Expert Voices

How You Can Help Save Threatened Russian Tigers: Op-Ed

A Siberian tiger male (Panthera tigris altaica).
A Siberian tiger male (Panthera tigris altaica). (Image credit: David Lawson / WWF-UK)

Linda Walker is manager of the Global Forest & Trade Network - North America for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C. She contributed this article to LiveScience’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Your dining-room table may be one of the reasons why Russian tiger forests are being pushed to the brink of destruction. And without realizing it, you may be stepping on tiger habitat each time you walk on your hardwood floor.

That's a hard fact to read. The idea that flooring or a piece of furniture you purchased could be endangering the survival of the endangered Amur tiger is as troubling as it is surprising.

It’s a story that begins thousands of miles away in the Russian Far East, where loggers are illegally chopping down the largest and most valuable oak, ash, elm and linden trees, and shipping them across the border to China. There, companies are turning this illegal timber into hardwood furniture and flooring, and shipping it to the United States and Europe, where it is purchased by consumers who are unaware that the wood in their furniture was stolen from tiger habitat.

A recent investigation by WWF-Russia looked at more than 10 years of on-the-ground observations and found the situation sobering: Russia’s forest sector has become deeply criminalized, with poor law enforcement, allowing illegal loggers to plunder valuable timber stocks with impunity.

When we looked at Russian customs data from recent years, we were astounded by what we found. In 2010 alone, the volume of Mongolian oak logged for export was twice the amount legally authorized for harvest from the region — meaning that at least half of the oak shipped across the border to China that year was stolen. Even worse, in 2007 and 2008, the amount was four times as much as legally allowed.

We also looked at how timber thieves are prosecuted and found that very few are brought to trial. In 2011, for example, only 16 percent of the 691 registered cases of illegal logging in Russia’s Primorsky province were officially brought to court — the lowest percentage in the past 10 years.

With the financial rewards from illegal logging high and the odds of being caught low, it's no surprise that illegal logging has reached epidemic proportions in the Russian Far East, and is devastating forest ecosystems and the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities.

Illegal logging degrades vital habitat for Amur tigers and their prey. Scientists estimate around 450 Amur tigers remain in the wild. Overharvesting limits the supply of pine nuts and acorns — a main food source for Amur tigers’ prey. And as timber supplies dwindle, ecologically sensitive forests, like wildlife reserves, are increasingly threatened. [Tiger Summit: What Will It Take to Save Iconic Cat?]

It’s more critical than ever to get these crimes under control. WWF has been working for more than a decade in the region, seeking solutions. We are tackling the problem from several angles in Russia: urging stronger law enforcement and transparency; engaging with companies committed to responsible forestry by promoting Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification; and encouraging international cooperation among governments committed to addressing the trade of illegal wood — including the United States, with the Lacey Act.

But there's more to be done to reduce the demand for those illegal products here at home. As one of the largest importers of flooring and furniture from China, U.S. consumers and businesses can play a role in helping combat illegal logging and save this crucial tiger habitat. [Iconic Cats Album: All 9 Species of Tiger]

Businesses: As Russian plant species can be purposely mislabeled as originating from other countries, importers of Chinese or Russian hardwood furniture and flooring must confirm the species and country of wood origin. Companies can face a significant risk of liability under the U.S. Lacey Act for trading and purchasing illegally sourced wood products. For products made with Russian oak, ash, elm or linden, companies should exclusively purchase FSC-certified products to ensure they are sourcing products from legal and responsible sources. If FSC-certified products are not available, companies should establish rigorous legality and traceability confirmation systems. If neither approach is possible, buyers should avoid any products made from Russian Far East hardwoods due to the high risks of illegality.

Consumers: Knowing where your wood comes from is more important than ever, if we are to conserve this crucial habitat for the Amur tiger and its prey. How can you be sure you’re not contributing to the destruction of Amur tiger forests when you purchase wood flooring or furniture products? The easiest way is to purchase FSC-certified products. FSC certification provides the assurance that legal, environmental and social protections are in place and that forests have been managed responsibly.

So next time you sit down at your dining room table and have a bite to eat, or dance across your hardwood floor, remember that as a consumer, you can play an important role in protecting the most precious places on the planet. Your responsible purchasing decisions can make a difference.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. 

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World Wildlife Fund (WWF)