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Siberian Tigers Stable, According to Landmark Survey

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 16, 2005
 
Siberian tiger populations are holding steady, according to a
comprehensive survey conducted last winter in the snowy woods of the
Russian Far East.

Conservationists, who had feared far worse results, celebrated the news—but cautioned that continued efforts are needed to protect the big cats.

Approximately 334 to 417 adult tigers remain in the vast forests of Siberia, along with 97 to 112 cubs, according to data from the most extensive Siberian tiger survey ever conducted.

The last similar count, taken in 1996, reported some 330 to 371 adult tigers and 85 to 105 cubs.

"To be honest, even I wasn't expecting the news to be good, but it turns out to be better than we thought," said Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Russia program and coordinator of the project.

The tiger count was a true "beat the bushes" effort involving nearly a thousand fieldworkers. The team used vehicles, skis, snowmobiles, and other means of conveyance to canvass the entire range of remote, frosty Siberian forests where tigers may be living. The reclusive cats are seldom seen but leave their mark by footprints in the snow and other physical evidence.

The encouraging news is especially welcome because tiger numbers elsewhere in Asia have declined dramatically. In India, once considered the greatest stronghold for tigers, recent reports show the big cats disappearing altogether from some core reserve areas.

Habitat, Economic Boons

Siberian Tigers (Panthera tigris altaica), also known as Amur tigers, have several advantages over their relatives elsewhere in Asia.

Regional logging is extensive and growing, but thus far it has been carried out in a manner that preserves tiger habitat. Selective cutting is the norm, rather than clear-cutting. The procedure leaves behind substantial forest habitat when loggers are finished in an area.

"In some cases it may be even be beneficial," Miquelle said from Vladivostok, Russia. "It may create more browse for the ungulates [such as deer and wild pigs] which are the tigers' preferred prey. What's good for them is good for tigers."

Though tiger-friendly, current logging processes are a function of economics rather than conservation efforts.

"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 side—we 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."

Promising Future

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 balance—for 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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