Northeast Asia Environment’s Diversity Threatened

Irreplaceable biological region in urgent need of preservation

By: Gregory McCann

With Earth’s sixth mass extinction well underway, Northeast Asia is an overlooked and irreplaceable biological region in urgent need of preservation. An area regarded as nothing but a frozen tundra and arid steppe crawling with little more than marmots and reindeer, is nonetheless filled with tigers, leopards, bears and owls along with megafauna that went extinct only recently.

Because of the shift of climate types not only in Northeast Asia, tundra in Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia is giving way to trees and plants typical of more southerly climates, according to climatologists – and fires.

The years 2019 and 2020 have seen growing numbers of extreme fires, emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere than the previous 16 years combined, according to Thomas Smith, an assistant professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics.

Amur tigers, the world’s largest and formerly known as Siberian tigers, have bounced back from as few as 20 individuals in the 1930s to a fairly stable population of around 500 today. They live alongside Amur leopards, which are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as critically endangered, as well as enormous brown bears and wolves, both of which Amur tigers consider dinner, resulting in spectacular battles witnessed by just a handful of animist backwoodsmen such as the indigenous Udege and Nanai people.

Boreal jungle dramas such as this would also be witnessed by Blakiston’s fish owls—the world’s biggest fish owl—from their secret forest perches. Owls of the Eastern Ice, a forthcoming book by WCS scientist and Russia coordinator Jonathan Slaght on the natural history and conservation of this peculiar owl, is already being hailed as a 21st Century classic of adventure and conservation.

Some of the world’s rarest and most astounding migratory birds, such as the spoon-billed sandpiper, nest in the Russian Far East or up in the Russian Arctic and make incredible journeys to down to Australia and back. Nonetheless, this wonderful assemblage of little-known exotic species could blink out of existence without urgent preservation measures.

The Russians began to conquer Siberia in the 16th century, pushing all the way to the Sea of Japan in what can be described, at least from an environmental and indigenous people standpoint, as an eastbound rolling nightmare of death, destruction, and devastation. For centuries, motley crews of Cossacks and crude power-wielding military governors established long-ranging relay stations that spidered out into vast Siberia in search of sable pelts, encountering and often clashing with native people along the way.

“By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Russians rape of Siberia’s fur lands had led to a sharp drop in fur-bearing animals all across northern Asia, and, just as Peter’s wars placed enormous strain upon Russia’s national treasury, the income from the Siberian fur trade began to decline, wrote the late scholar W. Bruce Lincoln in The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians. “With no land left to claim in Siberia and no new sources elsewhere that could compensate for the shortage of pelts that the Russians’ greed had caused, Peter began to look beyond the sea to the fur lands of North America.”

The young German scientist Georg Wilhelm Steller was tasked with writing up an official account of the natural resources of Alaska on the Vitus Bering-led voyage—and that was if Alaska did indeed exist, as native rowers and Russian sailors who had been blown off course reported. On his journey across Siberia to the Pacific coast, Steller described the seals of Lake Baikal (inland freshwater seals – Pusa sibirica) and how after years of hunting for the Chinese market they were already considered rare—at least in the area he visited.

In the newly published Eastbound through Siberia, Steller relates how “The Yakuts attribute the northern lights to the marine fish and large marine mammals that, they say, emit this brilliance when they play.” In 1741, he would be the first and only scientist to see and describe the gigantic sea cow of the north Pacific, which is now extinct and carries his namesake, the Steller’s Sea Cow Hydrodamalis gigas, the 30-foot northern cousin to tropical Asia’s dugong.

Though Steller hunted the enormous sea cows as he and his crew ran out of food when they were shipwrecked on what is now Bering Island, he wrote touchingly of them in his journal: “In the spring they mate like human beings, particularly towards evening when the sea is calm. Before they come together many amorous preludes take place. The female, constantly followed by the male, swims leisurely to and fro, eluding him with many gyrations and meanderings, until, impatient of further delay, she turns on her back as though exhausted and coerced, whereupon the male, rushing violently upon her, pays the tribute of his passion, and both give themselves over in mutual embrace.”

