Dersu’s lair that inspired Kurosawa

by Patrick Evans

After leaving Kolya’s cabin, I visit the remote village of Krasny Yar on the River Bikin. This is one of just a handful of settlements in this vast region still partly inhabited by indigenous hunter tribes — the Udege and Nanai. The original Dersu tribe — whose eponymous member traveled with czarist Russian mapmaker and naturalist Vladimir Arsen’ev through this wilderness, and later figured in the title of Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 film, “Dersu Uzala,” about those explorations — was closely related to the Udege. Many so-called Northern Peoples were killed or deported during the years of repression under Josef Stalin. The Udege now number only 2,000.

In Krasny Yar an ambitious World Wildlife Fund project aimed at protecting the protecting the Bikin River basin, is already nine months into a three-year plan. The Bikin, also known as the Amazon of the East, contains some of the Northern Hemisphere’s largest and richest old-growth forest holding some 176 million tons of carbon.

The project, worth some ¥300 million, is helping local people establish forms of income from non timber-derived products such as Korean pine nuts, lemon vine berries, Siberian ginseng and hunting as well as eco-tourism and traditional textiles.

Unfortunately, though, it is beset with controversy. According to a number of local residents, illegal logging operations are still common on the Bikin River. During a day out in the forest with a young Nanai hunter, I see logging trucks heading deep into the forest along well-worn trails. The following day, I see trucks leaving the forest fully laden. A resident tells me the timber is being taken to the nearby town of Luchegorsk, where it will be sold on the black market.

The WWF in Krasny Yar are working hard to counter such illegal practice, monitoring logging activity in the Bikin basin using satellite imagery, and funding anti-poaching patrols to work together with local police in arresting both poachers and illegal loggers. Several arrests have been made since the patrols started, but links between forestry workers and the people ordering illegal logging are hard to prove.

The WWF project is set to last until 2011, after which, unless more badly needed funding comes in, the Udege and other people of Krasny Yar will have to fend for themselves among practices such as poaching and illegal logging, which continue to eat away at their dwindling ancient resource.

To find out more about the ongoing WWF project in the Bikin drainage system, visit www.panda.org