LAZOVSKY NATURE RESERVE, Maritime Province, Russia—The park rangers descended the steep hill, slipping through the snow in their rubber boots. Suddenly, Yevgeniy Sheremetyev, the leader of the anti-poaching group, stopped and pointed to the ground.
The fresh pawprints of a male Siberian tiger, as wide as his outstretched hand, were visible all down the path. The men scanned the ridges and cautiously continued the patrol.
"I haven't seen a tiger on patrol yet, a real one," says Sheremetyev. "And I have to admit that I don't really want to, but you never know."
Thanks to increased surveillance, a stronger economy, and harsher laws against poaching and illegal trade in wildlife, Sheremetyev may yet see a tiger in the wild.
The big cats seem to be on the rebound in Russia, according to a new census. Between 480 and 540 of the subspecies—also known as Amur tigers—roam wild in Siberia and the Russian Far East, says the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
That's an increase from the 2005 census, which found a population of between 423 and 502 Siberian tigers, considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"The population has grown by a rate of 15 percent—I think this is a stable dynamic," Sergey Donskoy, head of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, said at a May 27 meeting announcing the preliminary findings. A final report will be released in October.
During the census, carried out between late 2014 and early 2015, about 2,000 people covered approximately 58,000 square miles (150,000 square kilometers) searching for tiger tracks; scat; and markings, such as claw marks on trees. In some cases the team used camera traps to try to capture pictures of the animals.
The joint effort was conducted by the Russian government, WWF, the Russia-based Amur Tiger Center, and various national and regional governments. Russia's president Vladimir Putin has also made protecting tigers a major priority.
Big Cat Comeback
The Siberian tiger, whose historic range includes the Russian Far East, northern China, and the Korean peninsula, declined due to heavy poaching during the Russian Empire—with lasted from 1721 to 1917—and again during the economic and political upheavals of the 1990s. (Watch a rare video of a Siberian tiger family playing in China.)
The predator's rebound is partially due to Russia's tougher stance against poaching and illegal trade in tiger parts—usually with China, according to the ministry and nongovernmental organizations.
Russia has also helped increase the amount of tiger prey, such as boar and deer, through programs in national parks and game preserves.
The new census numbers suggest the biggest tiger population is centered in Russia's Maritime Province on the Sea of Japan (map), where between 310 and 330 adults and 70 to 85 cubs are thought to live, the ministry reports.
In the Maritime Province, located in far southeastern Russia, tiger numbers have increased threefold since 2005, notes Igor Chestin, head of WWF Russia. (See "Pictures: The World's Tigers—There Are Only 3,200 Left in the Wild.")
Says Sergei Aramilev, director of the Primorye branch of the Amur Tiger Center: "We have passed the phase of assumptions. Now we can be certain of the predators' numbers and the changes that have taken place in the population."
He says it's now important to use the census data to identify areas where tigers are missing and figure out why—which in some cases may lead to increased security against poaching or illegal logging.
"Whether there are 500 or 550 animals, it is really not so important, what is important is the additional information that can be used to provide accurate guidance," says Pavel Fomenko, a researcher with the WWF in Vladivostok.
For instance, governments and nonprofit organizations can use the new census data to determine where to concentrate efforts to protect tigers and their habitat.
The census was "a herculean effort on the part of the Russian government," says John Goodrich, senior tiger program director for Panthera, a big-cat conservation group.
If DNA analysis and camera traps were not extensively used, then "the numbers are just expert opinion that may or may not be accurate," said Goodrich, who was not involved in the census effort.
Worldwide, Goodrich says that "tiger numbers appear stable over the past five years."
Though numbers in mainland Southeast Asia have "declined dramatically" over the past decade, "the loss is balanced by increases in India and Nepal," he notes.
Tiger Threats Remain
While most scientists agree that tiger numbers are now large enough to ensure a stable breeding population, they caution that the subspecies still faces an uphill battle. (Learn about National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)
Illegal logging is still rampant in the Russian Far East, which could destroy habitat. And demand for tiger parts, which are used in traditional Chinese remedies, is still very strong.
What's more, falling oil prices and continued sanctions by the West against Russia for its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine have caused the ruble to drop.
Because of the devaluation, some illegally poached animal skins—such as a small catlike animal called a sable—have lost their value on the black market.
"Now poachers are actively looking for new work," says Fomenko—though he adds the economy isn't dire enough right now for people to risk the criminal liability of killing a tiger.
"A hunter only lives by hunting," he says. "It is necessary to feed his family. What will he do? He will hunt other animals that will bring him an income, including rare animals."
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