But the main reason the Bering voyage set sail was to find sea otters. With over a million hairs per square inch, sea otter furs were the thickest, richest, and most luxurious in the world, and worth their weight in gold in China and Moscow. They were nearly hunted to extinction in wave upon wave of Russian hunters and promyshlennikis – trappers and fur traders – who scoured every inch of Alaskan coastline in their search for riches.

Steller paints a grim picture: “Year after year the promyshleniki pressed farther along the Aleutian chain, leaving a trail of devastation and death in their wake. When one island was stripped of all its otters, the plunderers moved on like a horde of locusts to ravage another. The male inhabitants of a native settlement were enslaved and forced to hunt day and night in their skin boats while the Russians lived ashore with their women. Matchless pelts were purchased for a mirror or a string of glass beads. If the islanders rebelled, they were clubbed as callously as the otters, and their villages looted and burned. The fur stampede had become a war of invasion and conquest."

Steller’s sea cow was another casualty of the Russian “Fur Rush” to Alaska, with the species hunted to extinction within three decades of his description of it. The exploitation of the wildlife of Siberia and what is now called the Russian Far East has, therefore, a long and tragic history that continues today.

Meanwhile in Beijing, ecological drawdown in northeast China raised eyebrows in the Qing court. In A World Trimmed with Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule, scholar Jonathan Schlesinger paints a vivid picture of the ramifications of commercial exploitation of natural resources and wildlife in the second half of the 18th Century and early 19th Century:

“That boom, no less than today’s, had profound industrial, ideological, and environmental causes and consequences. Amid ensuing turmoil, anxieties about the environment and a sense of a crisis mounted. Petitions poured into Beijing: Sables, foxes, and squirrels had vanished from forests; ginseng had disappeared from the wild; mushroom pickers had uprooted the steppe; freshwater mussels no longer yielded pearls. The court did everything in its power to revive the land and return it to its original form. It drafted men, erected guard posts, drew maps, registered populations, punished poachers, investigated the corrupt, and streamlined the bureaucracy….and created areas where no person could enter, kill, or even “spook” wildlife.”

Chinese and Korean poachers and ginseng hunters contributed greatly to the decimation of wildlife within their borders and what is now the Russian Far East. Vladmir Arsenyev, who befriended and traveled through the Sikhote-Alin Mountains with an indigenous Udege or “Gold” tribal member named Dersu on various patrols and wildlife surveys in the early years of the 20th Century, came to the conclusion that if the Chinese were not expelled then the entire sea lion population on the Pacific coast would be annihilated. His book Dersu the Trapper was made into a 1975 Oscar-winning film by Akira Kurosawo Dersu Uzula, and his book was recently published with a new translation by Jonathan Slaght under the title Across the Ussuri Kray.

What is happening in this region today? While the Amur tiger population in Russia might be stable, disturbing news continues to surface. A cub was recently hit by car, a young tigress that recently emerged from the woods apparently “seeking help” was likely a discarded pet, an Amur leopard cub was photographed fleeing a forest fire, and reindeer are still harvested for Chinese medicine. Nonetheless, the conservation community and public cheered when camera trap footage was released of a tigress with three cubs that had just taken a swim in a lake.

Both tiger and leopard numbers appear to be either stable or increasing across the border in China, and according to a well-informed source, tiger tracks have been seen leading into North Korea, but their status there is unknown. North Korea’s coastline also contains mudflats that are essential to migratory birds, yet South Korea walled up and destroyed one of the most important wetlands in the world at Saemangeum. Temperatures are rising and wildfires are raging in the Russian Arctic. China is bristling about recent Vladivostok celebrations, misremembering that the region was their official territory.

Russian President Vladmir Putin has a reputation for loving tigers and leopards, and one can only hope that is true and not a media construct. One also hopes that Chinese President Xi Jinping can draw inspiration to the environmental conservation efforts made by the Qing court back when ecological collapse appeared imminent. Kim Jung-un—if he is still alive—is said to have voiced his support for environmental conservation.

Gregory McCann is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel. He is the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.

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