Zoos have a vital role to play in ensuring survival of Amur tiger

The Amur tiger, like its cousin the Amur leopard, is among the world’s rarest cats. Appaloosa, CC BY-SA

The Amur tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. altaica), also known as the Siberian Tiger, is among the world’s rarest and most endangered cat species. The largest and northernmost tiger, it is believed only around 450 of these magnificent, 200kg, three-metre-long cats remain in the wild.

However even this precarious situation is better than in the 1930s, when hunting reduced them to the brink of extinction – around only 20 animals. Today the threat they face comes from illegal poaching for body parts taken for Chinese medicine, poaching of their prey such as deer and boar, and steady destruction by logging of their habitat which makes their long term survival precarious.

Such low numbers in the 1930s and 1940s left the species with a “bottleneck” of low genetic diversity, susceptibility to disease, and poor cub survival rates. Recently an infectious disease that causes viral encephalitis, canine distemper, has been identified as a significant threat to the species’ survival. Researchers estimate that this virus has killed at least 1% of Amur tigers since 2009.

But the worldwide network of zoos can provide a bulwark against extinction. The population of Amur tigers in captivity, at around 480 in 185 institutions, is perhaps larger than those in the wild. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) made the Amur tiger a focus of its global species management plan, bringing together the world’s four key regional zoo associations to maintain sustainable captive populations of Amur tigers as a genetic “lifeboat” for those in the wild. The plan also provides an important political framework through which conservationists and governments can share information and cooperate internationally.

Shrinking habitat

Almost all the remaining Amur tigers live in the far east of Russia, mostly in the Sikhote Alin mountain region, and there is little genetic exchange between tigers there and the much smaller sub-population found in southwest Primorye province. A small population exists in China but it depends on animals moving across the border with Russia. It’s not known whether there are still tigers in North Korea.

The forests of the Russian Far East are declining rapidly due to large-scale illegal logging, mainly to supply Chinese furniture and flooring manufacturers, many of which then export to the US and Europe. This over-harvesting of trees reduces the supply of pine nuts and acorns, which are the main food sources for the tigers’ prey. Uncontrolled forest fires and agricultural burn-offs are also reducing the tiger’s habitat.

Breeding Amur tigers in captivity are vital to the species survival. David Cheskin/PA

Hunters replaced by poachers

Russia became the first country in the world to grant the tiger full protection, and its ban on tiger hunting in 1947 was instrumental in preventing the species from being hunted to extinction. Assisted by organisations such as WWF, Russia now has a national action plan for the Amur tiger, with a major step forward being the establishment of the Sredneussuriisky Wildlife Refuge in 2012. Covering nearly 180,000 acres, this allows Amur tigers to cross the Russia-China border, bringing together otherwise isolated tiger sub-populations.

So while conservation efforts in recent years have seen the IUCN reclassify the species down from critically endangered to endangered, poaching and logging of their habitat is still a problem. Stricter penalties for wildlife crime and banning pine harvesting in tiger forests is crucial.

International effort

Sergei Bereznuk is a key player in Russian tiger conservation. The recipient of a 2012 Rolex Award for Enterprise, Bereznuk lobbies against illegal poaching and threats to tiger habitat and heads a small NGO, the Phoenix Fund.

In partnership with the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Phoenix Fund has improved anti-poaching efforts using better data recording and software tools, and promotes awareness and education for locals living in the area. A key educational event is the annual Tiger Day Festival in Vladivostok, in which over 4,000 schoolchildren and students dressed in tiger costumes paraded through the city in 2013. The Phoenix Fund has also created a network of volunteer fire-fighting teams to tackle forest fires.

Russian conservation projects also benefit from the skills of the likes of British veterinary charity Wildlife Vets International, for which John Lewis provides tiger capture and anaesthesia training to local conservation vets, and makes genetic and health assessments of samples from wild Amur tigers.

But as well as providing financial support to tiger conservation, consumers in the West can play their part in preventing illegal logging in the tigers’ forests by only purchasing Forest Stewardship Council-certified (FSC) products, which provides assurance that legal, environmental, and social protections are in place and forests are managed responsibly.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge is to stem the demand for tiger bone from China. Despite all trade in tiger parts being banned under international law, growing Chinese affluence has seen demand for these products – seen as a symbol of high status and wealth – increase. When one tiger can provide ten years’ income on the black market it seems an irresistible incentive for poachers.