Russian Far East is reaching a new boiling point. The WWF has accused "Lesexport," a private logging company, of clear-cutting forests that are supposed to be part of a wildlife reserve, and are essential to the population of Siberian tigers living in the area.

The Siberian tiger -- the world's largest feline -- is among the most endangered species in the world, with a wild population of between 300-400 in the last official census in 2005, and thought to be declining.

In 2011, the Ministry of Industry and Trade granted “Lesexport” rights to property in a wildlife reserve in the Primorskaya Kraya, a region in the Russian Far East that borders the Pacific Ocean. But protests from conservationists forced the government to conserve those pieces of land, considered crucial habitat for the Siberian tiger, under the condition that the company would obtain other property to exploit in exchange.

The company was given other forest rights, but when they filed an application to start work, the local forest authorities refused it, saying that the company continues to work on the contested parts of the forest. Lesexport, for its part, does not deny that it continues to work on the contested forest parcels, insisting that it still has a right to those pieces of land.

The company has managed to contest the application refusal in an arbitration court, and has gotten permission to exploit both the contested parts of the forest and the new areas they were supposed to be given in exchange. The company is also arguing that the entire process involved in exchanging the land parcels was illegal.

Denis Smirnov, the head of the Amurskii chapter of the WWF, insisted that “compensation was only promised for those parcels that would be conserved.” The Environmental Ministry shared the WWF’s point of view, saying that by giving these land parcels to the logging company, the government was contradicting its own stated policy for conservation of the Siberian tiger.

“The prosecutor has verified everything here, and there are no violations. When we met with the government representative, we were not told how much, in cash, we would be compensated for the land parcels we were supposed to give up, instead we were given other parcels that are too far away and don’t work for us,” Victor Kalinovskii, the vice director of Lesexport told RIA Novosti news wire.

Contacted by Kommersant, Kalinovskii was more succinct: “There is no forest there - it’s all burned out.”

The reality is that this conflict about the tiger habitat between conservationists and industry is the result of practices throughout the region's logging industry, and the lack of adequate government policies in the far-flung regions of the country. Both parties admit, though, that aside from the nature reserves, there are practically no more timber reserves that are commercially viable.

According to the WWF, 75 percent of the region’s oak and ash trees have been lost, mostly because of illegal logging. Conservationists say the loss of forest is not just due to illegal activity, but to the way the timber industry and local economy is run.

One of the arguments for continuing logging operations in protected forests is that it will bring jobs to the area. Lesexport has promised that as soon as the conflict is resolved, they will create 250 additional jobs. But according to the Federal Migration Services, in 2012 the company submitted paperwork for 225 workers to come from China.

Vladimir Shirko, head of the indigenous people’s society, said, “Our people will never go work in forestry. We understand who is threatened by the destruction of the forests.” For many indigenous societies in Russia’s Far East, the Siberian tiger is considered a sacred animal, and anyone who kills a tiger is doomed to an early death.

Read the original article in Russian.

Photo - wikipedia