Saturday, March 31, 2007


This week I got to make my first out-of-town trip – to Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000 people located about 800 km north of Vladivostok. (Out here, this distance is considered “close.”) I went together with Anton Semyonov and Trond Lovdal from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an American environmental NGO that is over 100 years old and now has programs all over the world working to conserve – you guessed it – wildlife. WCS’s work in the Russian Far East is focused primarily on protecting the Amur tiger and the Amur leopard. Trond and Anton invited me along on their trip in exchange for help with translation – Trond doesn’t speak Russian – and I certainly wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity to see some more of the Russian Far East and learn about a WCS project.

Anton and Trond’s trip was focused on WCS’s “Tiger Friendly” program. The coolest thing about Tiger Friendly is that it is an on-the-ground project working to demonstrate that conservation and sustainable economic development are compatible, and that market incentives can stimulate nature protection – something environmentalists love to talk about, but that is very hard to actually do in practice. Tiger Friendly engages owners of hunting leases – privately-owned plots of land on which may take place not only hunting, but also, for example, tourism, collection of herbs from the forest, and so on. It’s not rare that the territory of these hunting leases is also habitat for tigers.

How does the Tiger Friendly program work? Right now it focuses on sustainable harvest of herbs like Siberian ginseng and rosehips on the territory of these hunting leases. There is a buyer in the United States who is very interested in buying these herbs and using them to make tea, medicines, etc. These products are certified organic and also get another certification – “Tiger Friendly.” In the store they will thus have two labels, the organic label and the Tiger Friendly label. Consumers in the States are already willing to pay a premium for organic products, and the tiger certification only increases the value. (Coming soon to a Whole Foods near you! Really.) The “Tiger Friendly” certification means that the hunting leases monitor the populations of tigers and tiger prey on their territory, conduct local education programs about the importance of tigers, and so on. Since certification brings a higher market price in the States, the hunting leases also get a higher price for the herbs they harvest – giving them an economic incentive to participate in the program (and to help protect tigers, rather than poach them for an additional source of income).

The purpose of the Khabarovsk trip was to meet with the processor who gets the herbs from the hunting leases and then ensures delivery of the product to the buyer in the States. Under discussion was a project to see if Russians may be also willing to pay a price premium for Tiger Friendly certified products. The processor’s name is Evgeny Khrustov, and his company is called “Forest Products.” It was interesting to see the interest of a businessman in this project. Not that he was jumping up and down about it – but he saw the economic benefit to him and was ready to work. Kind of cool to watch NGOs and business in the same room.

“Forest Products” also makes a lot of different teas, syrups, honeys and jams from non-timber forest products harvested in the taiga. Khrustov gave us a bunch as a gift to take home to Vladivostok with us. It was good timing for me – the syrups are made from berries and herbs, and they have different vitamins and are good for your health. Since I have recently managed to get a little sick, I am getting some use out of the syrup that is good for colds. You just add a few drops to your tea. Russians are really into these syrups – it’s a cultural difference that is fun to try out.

While we were in Khabarovsk I also go to meet Aleksandr Kulikov, the super nice director the Khabarovsk Wildlife Foundation, one of the oldest environmental NGOs in Russia. The Wildlife Foundation is quite successful and professional, and it was cool to hear about its work, a lot of which has focused on habitat protection and creating nature reserves (they’ve created a number), education and science. They run an almost $1 million Global Environment Facility-sponsored project – very impressive for a Russian NGO.

Anyway, enough about the environment, back to the trip. We went to Khabarovsk on the overnight train. This is a 13-hour trip. We went in a coupe car, which means there are 4 bunks. I’m not a great train sleeper, but this was not a bad way to travel. Although if you ever feel that the comforts of modern human existence are deceptively artificial, just check out the bathrooms on a Russian train. That’ll take you back to reality. Granted, the train on the way back – which was more expensive – was better.

I’ve wanted to go to Khabarovsk for some time, ever since I saw pictures of it on the news in Irkutsk. It actually looks neat, orderly and nice to walk around in. And in fact downtown Khabarovsk is very neat, orderly and spacious: the streets are wide and straight, the sidewalks are clean and also very wide, the buildings are kept up and the architecture is rather classical and seems even coordinated. This is quite the contrast to Vladivostok, with its overly-crowded streets and buildings crunched up against other buildings, 1800s architecture next to Soviet concrete next to modern shiny green and blue and gold walls of who knows what kind of material, spilling and sprawling over the city’s hills. At the same time Khabarovsk, like Irkutsk, is said to be much more quiet and provincial than Vladivostok.

Like Vlad, Khabarovsk is also a stone’s throw from the border, separated from China by the Amur River, on the banks of which the city is built. The Amur is one of the largest rivers in the world, and it was cool to go down to the embankment and check it out, even if it is frozen over at this time of year. While in Vlad most of the snow has melted and the temperatures for the last week were in the 40s, in Khabarovsk it was about 20 degrees colder than here, and there it is still winter – plenty of snow to go around. But Vlad reminded us today that it also is not ready to let the spring come too soon – we got another snow and gale-force wind event. The winds here are amazing – they’ll literally blow you away, and we seem to get a day’s worth of good wind every 2-3 weeks here. Good for clearing the air of exhaust fumes.

But this time around most of the snow melted on contact with the ground, so perhaps spring really is just around the corner.

Pictures: 1. Karl Marx street, one of the main streets in Khabarovsk; 2. The Amur River and embankment, 3. free stuff from Forest Products – teas, honey and syrups, 4. cool church in downtown Khabarovsk

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