Wild Tigers Welcomed Back to Kazakhstan
ASTANA, Kazakhstan, April 26, 2011 (ENS) - Tigers could once again inhabit Central Asia under a new plan by the Kazakhstan government to reintroduce them in part of the country where the species went extinct in the last century.

Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Karim Masimov expressed interest in developing the tiger restoration program during a meeting with officials of the global conservation organization WWF in Astana in March.

Amur tiger (Photo by Patty and Jerry Corbin)

Prime Minister Masimov said the government will establish a unique tiger preserve in the southern part of the Lake Balkhash area, the original habitat of the Turan tiger.

The plan aims to relocate Amur tigers from the Russian Far East to suitable habitat in Kazakhstan near the delta of the Ili River. As it flows into Lake Balkhash, Central Asia's second-largest lake, the Ili River forms a large delta with a wetland region of lakes, marshes and thickets.

Research conducted in 2010 showed that the Ili River Basin has around a million acres of suitable tiger habitat.

The project will bring in Russian Amur tigers that are the Prime Minister's Office says are "virtually identical to the Turan tiger," Panthera tigris ssp. virgata, also called the Caspian tiger, or the Hyrcanian tiger.

The area still retains riparian forest and the tiger's traditional prey animals - riparian deer, Persian gazelles and wild hogs.

Map of the Lake Balkhash area of southern Kazakhstan (Map by Kmusser)

"We have agreed that WWF and the Ministry of Environment in Kazakhstan will draw up a comprehensive program to reintroduce the tiger in the area around Lake Balkhash," said WWF-Russia Director Igor Chestin.

"With a strong plan and proper protections in place, tigers can again roam the forests and landscapes of Central Asia," said Chestin.

The Prime Minister Masimov and Chestin also discussed joint environment initiatives such as restoration of the Balkhash basin ecosystem and of water balance of the Ili-Balkhash basin. Since 1960, water levels in Lake Balkhash have been declining, due to evaporation and increased water usage for irrigation along the Ili and Karatal Rivers.

The Turan or Caspian tiger was last seen in the wild in Kazakhstan in the late 1970s before it disappeared as a result of poaching and habitat loss.

Recent research has shown the Turan tiger to be genetically similar to living Amur tigers.

In the Ili River Delta (Photo by Dmitry T.)

Wildlife experts say the Amur tiger, Panthera tigris altaica, offers an appropriate genetic source for potential reintroductions to the former range of the Turan tiger in the Caspian region.

"The Kazakhstan government is seizing a great opportunity to help tigers, and we congratulate them for it," said Dr. Barney Long, manager of Asian species conservation for WWF.

"Efforts to grow the global tiger population will certainly benefit from expanding the tiger's existing range," said Long.

At the tiger summit he hosted last November in St. Petersburg, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed a willingness to assist Kazakhstan with a tiger reintroduction program.

Putin said Russia was ready to share its tiger "families" with Kazakhstan and Iran to help restore the tiger population in these countries.

At the St. Petersburg summit, tiger range countries committed to an ambitious Global Tiger Recovery Program that would double the number of wild tigers by 2022.

Wild tigers numbered more than 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century, but just an estimated 3,200 tigers remain in the wild today due to habitat loss and illegal wildlife trade. They occupy just seven percent of their historic range and are scattered across 13 countries, including Russia.

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