Good news is increasingly rare these days — as rare, one might say, as the Amur tiger.
The Amur tiger — commonly known by its more familiar though less geographically specific label, the Siberian tiger — is of particular interest right now because recent surveys suggest the fabled cat’s numbers are actually rising.
Make no mistake: the Siberian tiger is still critically endangered. Just 500 to 1,000 remain.
Understand, though, that those numbers, while low, have climbed from an estimated 20 to 30 cats just a few decades ago. (Estimates range as high as 1,000, but I always prefer to guess low. Environmental studies teach us that, where numbers are concerned, especially apex predators like tigers, it’s always a good idea to focus on the low end of the guessing scale.)
A World Wildlife Fund appeal designed to highlight the threat of habitat destruction and climate change, as opposed to illegal hunting and poaching, appears to be having a more pronounced effect, at least in eastern Russia where tiger numbers are believed to have increased in recent years.
It’s easy to blame illegal hunting, especially as it comes with a seemingly obvious and relatively simple solution: Catch poachers in the act, prosecute them to the full extent of the law, and jail them for as long as it takes to send a stern message.
Habitat destruction and climate change are harder to fight. They’re more costly than a simple policing operation, and take more time. The hard truth is that without large enough habitats to hunt in and procreate, apex predators cannot survive in any appreciable number, regardless of whether they’re being hunted illegally or not.
The World Wildlife Fund, in conjunction with efforts like the National Geographic Society’s “Big Cats Initiative,” has unveiled a campaign to increase the world’s wild tiger population to 6,000 over the next five years. Not entirely by coincidence, the year 2022 is the next official Chinese year of the tiger.
The world has lost 97 per cent of its tigers in little more than a century, according to World Wildlife Fund estimates. The tide has turned, however, albeit slightly. Last year, the World Wildlife Fund reported that the global tiger population — all tiger species — is just shy of 4,000, an increase of 700 since 2010, when the WWF estimated just 3,200 tigers remained.
The population gain has been attributed to more aggressive anti-poaching patrols and a concerted effort to preserve what remains of wild tiger habitats in countries like Russia, China, India and Nepal.
“The increase in tiger numbers is encouraging,” World Wildlife Fund tiger specialist Rebecca May told the UK Guardian newspaper this past weekend, “but the species’ future in its natural environment still hangs in the balance and numbers remain perilously low.”
May hopes the WWF campaign and similar programs like National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiativewill push recent progress even further. That means not only engaging animal lovers the world over to help fund and finance conservation efforts but, just as importantly — even more importantly, perhaps — encourage the commitment of and urgent action from tiger-range countries, at all levels of government.
For all the negative news reporting surrounding Russia, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin is an ardent supporter of tiger conservation, and the poaching of Siberian tigers is considered a serious crime — and dealt with accordingly.
China’s forestry authority, meanwhile, has claimed that the country’s population of Amur tigers has virtually doubled in the past 15 years, thanks largely to the country’s recently implemented National Forest Protection Program.
The numbers are still tiny by wildlife estimates — today’s population is 27 tigers, up from 14 in 1999, but officials in Northeast China, where the Amur tiger is endemic, insist the curve is headed in the right direction. Recent figures were providedby the Feline Research Centre of China’s State Forestry Administration (CSFA-FRC) and published in the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper affiliated with China’s People’s Daily.
Small-scale fund-raising on a large scale may be the key to future success. The World Wildlife Fund initiative is asking members of the general public to become so-called “tiger protectors,” by agreeing to donate £5 UK pounds a month — or roughly $7 USD — to its conservation programs.
The money is destined for the black hole of “administration costs,” either; the Fund says much of the money will be used to expand existing tiger reserves, so existing wild tiger populations can mix and breed in greater numbers.
The tigers’ range across Asia has shrunk by 95% over the past 150 years — roughly the same amount of time during which the world has lost 97% of its wild tigers. The similarity between the two percentages is no coincidence.
In the meantime, captive breeding programs in zoos around the world continue to try and find the answer. Later this summer, Moscow Zoo will send a three-year-old male Amur tiger to the Denver Zoo, where zoo officials hope it will breed with one of the Denver zoo’s three existing Siberian tigers. It’s becoming increasingly evident, though, that captive breeding programs alone will not suffice where saving the species is concerned.
The Amur tiger is officially listed as “endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but tiger experts say the word ‘endangered’ isn’t strong enough. Even by tigers’ standards, the Amur tiger is special. It is by far the world’s largest surviving big cat; males can grow to be as large as 450 pounds, or 180 kilograms.
A long and potentially treacherous road lies ahead for the world’s remaining Amur tigers, with many hidden forks and potentially treacherous turns.
Still, in a world with so much bad news, it’s heartening — encouraging, even — to be able to grab onto a flicker of light on occasion.