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Species diversity and use of biological resources
Trade in Flora and Fauna in Russian Far East
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Long history of trade relations...

For several centuries poaching and uncontrolled trade in wild animals and plants has been a major problem in the Russian Far East.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Russian government was unable to control hunting and trade in wild products conducted both by Russian and foreign subjects.  While marine mammals and fish were largely the domain of American and Japanese poachers, terrestrial flora and fauna have been most extensively exploited by Chinese subjects.  From 1899 to 1910 the number of Chinese hunters in the Ussuri taiga was estimated at 50,000, while ginseng collectors reportedly reached 30,000.  Well established networks of Chinese traders covered the whole region and involved in this trade the majority of aboriginal peoples and Russian settlers.  Sable and marten fir, musk, deer antlers, tiger and goral, river pearls, ginseng were especially sought after due to great demand in China.  In what is now Primorsky Province, the annual harvest of sable was 150,000; for musk deer, 30,000 animals; and for tiger, 150 animals.

A customs-free zone along the border existed until 1913 and this greatly eased smuggling of animal and plant products.  The situation following the Russian Revolution of 1917 did not improve and similar devastation of wildlife resources continued through the 1920-30s.  The trade declined when strict border controls were established and following after the expulsion of most foreign residents from the RFE.  Many authors claim that rampant poaching and trade during the late 19th to early 20th centuries was key to the rapid declines in many biological resources including sturgeon, salmon, ginseng, and tiger.  However, some authors also claim that not allowing Russian subjects to manage biological resources at the local level is an equally important factor in the deterioration of RFE wildlife populations.

Current liberalization of the border regime and trade incentives for poaching have caused a many-fold increase in demand from Asian countries and networks of Chinese traders seek a wide assortment of animal products.  According to Chinese respondents questioned in Russia, prices for animal products (deer penis, musk, bear bladders, soft-shelled turtle) in local markets in Birobidzhan (Evreiskaya Autonomy) are at least 20-50 percent less than in neighboring Heilongjiang Province.

Russian Customs Statistics on the Wildlife Trade

In 1999-2003 more than 600 violations were disclosed by customs officials; 255 of those related to CITES-regulated species.  This number constitutes a small fraction of the total number of illegal transactions.  The list includes well over 60 species of animals and plants used for traditional medicine, food, fur, and as pets.  Most products originated from the RFE, but traffic of products from Siberia and other regions was also high through eastern borders.  Most of this traffic goes to China, the Koreas, Japan, and less frequently to USA and Europe.  Among individuals charged for customs violations from 1999 to 2003 there were 363 Chinese citizens, 133 Russian citizens, 51 South Korean citizens, and less than a dozen individuals from other countries. ( see Table )


Table Selected investigated customs violations and volume of trade in comparison with results of “Tiger” anti-poaching enforcement squad, Ministry of Natural Resources (Statistics for 1999-2003 in RFE)


# of incidents

Customs: Volume (in pieces or specified)

Volume (in pieces or specified)

Black bear cubs


21 live cubs


Bear paws




Tiger bones


14 sets

5 sets

Tiger skins








Red deer antlers (panty)


139 kg


Squirrel pelts




Sable pelts




River Otter pelts




Racoon dog pelts




Ginseng root



67543 gram

Pine nuts


98 ton






Amur sturgeon and kaluga meat


27 ton


Sturgeon caviar salted


8 ton


Sturgeon caviar live


14 kg

2 kg

Frogs dried


158 kg


Soft shelled turtle





Criminal networks supporting this business are well organized, equipped with modern means of communication and weapons, are often supported by corrupt officials of enforcement agencies that assist in moving traders through well designed channels for border crossing.  With this support, the traders rarely get caught.  Products are typically harvested by local rural residents, bought by Chinese traders or Russian intermediaries, accumulated in special secret storage facilities, transported by large, well - armed parties for secure but illegal border crossing.

The efficiency of customs controls is believed to be higher than that of anti-poaching enforcement operations, but still very low.

