Can China Save the Amur Tiger?

Assuming the southwestern population remains healthy, the larger question is how to help the tigers expand back into China, where they are now welcome, despite a 1993 ban on the tiger bone trade, mainly as an ingredient in folk nostrums for erectile dysfunction and other human maladies.

Along China’s Manchurian border with Russia and North Korea, the forest extends for 28,000 square miles (73,000 square kilometers), of which about 3,861 square miles (10,000 square kilometers), an area two-thirds the size of Connecticut, is cat-egorized as tiger habitat. Russian tigers already occasionally make the crossing into this habitat. But they tend either to prey on cattle there or to leave with, what Rudyard Kipling once described as, “the dry, angry, snarly, singsong whine of a tiger who has caught nothing and does not care if all the jungle knows it.” There’s nothing much to catch, according to Miquelle, because East Manchuria’s impoverished human population traps anything that moves. But Han and Oliver contend that it’s also because heavy logging up into the 1980s has left the forest structure too dense for most prey species. The fate of the tiger may hang on the outcome of their disagreement.

Poaching Versus Poor Habitat

A native of the Boston suburbs, Miquelle came to Yale in the early 1970s for its English department. But an introductory biology class taught by mammalogist John Kirsch got him excited enough to switch his major. Steve Berwick, a predator specialist then teaching at F&ES, helped steer him into a career as a wildlife biologist. Miquelle earned his doctorate at the University of Idaho, where Maurice Hornocker was pioneering the use of radio telemetry to track mountain lions and other large preda-tors. When Russian scientists invited Hornocker to help launch the Siberian Tiger Project, he enlisted Miquelle to begin trapping and radio-collaring the most elusive tiger in the world. Though he was reluctant at first, Miquelle wound up not only loving the work, but marrying a Russian woman and making a home in the small coastal town of Terney, just outside Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik.

In the years since, he and his Russian colleagues have used radio collars to track the movements of about 60 tigers. The work has routinely involved getting close enough to an angry tiger caught in a snare to hit it with a tranquilizer dart, then getting much closer, in the hope that the tranquilizer dose will be adequate to keep the animal down while they collar it and take measurements and specimens. At times, it’s also meant tracking a tiger from a rickety Soviet-era helicopter at treetop height, then dropping down on a wire to work with the more-or-less tranquilized animal on the ground.

The average range of tigers in the Russian Far East is huge—600 square miles (1,554 square kilometers) for males and just under half that for females. The frustrations of the work can also be monumental for other reasons: The team tracked one female named Olga for 13 years, during which she gave birth six times and reared at least six cubs to maturity. “We were hoping she would die of old age,” says Miquelle, “but she died the way most tigers die, killed by a poacher.” Another study animal turned up dead on the highway. In spite of all that, says Seidensticker, the Siberian Tiger Project has put together “one of the most complete portraits of a large predator that we have. What Dale has done with his Russian colleagues in terms of understanding the tiger is nothing short of miraculous.”

So it’s a little startling to hear Chad Oliver, a soft-spoken silviculturalist who heads the Yale Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, say that when it comes to restoring tigers to their former habitat in Manchuria, Miquelle is taking an approach that’s not just wrong, but wrong in a way that “could lead the Amur tiger to extinction.” The dispute came to a head this summer as the World Bank was drafting a major Amur tiger recovery plan for northeasterm China.

To get tigers back to China, Miquelle, the F&ES team and the World Bank all focus on restoring the population of deer, wild boar and other prey species. A single tiger needs to eat 50 or so ungulates a year to survive. So no ungulates means no tigers, or tigers that are forced to prey on livestock. Oliver, Han and their colleagues want to improve the badly degraded forest so that it produces more of the acorns and pine nuts on which ungulates feed and includes the kinds of open space or cover that different ungulate species prefer. But Miquelle points out that China has yet to take the essential first step of stopping the ubiquitous poaching of ungulates for the dinner pot. Even in the Hunchun Tiger Leopard Reserve on the Russian border, cheap snares made of wire or plastic strips are everywhere. An annual volunteer day has removed 10,000 of them from the reserve since 2001. 

“You can do all the forestry treatments you want and not increase prey numbers if poaching is not addressed,” Miquelle told World Bank officials. “On the other hand, if you address poaching as your top priority, ungulates will increase quite dramatically, with or without forest treatments.”  

