Can China Save the Amur Tiger?

Can China Save the Amur Tiger?

When Dale Miquelle first went to work with Amur (or Siberian) tigers in the Russian Far East in 1992, wildlife experts expected that the subspecies would be extinct by the end of the 20th century. The population had dipped to as low as 30 individuals in the 1940s before rebounding as a result of strict Soviet wildlife management, to about 200 to 300 animals in the early 1990s. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, taking almost all environmental enforcement down with it. As the ruble and the Far East economy went into free-fall, the tiger’s prey species, including deer and wild boar, often wound up in the dinner pots of hungry locals. Commercial poachers targeted the tigers themselves, selling the carcasses for $5,000 or more to the traditional-medicine market just over the border in China. 

It was hardly an auspicious time to start the Siberian Tiger Project, a joint Russian-American effort now managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Or maybe it was the best possible time, because 17 years and more than $10 million later, Panthera tigris altaica survives, with a population estimated at 350 to 400 individuals in the wild. This relative success comes against a backdrop of dramatic decline in tiger populations elsewhere. In India this summer, for instance, Panna Nature Reserve announced that its tigers have been completely wiped out by poaching, following the pattern established at Sariska, another prominent Indian nature reserve, in 2005. Tigers worldwide have vanished from 41 percent of the habitat they occupied as recently as 1999, according to a recent study. The total tiger population in the wild is now about 4,500 animals, down from 100,000 a century ago.  

So Miquelle, a 1976 Yale College gradu-ate who now heads the WCS Russian program, remains at best cautiously optimistic. He lists three major threats to Amur tigers that never seem to go away—poaching, to supply the lucrative traditional-medicine market; depletion of prey species by hunters; and habitat loss due to a combination of logging, mining, urban expansion and a new highway development likely to split off a key part of the remaining tiger population. These threats come on top of a relatively low reproductive rate and an extremely low level of genetic diversity. (You can find more Amur tigers, and more varied DNA, in zoos than in the wild.) Altogether, it means that no one is likely to declare the Amur tiger back from the brink anytime soon.  

But the Amur tiger now seems to stand the best chance of survival among all the tiger subspecies, says John Seidensticker, a Smithsonian zoologist and chair of the Save the Tiger Fund Council. That’s both a tribute to the persistence of the Russian-American effort and, he admits, a red flag in the face of India and other Asian nations, where talk about conservation often exceeds results for extremely endangered tiger populations. “I think the Amur tiger has a very good chance of survival if we continue to maintain a high level of political will to support it, and with [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin’s new interest, that looks good.”

Putin has made the Amur tiger a symbol of his own status as the strong man of modern Russia. In 2008, he went out with a Siberian Tiger Project team and took the delicate job of firing a tranquilizer dart at a tiger caught in one of the team’s leg snares. (Box traps, a safer method of trapping large predators, have not worked with skittish Amur tigers.) No one filmed the shooting, but a Russian television crew claimed that the tiger broke loose and charged before Putin brought it down. Then Putin helped radio-collar the animal. “Putin the tiger tamer,” as the BBC billed him, is now planning to host other heads of state from Asian tiger countries for a fall 2010 Global Tiger Summit. World Bank President Robert Zoellick has also pledged his support for the session in Vladivostok. That kind of top-level summit could lead to improvements for tiger conservation across Asia.   

But 2010 promises to be a good year for the Amur tiger in particular, with the potential for dramatic expansion of habitat and population. Conservationists and the World Bank are currently working with Chinese officials on a plan to invest in tiger recovery in the same way China committed to panda conservation 30 years ago. That campaign resulted in dramatic improvements for pandas—and a sorely needed environmental success story for China. A similar effort now on behalf of the Amur tiger could restore the subspecies to northeastern China, where it is for all practical purposes extinct, and simultaneously provide a sustainable economic return by revitalizing what is now a badly damaged forest. Noting that 2010 is the year of the tiger in the Chinese calendar, a World Bank official suggests that Chinese leaders attending the Global Tiger Summit are “going to be on the spot to have a story to tell.” 

