The Amur Tiger in Siberia

by Solveig Gardner Servian


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




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.

The 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 medicine market.

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 to possess.

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.

The 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.

Positive action

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 routes.

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 public support.

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



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