They are the most magnificent creature in the entire world. But several of the tiger species are all gone, and the remaining ones are hanging by a thread. The Amur tiger is the largest feline species on the planet but is in great danger as only 500-550 remain in the wild in Far East Russia and Northeastern China.
Tigers are the largest among all will cats and are the most powerful. Nine subspecies of the magnificent canine once roamed the planet, but a third of them are already gone just in the 20th century. Hunting and the destruction of forests have led to their extinction.
Tigers have traditionally been hunted for their body parts, used in traditional Chinese medicines. They were also hunted extensively as trophies especially in the Indian sub-continent. All the remaining six subspecies are in danger and are under extensive protection programs. The Amur tigers continue to be under threat from poachers in Russia and mainly China.
The Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) were formerly known as the Siberian tiger or the Ussury tiger and are the only subspecies that have learned to live in snow. Generally, all species of tigers live in Asia. In Russia, the Amur tigers live in the far eastern Siberian region of Khabarovsk and Primorsky. They have longer, thicker, and fluffier coat which is lighter in color than the other sub-species of tigers.
The Amur tigers were abundant throughout the Far East region of Russia, northern China, and the northern part of the Korean peninsula. But their population was decimated by hunters in the 1940s, taking advantage of years of political instability in the region. Less than a hundred remained.
Taking Stock Of The Magnificient Amur Tigers
The Amur Tigers are among the largest of the sub-population of the tigers. The males average around 350-420 pounds(160-190 kilograms). The female members of the subspecies are smaller and average around 240-285 pounds (110-130 kilograms). Extra mane on their neck and fur along their paws protect them from the harsh Siberian cold.
The Amur tigers reach sexual maturity by the age of 4 years. Females signal their maturity by leaving urine deposits and scratch marks to attract the males. Gestation continues from three to three and half months. Though litter size can reach up to 6, 2 to 4 is the average.
The Amur tigers live up to 15 years in the wild though they can survive up to 20 years in captivity. The Amur tigers substantially inhabit the birch forests of eastern Russia. Though the weather is far harsher than the habitat of other tigers, they have some geographical advantages.
The northern forests have the lowest density of humans, the biggest enemy of tigers, and also an almost complete ecosystem. The extensive woodlands also allow the tigers much more room as the timber industry in Russia is not as extensive as in other parts of Asia.
But this habitat is shrinking as human settlements encroach on their land. Tigers scent-mark their extensive territory to warn away rivals. They are powerful predators and hunt even large animals such as wild boar and elk, hunting nocturnally.
Their distinctive coats help them camouflage and hunt by stealth. They usually creep close to their victims and catch them with a fast spring and a deadly pounce. Tigers can hunt up to 60 pounds in a night though they eat much less.
Most sub-species of tigers leave humans alone though a few have turned dangerous man-eaters. But the Royal Bengal tigers of the Sunderbans in India and Bangladesh regularly attack and prey on humans who intrude into their territory. The Sunderbans are extensive mangroves in the Gangetic deltas.
The Amur Tiger has the largest range among tigers because the prey density in the Siberian region is the lowest. This forces them to cover large areas in search of prey.
Read: Amur Falcons Tagged By Satellite Have Flown 30,000Km Before Visiting India
Chinese Poachers also regularly operate in the forests and were protected by non-existent Chinese laws which instead offer protection to them and a ready market for their goods on their side of the border. Most parts of a tiger are sold by the poachers. Modern poachers are better armed, organized, and have links with international smuggling rings.
Illegal logging is also taking a toll. The Russian forest sector is criminalized. Lax enforcement and laws allow these loggers to clear large areas of old forests. This cuts off the source of acorns and pine nuts, which are the main source of food for the prey of the Amur tigers.
The tigers were saved when Russia finally declared the Amur tiger protected and China was also forced to take measures as its population of the Amur tigers dwindled to single-digit figures.
Persistent Efforts By China Has Helped To Protect The Amur Tigers
The Chinese authorities also have made persistent work to protect the Amur tigers. The changes have been slow, but substantial and there has already been a steady recovery in the tiger population to around 55 in the forests of northeastern China.
The population in China was determined by camera footage in 2013-2018. This study was done in Laoyeling, Wandashan, Zhang-Guangcailing, and Lesser Khinghan Mountains. But only Laoyeling has the numbers to support breeding according to the study conducted by Biological Conservation.
The recovery was possible due to the Natural Forest Protection Project (NFPP) initiated by the Chinese authorities. Cutting down of trees was stopped in vast parts of the Chinese forests. Thus villages economically dependent on the forests were turned into a wasteland.
