• U.S.


4 minute read
Eugene Linden/Krasny Yar

I AM SITTING IN THE SPARSELY FURNISHED LIVING ROOM OF AN UDEGE house in southeastern Siberia while the owner tries to sell me a tiger skin and bones. My cover is that I am part of a group of American businessmen here for a week of bird watching. The other “bird watchers” consist of Steven Galster, an environmental investigator, Anthony Suau, a TIME photographer, and Sergei Shaitarov, a Russian environmentalist who works with Galster. My ludicrously rudimentary disguise consists of a borrowed pair of binoculars. If the tiger trader asks me to name one species of local bird, we are sunk.

The impromptu undercover operation was a piece of serendipity. Galster had come to the village of Krasny Yar to encourage the Udege to set up an anti poaching squad. Galster is the executive director of a private environmental-security organization called the Investigative Network, which helps fund the antipoaching team. Seeing a group of Americans in Krasny Yar, Leonid, the poacher/trader, had approached Sergei and offered his services as a hunting guide. After a short conversation it turned out that Leonid had a tiger skin and bones he wanted to sell. Sergei arranged for us to see the skin later.

Nongovernmental environmental investigators like Galster, who was trained in intelligence techniques, are really rare birds and fun to watch. In 1993 Galster tracked shipments of rhino horn from Mozambique to Taiwan to Hong Kong. The operation ultimately brought Galster to a warehouse in Wuchuan, China, that contained the horns of more than 500 dead black rhinos worth $13 million.

The sellers, who worked for a state medicine company, were part of a dangerous syndicate. Rebecca Chin, a Taiwanese colleague who carried a concealed video camera in a shoulder bag, was trembling so badly that the film was unusable. Galster and Chin fabricated a reason to see the horn again and produced a damning videotape that landed the officials in jail and called international attention to the scale of the threat Asian trade poses to black rhinos.

Six months later, again pretending to be buyers, the two followed a trail of tiger and bear parts from Vladivostok, Russia, to Harbin, China. Using a camera concealed in the buttonhole of a gaudy sport jacket, Galster had the pleasure of videotaping the bandits as they told him they had to be careful because they had read about an American man and Chinese woman who had busted a rhino-horn ring in Wuchuan.

The poacher Leonid was not in the same league as the Chinese syndicates. Preparing to meet the tiger seller in Krasny Yar, Galster had taken the precaution of taping over the recording indicator on his video camera so that he could film even when the camera appeared to be off. This turned out to be unnecessary, since the poacher even offered to pose with the skin of the year-old tiger he was selling. As we chatted, Leonid remarked that killing a tiger was a very bad thing among the Udege, but that it was O.K. for him to sell the skin because he had not killed the animal. “They all say that,” said Galster later.

After pretending to examine the remains for quality, we got down to bargaining. Leonid asked for 50 million rubles (about $11,000) for the skin and bones. Following a rehearsed script, I said it was a lot of money and wanted to think about it. Galster gave the poacher my binoculars as a gesture of good faith. Later Galster reported Leonid to a local biologist and was told that this was not his first transgression. As we left Krasny Yar, Galster pondered the delicate problem of telling Vladimir Shetinin, the head of the Amba antipoaching team, that he had given his binoculars to a tiger poacher.

–By Eugene Linden/Krasny Yar

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com