Although there is little evidence that any species in the RFE has been brought to extinction by poaching (except for Steller's sea cow in the 18th Century), neighboring China has a rich record of poaching species into extinction.  Many species, still routinely hunted in Russia, are listed under CITES Appendix I and II and assigned protection categories 1 and 2 in China, with vigorous demand for products derived from them.  This means that further liberalization of border trade and associated involvement in Asian markets presents a very difficult challenge for protection of fauna in RFE.

Figure: Illegal Transportation of CITES and Red Data Book Species through the Russian Boundary


Species Traded Across the Border:

Big cats

The threat that trade has on different species is varied and depends on population numbers, demand, degree of protection, and many other factors.  Trade in tiger and leopard products, which are protected in all countries of the region and by CITES, is believed to attract the greatest attention of enforcement agencies.  Disclosed violations probably account for more than 10 percent of all poaching and smuggling incidents.  It is very risky to poach and smuggle tigers and leopards, but steady demand from China, the Koreas, and Vietnam contributes to its persistence.

Figure Number of Registered Attempts to Smuggle Feline Derivates



Bears, considered game species in Russia but subject to trade regulation by CITES, fall victim to a much greater number of violations.  In China, both brown and black bears are protected by law due to extirpation of native populations.  Many bear products are in high demand in Asia markets which causes steady pressure on populations in adjacent provinces of Russia.  Legal traffic is minimal, since it is difficult to obtain CITES permits even for a bear hunted in full accordance with Russia laws.


Musk deer

A similar situation prevails for musk deer and other deer species.  Here the trade is not regulated by CITES.  For a detailed review of musk-deer trade in Russia and Mongolia, (for detail see publication by Traffic-Europe “No License to Kill” . 2004).


Fur bearing animals

Trade in animal pelts seems to account for the most significant share of legally traded goods, with legal exports slightly exceeding or equal in volume to the estimated illegal trade.  China is the main destination of legal and illegal trade in unprocessed pelts, with finished products often exported back to Russia.  Skillful Chinese traders successfully compete for local supplies with Russian firms traditionally exporting pelts to European Russia and European countries.



Trade in wild birds is much smaller by volume, but has a wider array of destinations.  Among these are Arabian countries, European, and American collectors and zoos.


Reptiles and amphibians

Chinese soft-shelled turtle, frogs, and snakes are caught and illegally exported to China.  This problem is not a new one.  Before the 1930s frogs from the Suifenhe (Razdolnaya) River valley and other areas were highly valued in Chinese markets.  This harvest was restarted in the 1990s by Chinese migrant workers, and nowadays Russian collectors capture and sell frogs and turtles to Chinese traders.


Plants and mushrooms

Trade in wild plants and mushrooms is also widespread but is often overlooked, with pine nut being the most common, legally traded item and ginseng being the most famous object of illegal trade.  The official ginseng harvest was reported as 70.5 and 27.0 kg, respectively, while extrapolation-based studies show that at least 1,200 kg of wild ginseng root was exported in 1995-97.  In 1998, the harvest of wild ginseng root was banned completely.

Map collections:

Species richness

Distribution of charismatic species

Wildlife trade destinations



Political map with major border crossings

International trade in tiger and leopard parts         
International trade in bear gall bladders               
International trade in brown bear parts                 
International trade in black bear parts                 
International trade in muskdeer musk
International trade in ginseng roots                    
International trade in soft-shelled turltles            
International trade in wolf pelts                       
International trade in river otter pelts               
International trade in sturgeon cavia
International trade in fertilized sturgeon roe
International trade in frozen sturgeon meat 


Species ranges:



Korean pine

Amur cats

Mongolian gazelle

Turtle and other relatives of the black dragon

Plant life in Amur basin



Logging and timber trade

Non-timber forest products

Wildlife trade


GIS: Charismatic species ranges


Skin of Amur tiger and bear paws confiscated at Khanka Lake by border guards when smuggled by boat (Photo by P.Fomenko-WWF)

Also look:

Species richness in Amur-Heilong River Basin

Exploitation of wild fauna and flora in Amur-Heilong River Basin

Hunting in Russian Far East

Mongolian hunting case study

The harvest of biological resources in China

Trade in flora and fauna in Russian Far East


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