People moved away from the forests and the lumber industry, saving the forests. This allowed the Amur tigers in the forest to recover along with other wildlife. These measures are part of the shift undertaken by China towards wildlife protection and environmental stewardship.
The Chinese authorities also established 3 nature reserves that included the Hunchun National Nature Reserve for the protection and habitat for the Amur tigers plus also the Amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis).
The Northeast Tiger Leopard National Park was established with an area of 5,800 sq. m. in the northeastern part of China. This encompasses the Hunchun reserve. It is the largest refuge for the Amur tigers. China is striving to turn the reserve into an epitome of conservation.
Locals have also been included in the conservation efforts and this has helped in the comeback of the Amur tiger population in this region. But there have been several issues with grazing though the authorities are looking for a solution to this problem.
From the 40 odd tigers left in the 1930s and 1940s, the Amur tiger population has recovered. The detection of 55 tigers in China alone is good news for the species. Species always tend to do much better if their numbers are not confined to the borders of one country.
Read: Save Tigers Before They Go Extinct: All That Is At Risk
The Amur tiger population has done substantially well in Russia. But depending on one country for the survival of a species is a risky proposition. The social and political challenge posed by the upheaval in the 1990s with Perestroika had an adverse effect on the population of the Amur tigers.
The Amur tigers have a considerable foothold in China now. They though face the same threat they have faced in other countries. Prey loss, loss of habitat, poaching, fragmentation, and conflict with humans encroaching in their territory has continued to pose a threat to their survival.
The Amur tigers also face threats from issues linked with climate change. Rising temperatures have contributed to melting snow in the Siberian region and this could affect the availability of their prey in a region with an already sparse supply of prey for the giant cats.
Researchers say that China’s forests could care for much larger numbers of tigers if human intrusion into their territories is minimized. Other measures necessary include the creation of captive ecological corridors linking tiger habitats. Appropriate measures could lead to conditions that could support over 300 tigers, including more than a hundred breeding female Amur tigers.
Saving The Amur Tigers From Diseases
One of the measures that are needed is the protection of the Amur tigers from diseases. Wildlife biologists say little attention has been historically paid to their impact on the wildlife population. Parasites and pathogens are natural in the ecosystem. They have evolved and co-exist among the wildlife hosts.
Though large outbreaks have been infrequent among the Amur tiger population and little has been done till now to correct their outcome.
But the dynamics of the Amur tiger population have changed. And the same is the case with other species in the wild. A large population of a species once inhabited vast and varied landscapes. The numbers were sufficient to survive the outbreak of diseases.
But the population of the Amur tigers has been isolated to small fragments that support smaller numbers. Any outbreak of fatal diseases could turn out to be the proverbial straw. It could push the local population to extinction and may also spread to other population zones if they are linked.
The Amur tiger population has also suffered from habitat fragmentation. The large population of the species that thrived in the vast landscapes has dwindled to small islands.
The death of a number of Amur tigers infested with canine distemper between 2003 and 2010 prompted a study in the Far East of Russia. 2 separate populations of the tigers exist in this region. This includes the largest fragment that supports close to 500 tigers in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains. A much lesser population survives on the Russia-China border, with around some 30 surviving members, most of them in the southwest end of Primorski Province in Russia. But this fragment is important for their repopulation in China.
But both these populations were afflicted with the CDV disease. Researchers found that though the risk from the disease to the larger population was low, the smaller population risked losing around 65% of its population in 50 years.
Even the bigger groups of the Amur tigers are not sufficiently protected to afford them protection from the CDV. In most cases, there is a thriving host species, or even multiple species, of the pathogen that allows it to thrive and persist among the tiger population. This provides a continual basis of infection among even rare hosts such as the Amur tigers.
It has often been assumed that dogs remained the regular source of outbreaks in the wildlife population. This is because many predators have begun preying on domestic dogs as their natural prey reserves get destroyed.
Read: Two Dozen Animals Going Extinct: The Reasons Will Alarm You
But researchers in Russia discovered that canines weren’t the cause of the outbreak among the Amur tigers. Instead, they found that small carnivores such as badgers, sable, raccoon dogs, and other wild animals were transmitting the virus and infecting the tigers. It is not possible to control transmission through oral bait-based vaccination for CDV. Only vaccination of the Amur tigers is the sole option to protect the cats against the deadly disease.
Even protecting a small group will allow insurance against local extinction, should an outbreak decimate a substantial part of a tiger population. Proactive programs are necessary for areas where actions are indicated. The delivery of CDV vaccines should be incorporated in the routine task of tiger handling protocols.