The likely backdrop for that story is a vast expanse of potential tiger habitat in Manchuria, on the border with Russia and North Korea. It’s now “empty forest,” badly degraded by past logging practices and largely devoid of wildlife, and a surprisingly sharp debate has recently broken out about how best to repopulate it. Doctoral student Xuemei Han ’07 and Chad Oliver ’70, Ph.D. ’75, Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies, have proposed fixing the forest to make it more habitable for the deer, boar and other ungulates the tigers require as prey. But Miquelle of WCS says the real problem is stopping people from poaching the prey that’s already there. Spending money on forest improvements, he says, is “like you know someone has cancer and you are treating them for an allergy.” Oliver, in turn, calls Miquelle’s resistance “a willful decision to reject science at the peril of the tiger … not unlike a doctor performing malpractice on a patient because he or she failed to understand a new medical discovery.” Understanding how the two sides could get so far apart, when both say they have the recovery of the Amur tiger at heart, requires knowing a bit more about the fierce nature of tigers—and the people who study them.

‘The Tiger is God’

The tiger has always had a visceral hold on the human imagination, because it is so massive and menacing and, yet, also so elusive, slipping like a flame through field and forest. Even tiger biologists almost never see the animals they study, though pug marks the size of grapefruits or territorial scratching 10 feet up a tree keep them abundantly alert to the hair-raising presence of tigers. So does the rising tock-tock on their headphones from an approaching radio collar. 

We tend to associate the species mainly with India because of the rich mythology and the colorful history of human coexist-ence with tigers there. For instance, the 18th-century Muslim ruler, Tipu Sultan, called himself “the Tiger of Mysore”; sat on a throne in the form of a tiger with fangs bared; sent his soldiers into battle in tiger-striped uniforms; and kept a life-size action figure of a tiger mauling a British soldier, complete with tiger snarls and agonized screaming. His motto was “The tiger is God.” 

But tigers also once lived from eastern Turkey all the way to Japan and inhabited an extraordinary range of latitudes, from almost 10 degrees south of the equator on the Indonesian island of Bali to 55 degrees north in the Manchuria region of northeastern China. They also managed to thrive in habitats ranging from sea level tropical rainforests to 10,000 feet up in the Himalayas of Bhutan. Naturalists have traditionally divided tigers into eight subspecies, of which three—the Javan, Caspian and Balinese—went extinct in recent decades. But the differences between some of these subspecies are minor and the tax-onomy has often been the subject of dispute. 

Early this year, for instance, a study of mitochondrial DNA from Caspian tiger museum specimens showed that they were essentially identical with the Amur tiger, differing by only a single nucleotide. Oxford’s Carlos Driscoll and his co-authors theorized that ancestral tigers migrated into Central Asia from China less than 10,000 years ago via the Gansu Corridor (better known as the Silk Road), then spread west to Turkey and east to Siberia. The study added to the critical importance of the surviving population in the Russian Far East by classifying Amur tigers as suitable for reintroduction not just in northeastern China, but all the way across Central Asia to the Caspian Sea. But another study this year also suggested that the value of this population may be imperiled by a genetic divide along geographic lines.

“We were hoping she would die of old age, but she died the way most tigers die, killed by a poacher.” Dale Miquelle

Amur tigers now coexist with humans in a largely forested area roughly the size of England and Wales. Their habitat starts at the Chinese border a little southwest of Vladivostok and runs 600 miles north to the Amur River. It’s bounded on the west by the Ussuri River, a tributary of the Amur. In the east, the tigers mostly roam the slopes of the Sikhote-Alin coastal mountain range running down to the Sea of Japan. Only about 10 percent of the Amur tiger’s range is protected, with the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik (or reserve) encompassing a mountainous area the size of Glacier National Park. Fewer than 20 tigers (and a slightly larger population of endangered Amur leopards) also survive along the Chinese border in the Kedrovaya Pad Zapovednik, which is about as big as Washington, D.C.

The two populations are separated by development along a highway corridor connecting the major cities of Vladivostok and Ussuriysk in the south and Khabarovsk in the north. Genetic research led by Michael Russello at the University of British Columbia has recently found extremely low levels of genetic diversity in both populations. Not only are the tigers descended from a handful of ancestors in the 1940s, but they also experienced a population bottleneck about 10,000 years ago. “So they have lived with a lack of genetic diversity for a long time,” says Russello, who began his tiger research as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale in the laboratory of co-author Gisella Caccone, a senior research scientist at Yale. But what’s most alarming about the results, he says, is that the small southern population, regarded as the natural source for reintroduction of tigers into China, is now almost completely isolated. 

“One of the things that really jumps out,” says Russello, “is the need to establish a connection between Sikhote-Alin and the southwestern population.” Instead, the Russian government is now developing a new highway from the Vladivostok-Ussuriysk corridor to the Chinese border. After extensive lobbying by conservationists, officials recently agreed to preserve at least a vestige of corridor between the two populations by burying a stretch of highway in a tunnel—the first time that sort of accommodation of wildlife has happened in Russia.


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