At first glance, the tone of the dispute seems to echo the temperament of the animal. Naturalist lore says that big-predator researchers often take on the fierceness and territoriality of the animals they study. Thus when Oliver and Han first asked for detailed data from the Amur tiger radio-tracking studies, Miquelle declined. Han’s colleagues on the study included Jianping Ge from Beijing Normal University, where Han earned her master’s degree, and Qingxi Guo from China’s Northeast Forestry University. The team, says Miquelle, seemed “interested only in how much they can extract from other organizations for their own relatively narrow interests” and offered little likelihood of collaboration to “maximize conservation impact.” Han protests that the team has, in fact, already collaborated with World Wildlife Fund researchers and would also gladly do so with Miquelle and WCS.

Oliver characterizes it as a clash not so much between personalities, or nationalities, as between environmental paradigms. As zoologists, Miquelle and his allies “may not realize that they are dealing with an outdated scientific paradigm,” Oliver told the World Bank. The preservationist approach, which became widespread in the 1960s, regards all forests as good for wildlife, a dense forest as even better, and all human intervention, particularly in the form of logging, as almost automatically bad. The guiding idea is that forests should be left to grow to their mature climax stage, achieving a more-or-less steady state sometimes characterized as “the balance of nature.” 

Oliver is a leading exponent of an alternative paradigm, which also got its start in the mid-20th century. It holds that no such thing as a balance of nature exists. Disturbance and turmoil, in the form of fire, wind, disease and drought, are normal, and the natural result is a mosaic of structures, from open savanna to old growth. A healthy forest is dynamic, not stable, with tree stands of varying types and ages. Many environmentalists now accept this paradigm, at least intellectually. But the preservationist paradigm still has a hold on their hearts, or on the realpolitik corners of their brains. The sticking point for them is that they mistrust the proposed remedies of logging, controlled burning and other forms of active management to make damaged forests healthy again. 

But clinging to “the steady-state paradigm” and letting damaged forests simply grow back on their own can be disastrous, says Oliver. In California in the 1970s, for instance, state wildlife officials suppressed fires and allowed bog and grasslands to grow into dense forest. But the lotis blue butterfly, a species endemic to a small coastal area of Mendocino County, needed open space, not forest, and the loss of habitat may have pushed it to extinction. More recently, the predisposition to regard closed forest as the only productive habitat led a wildlife biologist in Florida to assume that the severely endangered Florida panther was a “forest obligate” that would not cross about 300 feet (90 meters) of nonforest habitat. Over the years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied on the biologist’s data to formulate its species recovery plan and to make development decisions affecting 38,484 acres of panther habitat. Then it turned out that the biologist had simply discarded almost half his radio-tracking data, because evidence that the panthers were using open swampland didn’t fit with his forest hypothesis.  

A steady-state approach could also be catastrophic for Amur tiger recovery in northeastern China, according to Han, Oliver and their co-authors. The region experienced intensive logging from the 1890s up through the end of the Cultural Revolution. The result is that most forests there are now young and dense, a tangle of pencil-thin saplings crowded together with shrubby undergrowth, says Han, who surveyed the forests on foot and supplemented what she saw with analysis of official inventory data and satellite imagery.    

A regimen of thinning and controlled burning would dramatically accelerate the move away from the current dense and depopulated habitat, according to Oliver. Freeing up overcrowded oaks and pines would help them grow faster, resulting, after as little as five to 10 years, in increased production of acorns and pine nuts. Clear-cuts would provide critical savanna habitat. “If we do nothing,” says Oliver, “the dense forest will still be there after 50 years.”

Unfortunately, no studies exist to say how many ungulates different forest structures in the region could support or how that would affect the Amur tiger’s recovery there. Han hopes to gather that data with a pilot project through China’s State Forestry Administration, equivalent to the U.S. Forest Service. Based on data from other tiger populations, she and her co-authors assume that the current dense forest structure supports about 6.1 ungulates per square kilometer. For a hungry Amur tiger, that translates into a minimum home range of 288 square miles (745 square kilometers)—about 14 times bigger than the city of New Haven. By contrast, the tiger could get by with about half that home range in a complex forest, combining mature trees with a healthy understory, which would support 14 ungulates. Open habitat would support 41 ungulates. From a tiger’s perspective, that’s almost seven times as much food as in dense structure, enabling it to thrive in a home range of just 43 square miles (112 square kilometers)—about two New Havens.   

Han’s proposed pilot study would affect an area of about 71 square miles (185 square kilometers), meaning “you’d have trouble finding it” in the overall forest, says Oliver. But the study needs tiger and ungulate experts, like Miquelle, to help plan the best mix of open space with closed forest, or of hiding cover and browsing cover. “Do you want long, winding clear-cuts, or do you want a big square clear-cut?” Oliver asks. The first might be suitable for prey species that like to stay close to an edge, so they can run back into the forest. The second might be better for species that like lots of open space so they can see a threat in time to get away.

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