Russian Plan to Save World's Largest Tiger Succeeds

MOSCOW, Russia, July 26, 2005 (ENS) - Amur tigers living in the forests of Russia's Far East are increasing in number, a new census conducted by Russian scientists last winter reveals. Researchers counted about 500 individuals - 334 to 417 adult tigers and 97 to 112 tiger cubs - an indication that a conservation program begun in the 1990s by the Russian government and environmental groups is working.

During the previous Amur tiger census, conducted in 1995-1996, scientists could find only 450 individuals. The latest research shows that the population is growing, a reversal of their declining status. Only a few decades ago, Amur tigers, the largest of the big cats, were believed to be on the road to extinction.

Last winter's tiger census became the largest scientific research project ever been conducted for the purpose of saving the big cat, reports the Pravda news agency. The funds for the work were allocated by the Ministry for Natural Resources and ecological organizations.

About 1,000 specialists fanned out to explore thousands of kilometers of forest habitat in the Russian Far East for signs of tigers. Environmental groups were encouraged by their findings.


An Amur tiger in the Russian Far East. Once heading towards extinction, numbers of this species are now increasing. (Photo courtesy Tiger Watch)
"It is generally believed that there were a thousand tigers living in the Far East of Russia in the beginning of the 20th century," said Igor Chestin, WWF Russia's Chief Executive Officer. "The animals were being hunted actively - only 150 tigers were left by the middle of the past century," he said.

In 1994, WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society based at New York's Bronx Zoo, and other environmental groups launched a project to save the Amur tiger from destruction.

Ecologists managed to inspire the creation of six national parks with a total area of 934,000 hectares across the Khabarovsk region of the Russian Far East.

In 1999, WWF Russia developed a strategy to preserve the Amur tiger in Russia.

"The tiger used to live near humans decades ago. Nowadays, the tiger lives among humans," Amirkhan Amirkhanov, a spokesman for the Russian Ministry for Nature told Pravda. "It is especially important nowadays to save the animal from the influence of human activities, which result in the destruction of its natural area and environment."

Russia is responsible for preservation of the Amur tiger as 90 percent of the species is found on Russian territory. The remaining 10 percent are found in China and North Korea.

The Amur tiger is listed as Critically Endanagered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Speces (CITES), which prohibits trade in the animals or their parts. Still, the tigers fall victim to poachers.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian-Chinese border became virtually open. Poachers started killing Amur tigers to sell their organs for use in traditional Chinese medicine. About 70 tigers were killed every year, at rate that could have resulted in extinction by 2000 had it not been for the conservation effort.

Amur tigers live in mixed coniferous and deciduous forests of Asia, which have been preserved only in the Russian Far East. The diversity of species living in these woods gives the top predator the prey animals it needs to survive.


Amur tiger in a rehabilitation center located at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers, Khabarovsk Krai Territory, Russian Federation (Photo WWF-Canon / Vladimir Filonov)
Unlike Indian tigers, Amur tigers do not kill humans, biologists emphasize. These tigers hunt hoofed animals - dappled deer, roe deer, and wild boar. Tigers may attack livestock and dogs at times too, but such conflicts happen when there is an insufficient number of wild hoofed animals to supply them with food.

Amur tigers inhabit one territory for many years. The territory of a tigress covers up to 350 square kilometers, whereas the territory of a male tiger is much larger. As a rule, tigers breed every two years - a female tiger usually gives birth to one or two cubs.

"The preservation of the stable population of the Amur tiger is a huge success of our country," Chestin said. "However, the fate of the beautiful animal is still in danger. Russian tigers live in the northern woods of Russia, in most severe conditions, where there is a strong lack of food resources."

On May 18, WWF Russia welcomed the announcement by the Ministry of Natural Resources to establish five new federally protected areas over 840,000 hectares the first protected areas to be established by the government in five years.

Chestin said the newly protected areas lend "hope and optimism to the challenge of protecting the wealth of biodiversity found in Russia's forests."

Three of the five federal protected areas Zov Tigra, Anyuski, and Sredneussuriysky provide refuge to the Amur tiger. Located in the Primorsky region of the Russian Far East, these forests are threatened by illegal logging and roadbuilding, and poachers threaten the critically endangered tigers.

Their new status is expected to provide these national parks with additional protection, as well as state financing for their management and maintenance. They will add to Russia's network of protected areas which currently comprises 100 nature reserves and 35 national parks.

"WWF hopes that this is the start of many more federal protected areas being established," Chestin said.