"Right now the forest habitat in Russia is still very pristine," said Sybille Klenzendorf, tiger program coordinator at WWF in Washington, D.C. "It features lots of old-growth timber, which is very valuable, so right now the companies are primarily going for old trees which promise more money for their efforts." Conservation organizations hope to promote sustainable logging techniques that will continue to preserve tiger habitat.
"The timber industry is relatively new here, with the recent political changes," Klenzendorf said. "We need to work with the new timber companies coming in and make sure they are doing it the right way. The last thing we want to see is a [deforestation] situation like in Sumatra. In Russia we're still on the good sidewe have a lot of habitat left."
Tigers have also benefited from an improved Russian economy, which researchers say has eased poaching pressures significantly since the early 1990s.
"Poaching is still a serious problem," Miquelle cautioned. "In fact we have numerous radio-collared animals, and their most common cause of death by far is poaching," he said. "But it now appears to be at a low enough rate to allow the population to sustain itself."
Survey scientists look forward to more extensive analysis of tiger distribution, as well as research on the prey species critical to the cats' survival.
The outlook seems promising.
"We're fairly positive in Russia," Miquelle said. "It has the lowest [human] population density of any area that has tigers."
The region's vast forests also provide a contiguous habitat area that's increasingly unavailable in more populated locales such as India.
"It's the most intact ecosystem left where tigers occur," WWF's Klenzendorf said. "But it's a lot harsher climate [than elsewhere in Asia] so it's less forgiving for tigers. They occur in lower densities because of the climate conditions, so they need larger expanses of forest to survive.
But threats from poaching and logging still persist. The two processes often work hand in hand because the extensive road-building done for logging operations provides easy wilderness access for poachers.
Yet it appears that Siberian tigers have reached a sustainable balancefor now. Miquelle even suggests that their numbers could grow with further expansion across the Chinese border.
"We think neighboring territory in China could be recovered for tigers if there is enough will [to protect them]," he said. "It may be pie in the sky optimism, but it's possible."
Meanwhile, the survey project delivered great news for conservation cooperation, as well as for the tigers themselves.
Funding came from Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources and a host of international organizations, including Save the Tiger Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund, Britain's 21st Century Tiger, and WWF.
John Seidensticker, of the Save the Tiger Fund, a partnership between ExxonMobil, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, summed up the group effort.
"Russia is a bright spot in the conservation of tigers in Asia," he said, "and is proof of our belief that a few dedicated individuals, with sufficient motivation and adequate support, can make a difference in the world."
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