Data Show a Decline for Tigers in Russia
November 24, 2009
By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ
MOSCOW — Amid the torrent of bad environmental news in recent years, the story of Amur tigers in Russia offered a flicker of optimism. Nearly extinct half a century ago, the tigers rebounded when the government imposed protections, and their numbers remained more or less stable for much of the last decade.
But new data suggest that Russia’s tiger population is once again declining.
Results from an annual survey conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society, an environmental group based in New York, along with several Russian organizations, has shown a 41 percent drop in the Amur tiger population from its average over the past 12 years.
“The most dramatic decline happened in this last winter, 2009, where on our survey units there were dramatically fewer tigers than any of the past years,” said Dale G. Miquelle, head of the society’s Russia Far East program. “It’s time to react.”
Mr. Miquelle cautioned that random factors like heavy snows last winter when the survey was conducted could have interfered with the data. Nevertheless, he said, the evidence points to a steady drop in the past several years.
The decline of the Amur tiger in Russia is especially vexing because the animal had been considered such a conservation success story. Tiger populations in China, India and elsewhere have been rapidly dropping for years, and many species are extinct. “We’re down to the low thousands of tigers around the word, and that’s really very few indeed,” said John Robinson, an executive vice president at the society.
In Russia, the Amur tiger was once found as far as Lake Baikal in central Siberia, some 2,000 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, and in China and North Korea. Before the recent survey, an estimated 400 to 500 animals were thought to be confined to the Primorsky and Khabarovksy regions in the southern portion of what is called Russia’s Far East.
This sparsely populated area was considered the animal’s last bastion of survival. In the last three years, the government has opened three national parks with more than a million acres in tiger territory. Nevertheless, the recent survey noted declining populations in all five protected zones, indicating that the animals were no more secure inside the parks.
Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, has expressed dismay over the decreasing numbers of Amur tigers, also known as Siberian or Ussuri tigers. The animal is a favorite of Mr. Putin’s, who was given a tiger cub for his birthday last year shortly after returning from an expedition in which he personally tranquilized and tagged a large animal.
“For Russia this is particularly grievous,” Mr. Putin said on a visit to a Russian tiger reserve last year, according to his tiger Web site. “Animals like the Ussuri tiger, the largest and most beautiful tiger in the world, are like our calling card.”
The Amur tiger is a fitting mascot for the steely tough image of Russia that Mr. Putin likes to present to the world. It is the largest tiger subspecies: the male can reach 10 feet long and weigh 650 pounds. The big cat stalks the vast snowy wilderness of the Russian east, hunting deer, wild boar and, as food supplies dwindle, household pets.
The Russian government has called for an international tiger summit meeting to be held in the far eastern city of Vladivostok in 2010 to address the problems.
Not surprisingly, logging and infrastructure development in the tigers’ habitat have contributed to part of the decline, environmental workers say.
But it is an increase in poaching that is the greatest cause for concern, said Igor E. Chestin, the head of WWF Russia. In recent years, he said, the federal authorities have cut back on resources to prevent poaching.
“Our calculation is that for the time being we have about three times less people controlling poaching in the woods within the tiger range than 10 years ago,” Mr. Chestin said.
Scientists estimate that humans cause from 65 percent to 80 percent of tiger deaths, mostly by poaching. Tiger parts like bones, internal organs and whiskers fetch huge prices in Asian markets where they are coveted for traditional medicines. The deep amber-to-orange pelts are also prized acquisitions inside Russia.
Those caught poaching suffer only minor penalties.
“You can catch a poacher dragging a tiger out of the forest here, and he’ll be given a 1,000 ruble fine,” Mr. Miquelle said, citing the equivalent of about $35.