Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake (1757-1827)
When I learned Blake's poem as a child I imagined tigers roaming only
the sub-tropical forests of India. It was to be some years before I
learned that the tiger's habitat stretched as far as Siberia. What a
contrast, I thought, all that cold and snow. How is it possible for
an animal to make its home in such extremes?
In fact, the tiger probably originated in Siberia, migrating during
the Ice Age westwards to the Caspian Sea and southwards through China
and into India. Its features gradually adapted to its new environment,
affecting the animal's size, markings, colour and length of fur. Eight
subspecies developed, of which the Amur, or Siberian tiger as some people
know it, is one.
tiger is the largest of all cats, and the Amur the largest of all tigers.
The male can measure just over 3 metres in length and weigh up to 300
kilos. Its coat is paler orange than that of other subspecies and it
is marked with brown, rather than black, stripes that are more widely
spaced. Its chest and stomach are white, and a distinctive thick white
ruff adorns its neck.
Mating takes place throughout the year. Gestation is around 103 days,
with typically two or three cubs per litter. Cubs remain with their
mother for anything from 18 to 28 months. A female first breeds at about
3 years old, then every two years up to about the age of 10. Males reach
maturity later, at about 4 or 5 years. Tigers are believed to live up
to 17 years in the wild.
Tigers are solitary creatures, which makes counting them difficult.
It is believed that in 1996 there were around 400-500 Amur tigers living
in Siberia. Tiger density in the Sikhote-Alin mountain reserves is 2-7
per 1,000 sq km and around 1-3 outside the reserves.
There are three reserves in the Sikhote-Alin mountains - Sikhote-Alin,
Lazovsky and Ussuriysk - and another at Kedrovaya Pad near the Chinese
border. In 1998 Pikhtsa and Aniuysky were designated as protected areas.
Like all cats, tigers are territorial animals. The size of the area
they roam is usually defined by their prey. The boreal taiga of the
Russian Far East offers a diet of elk, deer, wild boar and salmon.
Danger of extinction
The worldwide tiger population has decreased by 95 per cent over the
last 100 years, tragically resulting in the extinction of three subspecies:
the Bali, Caspian and Javan. The Amur is classified as critically endangered.
Between 1900 and the late 1930s tiger numbers in Siberia dropped to
as few as 20 or 30. By the late 1940s there was a slight increase to
no more than 50. In 1947 a hunting ban was imposed, and by the early
1960s the population had doubled. By the early 1990s it was believed
to be around 430.
One of the problems of a small population is inbreeding, resulting
in genetic deterioration. Fewer cubs are produced and survival rates
are lower than normal. These animals are also less resistant to disease.
Causes of decline
The decline in the tiger population is due almost exclusively to human
action, mainly poaching and exploitation of forestry resources.
The collapse of the Soviet Union opened up the Sino-Russian border,
weakening customs controls. Tiger protection measures that were already
in place broke down. An upsurge of poaching during 1991-96 resulted
in around 180 tigers being killed to supply the traditional Chinese
Traditional Chinese medicine dates back over 1,000 years and is now
practised by over one-fifth of the world's population. North America,
Europe and Australia have significant Chinese communities, adding to
the demand for patented medicines manufactured in China. Once China
had depleted its own tiger stocks, it had to look elsewhere for its
supplies, in particular over the border in Siberia.
Tiger bones are particularly sought after because they are believed
to have an anti-inflammatory effect in the treatment of arthritis and
rheumatism. Other tiger parts are also in demand, such as the skin for
its beauty, or the teeth and claws for the magic powers they are believed
The number of tigers living in one area depends upon the quality of
the habitat and the amount of prey in that region. Loss of habitat and
prey pose a significant threat, forcing the tiger to move out of the
forest areas to look for food, possibly becoming a danger to the local
community and their livestock.
forests of the Russian Far East have suffered from poor forest management,
illegal logging (particularly of the Korean Pine) and raging forest
fires. The forest fires in particular - caused by a combination of unusually
dry weather, lightning strikes and careless lighting of camp fires -
have caused extensive damage to the tiger's habitat and its food stock.
In addition, the mixed forests of birch and pine are home to many animals,
hunted by man as well as by the tiger. Consequently over-hunting of
prey species has sometimes forced the Amur to travel further afield
for its food. Although the area is sparsely populated, tigers can be
a menace to villagers by killing their livestock and are therefore liable
to be shot.
The Russian federal government recognises that the tiger is one of
the country's most valuable natural assets. Its scientists and researchers
are working closely with conservation organisations to design and implement
effective conservation programmes.
Anti-poaching programmes require training and equipment. Though expensive,
they have proven to be a valuable method of control. In 1994 the government,
together with several conservation groups, set up six anti-poaching
brigades. They achieved a remarkable reduction in tiger losses, from
60-70 a year during the early 1990s to as few as 13 in 1995 and 18 in
1996. As well as curbing poaching, the brigades also monitor illegal
trade in their cities, enforce wildlife laws and identify smuggling
Forest resources are essential to humans and animals alike, therefore
a balanced solution to meet the needs of both is necessary. Game hunting
and mushroom gathering are popular activities with both locals and visitors
to the region. Logging is a mainstay of the local economy; efficient
forestry management is essential and destructive practices must be prevented.
Local communities are being educated to value and respect the tiger,
and compensation payments offered for the loss of livestock in the case
of tiger kills. Tiger conservation taught in schools has been particularly
well received, and various activities are being developed to encourage
Practitioners of traditional medicine need to be persuaded that alternative
medicines are equally effective, though this will take some time as
their belief is culturally embedded. Only through a change of attitude
can the use of tiger products be eliminated.
WWF has published and supplied identification manuals to customs officers
to help them detect illegal wildlife products. TRAFFIC, the trade monitoring
section of WWF, has investigated the use of sniffer dogs that can detect
around 80 scents, including tiger bone.
Protected areas need to be extended. There are plans to create a network
of connecting corridors between the protected areas. Tigers will then
be able to migrate, and the problems caused by inbreeding will diminish.
Tiger conservation demands expert management of vast areas of land and
the wildlife it supports. Financial and human resources are limited,
though, and worldwide support is needed.
Among the many conservation groups that provide support for the tiger
are: WWF, 21st Century Tiger, Global Security Network, Save the Tiger
Fund, the Hornocker Wildlife Institute, Tiger Trust, Tusk Force, IFAW
and the David Shepherd Foundation.
So what can just one person do to help the Amur tiger? Joining any
one - or several - of the above organisations is one immediate, practical
step. The WWF main
website has links to their national organisations, or you can become
an international member. All conservation groups need constant financial
support, however little. Some also suggest other ways you can help,
such as writing protest letters to embassies or taking part in fundraising
activities. You can even adopt
a tiger! Whichever route you choose, the tiger needs your help.
© Solveig Gardner Servian 2003
Sources: WWF Status Report 1998 and 1999