Against all odds: The incredible story of the Amur tiger

‘Saving the tiger is a test; if we pass, we get to keep the planet.’

Those were the wise words of American writer and environmentalist Marjorie Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) who truly understood the significance of conserving this most beautiful and powerful of species, the tiger (Panthera tigris).

There is only one species of tiger but it is divided up into nine geographically distinct groups known as subspecies. Sadly, of these nine subspecies, three are already extinct and the surviving six are all classed as either Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

It seems we are failing the test.

But there is hope. One subspecies, the Amur tiger (formerly known as the Siberian tiger), has clawed its way back from the brink of extinction to embark on a remarkable comeback journey.

Native to the Amur-Heilong region of Russia and Northern China, Amur tigers are considered to be the largest of the tiger subspecies (although some contend that the Bengal tiger is actually the biggest). Adult males typically reach 160-190kg, although there have been reports of individuals tipping the scales at an almighty 300kg.

Due to their northerly habitat, Amur tigers have longer, shaggier coats than their tropical cousins, as well as paler fur and wider apart stripes. According to Jo Cook, Co-ordinator of the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA), ‘Amur tigers also have much larger home ranges than other tiger subspecies due to the low density of their prey’.

The story so far

Photo by FX / Shutterstock
Photo by FX / Shutterstock

Amur tigers once roamed throughout the Russian Far East, Northern China and the Korean Peninsula; however, following decades of poaching, deforestation and political unrest, fewer than 40 individuals remained in the wild by the 1940s.

Then, in 1947 these majestic felines were thrown a lifeline when Russia became the first country in the world to outlaw tiger hunting. Not only did it become illegal to kill tigers in the country, but annual quotas were introduced to restrict the hunting of their main prey species, boar and deer.

More recently, anti-poaching efforts have been upped with the introduction of stronger laws and various conservation projects aimed at cracking down on poaching and educating locals about the need to protect tigers.  

If the results of the latest Amur tiger census released this year are anything to go by, it appears that these measures are working. Organised by the Russian government, with support from WWF, the census showed that there are now between 480 and 540 Amur tigers across their existing range.

21st century threats

Photo by lsantilli / Shutterstock
Photo by lsantilli / Shutterstock

And yet, Amur tigers still face an uncertain future. In the 21st century, demand for tiger parts on the black market is sky high.

‘Tigers are prized for their fur (tiger skin rugs are a visible show of wealth and status), and their bones are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine or to make tiger bone wine, which is another status symbol,’ explains Jo. ‘They also suffer from indirect poaching as illegal snares set in the forest for deer or other ungulates are indiscriminate and can also injure or kill tigers.’

News of the rescue of an Amur tiger cub from animal traffickers this month also highlighted the appetite for ‘exotic’ tiger meat in certain parts of the world, while the big cats are also threatened by disease, such as Canine Distemper Virus (CDV).

Meanwhile, Amur tiger habitat is being devastated by illegal logging, unsustainable agriculture and forest fires. A WWF analysis of Russian customs data in 2010 revealed that around half of the Mongolian oak shipped to China was illegal—oak that ends up as furniture sold in the US, Europe and Japan.

‘The scope and scale of illegal Russian logging puts US companies and consumers at risk of purchasing furniture and flooring made with wood stolen from tiger habitat,’ says Linda Walker, WWF-US Forest Program Manager. ‘US companies need to ensure that they are sourcing wood products from legal and responsible sources or they risk violating their customers’ trust and seriously degrading tiger habitat.’

Conservation projects

Photo by Mikhail Kolesnikov / Shutterstock
Photo by Mikhail Kolesnikov / Shutterstock

Despite these threats, conservationists are determined to ensure that the story of the Amur tiger continues to be one of success. WWF and ALTA are engaged in various projects to conserve the subspecies, from population monitoring to anti-poaching patrols.

WWF supports training for customs officials on the Russia-China border and is working to establish a ‘tiger econet’—a network of protected areas connected via wildlife corridors.

ALTA members, including Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are implementing a CDV vaccination programme of dogs near protected areas to prevent the infection spreading to tigers.

Another ALTA member, Phoenix Fund, encourages local people to value their forests and wildlife through outreach projects, while WCS helps ease conflict between people and tigers by removing and rehabilitating orphaned or injured tigers that stray into villages.

‘Conflict mitigation is essential as we don’t want local people having a negative experience of living in tiger range,’ explains Jo.

Breeding programmes

Photo by Vaclav Volrab / Shutterstock
Photo by Vaclav Volrab / Shutterstock

Besides the 500 plus Amur tigers alive in the wild, there are around 600 in captivity, including 326 across Europe and Russia. While the idea of placing these magnificent creatures behind bars may be unsettling, Jo insists that healthy captive populations are an essential insurance against wild Amur tiger threats.

Moreover, tigers living in zoos and safari parks that mimic their natural habitat as closely as possible help to raise awareness and inspire visitors to support tiger conservation efforts.

Keepers at Woburn Safari Park in Bedfordshire are hoping that the arrival of two Amur tiger cubs this month will do just that. Acting Head of Section Woburn’s Kingdom of Carnivores, Craig Lancaster says: ‘These are the first tiger cubs we’ve had here at Woburn in 23 years and we are absolutely made up with them. We hope that these cubs will go on to have litters of their own and help ensure the survival of the subspecies’

Inbreeding is a common problem amongst endangered species, but the cubs’ parents, Minerva and Elton, were brought together through the European Endangered Species Breeding Programme due to their excellent genetic match.

Iconic species

Photo by The Len / Shutterstock
Photo by The Len / Shutterstock

So will we get to keep the planet?

According to Jo, so much depends on the survival of the tiger because it is a ‘top order predator’, as well as being one of the world’s most iconic species.

‘Such powerful, beautiful animals strike a chord with almost everyone; they really are the epitome of the beauty of nature,’ she says. ‘From a biological perspective, if the ecosystem is failing there will be a knock on effect on tigers. Therefore, if we protect tigers, we are protecting whole ecosystems.’

The long-term survival of Amur tigers is by no means secure, and they still have a long way to go before they approach the success of Indian (Bengal) tigers who, while still endangered, have reached stable populations of more than 2,500. However, their story offers a ray of hope to the four other—all critically endangered—tiger subspecies and goes to show that political will combined with united conservation action really can bring a species back from the brink.

How you can help tigers

  • Demand responsibly sourced palm oil in food and household items you buy
  • Look out for the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) approved wood products