An International Conference on Saving the Amur Tiger in Northeast Asia
The most far-flung corner of the wild tiger’s realm lies in the Russian Far East and northwest China. Only perhaps 20 or so tigers live on the Chinese side of the Ussuri River, which here forms the border between Russia and China. On the Russian side, however, an estimated 300 to 400 tigers inhabit the region’s forest lands, most of them in a single unfragmented population in Primorye and Khabarovsk regions.
Amur tigers represent an ongoing conservation success story—their numbers have been growing, from as few as 30 or 40 in the 1940s, while tiger numbers elsewhere have been in free fall. And despite continuing challenges and recent setbacks—tigers numbers fell significantly between 2005 and 2009—the conservationists who met recently to discuss the Amur tiger’s future are determined to ensure that the story has a happy ending.
More than 100 scientists and conservation professionals from 13 countries participated in the international conference called “Amur Tiger in Northeast Asia: Planning for the 21 Century,” held from March 15 to 18 in Vladivostok. Wildlife and environment management officials from the two “tiger” regions of Russia—Primorsky Kray and Khabarovsk Kray—were also in attendance, as well as international representatives of the Smithsonian Institution, Wildlife Conservation Society, World Bank, WWF, and other core partners in the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI). The conference was organized by the Institute of Biology and Soils and the Pacific Institute of Geography of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, together with WWF-Russia and WCS-Russia.
The goal of the meeting was to review the Amur tiger’s current status, outline threats, review the draft of a new federal strategy for Amur tiger conservation in Russia, and develop recommendations for federal and regional actions to reverse the recent decline. The following account is based on the reports of the conference speakers, the Conference Resolution, and related documents.
What is an Amur Tiger?
Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica), sometimes called Siberian tigers, are one of the nine currently recognized tiger subspecies, three of which went extinct in the 20th century. Recent genetic analyses revealed that the Amur tiger’s closest relative is the now-extinct Caspian tiger (P. t. virgata) of Central Asia. In fact, the two forms are so similar genetically that some scientists propose lumping them into a single subspecies! This means that tigers of the appropriate subspecies could be reintroduced into Central Asia should that become feasible. Apart from genetic differences, Amur tigers differ from other tigers primarily in adaptations to a cold habitat that may be blanketed with snow for half of the year. They are large with thick, fluffy light-colored fur that is dramatically longer in winter than in summer.
Amur tigers also require vastly larger territories than their South and South Asian counterparts. Females are forced to range widely to find enough prey—primarily wild boar and several species of deer—to survive and reproduce. The density of pigs and deer depends on food availability, which is low in the harsh climate of northeast Asia. In turn, the density of female tigers depends on the availability of prey. So, while tigers living in the most productive habitats elsewhere find enough to eat in territories as small as 20 km2, the territories of female Amur tigers average 450 km2. Male territories are usually comparatively larger, because they also include the territories of females with which to breed.
Success and Setbacks
Russia laid the groundwork for the Amur tiger success story when, in 1947, it became the first tiger range state to ban hunting of tigers. At the same time, it restricted hunting of the tiger’s primary prey by setting annual quotas on the number of these hoofed mammals hunters could take. These regulations, coupled with their effective enforcement, resulted in the Amur tiger’s remarkable comeback as numbers grew and they maintained or restored themselves in about two-thirds of their original Russian range. The importance of strong enforcement was made abundantly clear when, during a period of lax enforcement in the early 1990s, poaching increased and tiger numbers fell (as did numbers of hoofed mammals), only to recover again when enforcement improved.
Waning enforcement and thus increased poaching is most likely culprit in the tiger decline observed between 2005 and the present—prey numbers declined at the same time—perhaps exacerbated by some harsh winters with deep snow. The primary motivation for tiger poaching is to supply the illegal trade in tiger parts fueled by demand for their use in traditional Asian medicine, although there is a new demand in Russia for tiger pelts as high-status decors. People who are legally hunting for deer and wild boar often view tigers as competitors and some, given the opportunity, will shoot a tiger they sight in the forest. Hunters also become poachers when they exceed their legal quota of deer and boar kills.
There are ominous signs that other troubles lie ahead, however.
Amur tiger’s preferred habitat are oak forests, forests of Korean pine mixed with deciduous trees, and riverine forests of mixed hardwoods such as ash. But the amount of logging in the tiger’s range more than doubled between 2000 and 2008, and illegal logging has skyrocketed. Not only does this degrade tiger habitat, it deprives prey of food. The acorns of Mongolian oak are a staple in the diets of wild boar and sika deer, as are the nuts of Korean pine. People collecting pine nuts for the market not only directly compete with tiger prey, but also prevent re-growth of the trees. In some areas, essentially 100 percent of the annual pine nut crop is harvested by people. Other threats include expanding roads and infrastructure development, especially construction of gas and oil pipelines.
Progress has been made in recent years in extending the network of protected areas in the Amur tiger’s range, but some of the new areas are barely functioning yet and more needs to be done. Other protected areas lack buffers. As in most tiger range countries, protected areas and conservation activities in general are poorly funded. Several organizational and legislative shortcomings also exist that thwart conservation efforts.
Reasons for Optimism
On the plus side, there is growing support for establishing a cross-boundary tiger conservation landscape to enhance and protect and expand the forest connection between the small, isolated population of Amur tigers in Southwest Primorye with those in the Changbaishan forest of China. (In fact, the tigers now in these areas of China most likely moved there from Southwest Primorye.) This is a trans-boundary project the GTI is very enthusiastic about supporting.
One of the Amur’s tiger’s greatest assets is the strong cadre of wildlife biologists, conservation professionals and others, in the federal and regional governments and in non-profit organizations such as WWF-Russia and WCS-Russia, who have long worked tirelessly on its behalf. Scientific information on the Amur tiger is extensive, with ecology, reproduction, and behavior well understood.
Range-wide surveys to estimate tiger numbers have been conducted are fairly regular intervals since 1947, and more recently, annual monitoring on a sample of sites. The tiger’s prey is also monitored. Awareness of the Amur tiger’s plight is fairly high in the Russian Far East, too, thanks to visible campaigns and environmental education programs.
Goals and Strategies for the Future of the Amur Tiger
Russia’s new Federal Amur Tiger Conservation Strategy—in draft form in March 2010 and expected to be final by the Tiger Summit in Vladivostok in September 2010—proposes an ambitious goal: the maintenance of a sustainable, genetically viable population of at least 500 adult tigers—and up to 700 individuals—living across the subspecies’ entire historical range in Russia.
Achieving this would be a major contribution to the global goal of doubling the number of tigers by 2022, which was endorsed at the 1st Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation, hosted by Thailand with GTI support in January 2010. Specific actions needed to implement the new Federal Strategy would become a very important contribution to the proposed Global Tiger Stabilization and Recovery Program that is expected to be presented for endorsement by the heads of government at the Vladivostok Summit.
By Susan Lumpkin (Global Tiger Initiative Consultant and Smithsonian’s National Zoo Research Associate) and John Seidensticker (Head of the Conservation Ecology section of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Chairman of the Save the Tiger Fund Council, and Global Tiger Initiative Senior Advisor)