Siberian Tiger encounter

Two hours out of Vladivostok on Russia's Pacific shore a small sign indicates "Gaivaron 5 km". The road leads to a tiny village where our fractured Russian finally took us to a cottage behind the post office. Here we met Victor Yudin and his remarkable interest: breeding Siberian (or, more correctly) Amurski tigers, the largest of the big cats, and to save them from extinction.

A short walk through the field behind house took us to a one hectare forest enclosed in a high mess fence with electric wires more suited to the early gulags of Siberia than nature conservation. I walked up to the fence and was disappointed to see nothing until an ear twitched almost at my feet and I looked into the eyes of a tiger, some 200 kg of pure hunting machine. The look in its eyes suggested it had missed lunch.

As is so often the case, I soon located the other tigers in the enclosure. As I was adapting to their near proximity, Victor led me into his yard where two black bear cubs were playing and a pair of wolves patrolled the perimeter.

If travel is the quest for the unexpected, we'd hit paydirt. In Sydney a friend had casually mentioned that "if you're passing through Siberia, call and see our friend Victor - he raises tigers."   Indeed he does - and with such success that his work has been reported by National Geographic and Foreign Correspondent. Victor is a youthful 58 year-old scientist with a PhD in biology who came to the area to study the tigers, learned of their plight and stayed to assist. Originally he was paid by the Russian government and his compound was financed by American conservationists but now all the money has dried up in Russia's new market economy. He spends his days driving around the area scrounging off-cut meat for his animals from abattoirs and butchers.

"I'm really grateful to Australia," he tells me through his daughter, Julia. "It sometimes seems as if it's the only country that cares. After the report by Eric Campbell on Foreign Correspondent, enough money was collected in Australia to pay for the truck you see in the yard. Others have sent money for tiger food."

There's little doubt that the Amurski tiger is under threat from Chinese overpopulation and the newfound capitalism of Russia that has reduced the tiger to a marketable collection of beautiful fur, bones for aphrodisiacs, and various other exotic body parts for alternative medicine. It's estimated that there are some 500 of Siberian tigers in the wild and about the same number in zoos. Victor spends his nights in a basic hut by the enclosure with a double-barrelled shotgun by his bed: "I used it when intruders came one night - but no-one has complained so I must have missed."

For visitors, the attraction of Gaivoron is that you see tigers at such proximity and with a lack of control quite unlike any zoo. Yet, despite the expansive size of their enclosure, Victor explained his dilemma to me over a dinner of vodka and fresh herrings.

"Last year I sent a tiger cub to Minnesota zoo but I still have too many here. There are five adults, including the three two year olds, and just last week two more cubs were born. Three of the young ones have to go. So far only one zoo has expressed interest but it wanted the male to be castrated first and that's insane when so few are left. Besides, my cubs are from wild adults and they could refresh the tired gene pool of inbred zoo tigers."

While not a commercial tourist operation, Victor tells me that he welcomes Australians any time, not just during the regular visiting hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Entrance is free but you'd have to have a heart of stone not to leave a donation. It can be done as a day trip from Vladivostok and it's a pleasant drive through countryside that looks remarkably like Germany, with tilled fields and massive factories. And at the end of the road lies an encounter with the raw edge of nature.

Getting there

Gaivoron is a village about 30 km west of Spassk-Dalny, a town 230 km north of Vladivostok. Before visiting Victor, it's best to have your Russian guide telephone first (ph. 252-74299) but, as Victor told us "our phone may not work if the weather is hot . . . or cold, or wet . . . or dry".

We came to Vladivostok with Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong then a circuitous route through China. A more direct service is via Seoul on Korean Airlines' twice weekly service.

There is no accommodation in Gaivoron so plan it as a day trip fromVladivostok or be prepared to camp.

If you are interested in contributing to Victor's tigers, send donations   to Hazel Barker, 18 Louisa Road, Birchgrove, NSW 2041 , tel (02) 9810 5040 - or WWF. 100% of your donations will be passed on.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd