The population of the Siberian tiger is no longer a cause for concern. That is the result of the hard work of politicians, scientists, and experts in the 12 years since the signing of the international declaration on tiger conservation in 2010.
The Siberian tiger is the largest cat on the planet and the only representative of the entire tiger family that has learned to live in the snow. It is not only the dominant predator of the wild forests of the southern Russian Far East and the apex of the food chain but is also used as an indicator of the well-being of one of the richest ecosystems in the country. For centuries, it has been a totem animal of indigenous peoples and has legally become a national symbol of several Far Eastern regions. However, due to human encroachment on habitats, reduction of food resources, and rampant poaching, the striped predator was pushed to the brink of extinction. The process was reversed only thanks to the timely measures taken by the authorities and public environmental organizations. Today the number of tigers in Russia has been restored to optimum levels and the predator has left the danger zone, but efforts for long-term conservation of the tiger population will continue. Further steps in this direction will be outlined at the 2nd International Tiger Forum, which will begin in Vladivostok on 5 September 2022, the opening day of the Eastern Economic Forum.
From targeted destruction to conservation
From the beginning of the Russian settlement in the Far East to the middle of the last century, the Siberian tiger was not only unprotected but also zealously exterminated. The mysterious and fearsome predator was perceived by early settlers and the military as a serious threat, and the striped cat was hunted extensively. At first, this was due to fear of attacks. Later, it was fun and profit, with tiger skins being in great demand, even at that time.
Later on, in addition to this targeted hunting, tigers then started to be caught alive for Russian and foreign zoos. They were even captured by professional tiger hunters, who specialized in the capturing of live tigers. They preferred to capture tiger cubs up to the age of six months, and the mother of an adult tiger would be killed. At that time nobody thought that it would lead to the complete disappearance of the Siberian tiger from the wild.
The first timid voices discussing the necessity to protect the Siberian tiger started to speak up right after the Second World War, and by the beginning of the 1970s scientists and hunting experts persuaded authorities to protect the most endangered species of the Ussuri taiga. At first, hunting of the rare animal was forbidden by the authorities, and in 1978, the animal was included in the newly created Red Book of the USSR.
In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR and the opening of the borders, the Siberian tiger once again found itself in danger. Large scale logging for sale to neighbouring countries resulted in the reduction of its habitat. At the same time, the demand for its parts in traditional Chinese medicine led to a flourishing poaching industry. The poaching of ungulates, the Tigers main food source, has also increased. This is mainly due to economic and social problems. Without the prompt intervention of international nature protection agencies, primarily the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund, the rare wild cat could have disappeared from the wild. Fortunately, raising government and public awareness of tiger conservation and subsequent decisive measures have managed to halt the population decline.
In 2010, Russia hosted the First International Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg. At the summit, the heads of government of countries in the tiger range signed the International Declaration on Tiger Conservation, making commitments to protect the tiger in their respective countries. The summit resulted in the approval of a new version of the Strategy for the Conservation of the Siberian Tiger in Russia, which included a set of measures for the long-term conservation of the rare predators population in Russia. In 2013, on the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Geographical Society set up the Amur Tiger Centre, a specialized non-profit organization to coordinate the implementation of the tiger strategy and develop an effective system for protecting the tiger in its habitat.
Tiger conservation: step by step
Efforts to conserve the tiger have focused on creating an effective system of wildlife conservation and preserving the predators habitat in its catchment areas. According to experts, Russia accounts for 95% of the global population of the Siberian tiger. More than half of the population is concentrated in Primorye Territory, followed by Khabarovsk Territory, the Jewish Autonomous Region, and Amur Region.
In these regions, work on the development of hunting control services has started. In order to combat poaching more effectively, the Amur Tiger Centre and the Russian branch of the WWF have carried out a major overhaul of the hunting control services in the regions inhabited by tigers, so that the inspectors can stand up to well-equipped poachers on an equal footing. For regular patrols, the rangers received new cross-country vehicles with fuel reserves. They also received new ATVs and snowmobiles, satellite phones, thermal imagers, quadcopters, and service issue guns. Similar equipment has been provided to the inspection services of nature reserves and national parks that are home to rare predators. Twelve modern cordons were built for the inspectors of the game control service. Ten of them are in Primorye Territory and two are in Khabarovsk Territory. This allows for regular patrolling of much of the Siberian tiger habitat and reduces the poaching pressure on the predator and its prey.
Changes in legislation have also helped. Over the past few years, criminal penalties for illegal hunting have substantially increased. Hunting and trafficking in tigers and other wild animals have been specifically delineated under a new article of the Criminal Code as a felony with harsher sentences, up to and including actual imprisonment.
To preserve the key habitats of the red-listed cat in Primorye Territory, a new federal protected area, the Bikin National Park, was established in 2015. Intact forests in the Bikin River basin, where about 10% of the rare predators population is concentrated, were placed under special state protection.
Another important part of the work is developing a system of conflict resolution between humans and tigers. For example, when a predator enters a human settlement due to illness, injury or starvation. Such encounters are usually followed by attacks on dogs or cattle. At the beginning of the 1990s, most of the tigers entering human settlements were shot. However, the situation has changed radically during the last few years. To resolve such conflicts humanely, special «conflict» groups were formed within the hunting control department (two in Primorye Territory, one in Khabarovsk Territory). Upon receiving reports of tigers entering human settlements, these special «conflict» groups are dispatched to the localities without delay.
At first, an attempt is made to frighten the predator away. If that fails, or if the animal is suspected of needing human assistance, it is caught and taken to a rehabilitation centre. There, the animal is given veterinary care if required and is placed in a large cage for rehoming and rehabilitation. Over the course of a few months, the animals behaviour is monitored remotely by specialists, who check the animals hunting skills and reactions to humans. The predator is prevented from becoming accustomed to captivity. It is given the opportunity to hunt living animals, and its feeding process is based on a special method that does not allow the tiger to make a connection between a human and prey. After a certain period of time, the experts decide on the animals future fate. If the consequences of an injury, illness, or old age prevent the animal from returning to its natural habitat, it will be sent to a zoo.
If the tiger is healthy and shows both good hunting skills and proper reaction to humans, it will be returned to the taiga in an area with sufficient food and protection. Males are moved to an area free of other species of the same sex to avoid territorial conflicts between predators. Female tigers are moved closer to an area where the male tiger lives in order to increase the chance of them meeting and bearing offspring. A GPS collar is put on the predator before releasing it into the wild. This allows specialists to keep the tiger from approaching people, monitor its safety, and remotely study its behaviour and habits.
Over the last decade, Russian experts have rehabilitated and successfully reintroduced 20 tigers into the wild. Most of them have become participants in the tiger reintroduction programme. This means they have been placed back in areas where Tigers once roamed, but for various reasons, disappeared. The main places of reintroduction are the Jewish Autonomous Region and Amur Region, where 14 out of 20 rehabilitated tigers were released. Regular releases and further breeding of tigers have allowed specialists to reintroduce the once almost lost group on the left bank of the Amur River.
International Tiger Forum
At the 2nd International Tiger Forum, the heads of government of the countries in the global tiger range will evaluate 12 years of work to conserve the animal, discuss new threats and outline new steps to ensure the long-term viability of the species.
At the Forum, Russia will present the results of a comprehensive survey of the Siberian tiger, which was conducted in the winter of 2021/2022 in all regions where the tiger lives. This exercise allowed experts to obtain up-to-date information on the size of the Russian population of the Siberian tiger, its current range, and the density of its groups in individual regions.
Exact data on the current number of the Siberian tiger will be published on the Forums agenda. However, experts have already stated that the number of tigers in Russia now exceeds 600 individuals and that their habitat has expanded to new areas. By comparison, the previous census, which was conducted in 2015, showed 540 tigers in Russia.