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Illegal log trade threatens Russian tigers, ecology

Illegal log trade threatens Russian tigers, ecology
MOSCOW - Russia\'s multi-billion dollar illegal logging business threatens its unique plant and animal life, including rare Siberian tigers, and helped trigger recent disastrous floods, the WWF said.
Widespread illegal logging and wasteful forestry management were laying waste to hard-timber forests in Russia\'s Far East and south Siberia, the Worldwide Fund for Nature said in a report on the $700 million annual Russian-Japanese timber trade. \"The Siberian tiger and Amur leopard, two of the most endangered cat species in the world, are now threatened with extinction because of the rampant illegal logging that fragments their Russian habitat,\" the report\'s authors said. Of seven leading Russian exporters to Japan, only one - Terneyles and its Japanese partner Sumitomo - showed a \"reasonably good level of responsibility\". Neither was immediately available for comment. \"The Russian-Japanese timber trade is plagued with timber smuggling, laundering through fake documents and cut-and-run timber operations,\" said Anatoly Kotlobay, the WWF-Russia\'s forestry expert and co-author of the report. The WWF has funded mobile anti-poaching brigades, but its new report called on Moscow and Tokyo to ensure that Japan imported Russian timber only from legal and sustainable sources. Environmentalists say President Vladimir Putin blundered by abolishing the State Committee for Ecology, the main state body in charge of combating the wood mafia, after assuming office. Its functions were taken over by the Ministry for Natural Resources, which manages the country\'s forests, but ecologists complain that makes it effectively gamekeeper and poacher. ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER Igor Chestin, director of WWF-Russia, said illegal logging had accelerated in the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, harming bio-diversity and causing climate change. \"It\'s no secret that the catastrophic floods in Yakutia (in 2001) and this year in the North Caucasus and the Far East were due mostly to logging in the upland regions,\" Chestin said. Deforestation meant the land was no longer able to retain moisture, leading to droughts and killer floods, he said. He quoted a UNHCR report which said more people had become refugees since 1998 due to ecological disasters than war. Chestin said a Russian Audit Chamber report last year had estimated at $20 billion annual losses to the federal budget, in terms of lost taxes, customs and taxes on earnings. The sum is five times Russia\'s stated legal timber export revenue. But enforcing the country\'s inadequate laws is dangerous in a region notorious within Russia for organised crime. Vitaly Gamov, the border guards general who took on the region\'s \"fish mafia\", was killed in a May firebomb attack on his home which left his wife seriously ill in a Japanese hospital. Forestry workers who earn as little as 500-1,000 roubles ($16-32) a month have little incentive for heroics when crime gangs in China - the main market for timber from Russia\'s Far East - pay $80 to $200 per cubic metre of wood, say ecologists. However, illegal logging contains the seeds of its own destruction. Over the last few decades, the share of mature forests of commercial value has decreased from 75-90 percent to just 45-50 percent, says the WWF. It urges sustainable forestry management and rebuilding of the almost defunct domestic timber processing industry in the region. That would provide jobs and allow Russia to export high-value products instead of less lucrative uncut timber. Story by Jon Boyle REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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