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East: Hunting The Amur Tiger -- To Count It, Not To Kill It

The Amur tiger (photo credit: WWF) A team of a thousand eager hunters is busy tracking the rare Amur, or Siberian, tiger in the Russian Far East. By the last known statistics, that means there are twice as many hunters as there are Amur tigers remaining in the wild. But these hunters are not after the wondrously striped hide of the tiger, not its bones to grind into traditional Chinese medicines. They only want to count the big cat, to see if its numbers are increasing, or whether it is slipping ever closer to extinction.

Prague, 17 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Amur tiger, which roams the cold woodlands of Far Eastern Russia and China, is the largest of the tiger sub-species.

This majestic beast can reach 3.5 meters in length, and weigh up to 150 kilograms. It is a skilled hunter of wild boar and elk, and can claim for itself a territory of up to 10,000 square kilometers.

But the hand of man has dealt heavily with the Siberian tiger. Because of continued poaching and loss of food sources, the numbers of this magnificent beast have dwindled to some 400 or fewer in the wild.

Or it might be better to say, there were 400 of them. The last population census was conducted 10 years ago, and the present situation is unclear. For this reason, the Russian Academy of Sciences and WWF have joined with other conservation organizations to carry out a new census.

Some 1,000 ecologists, trackers, hunters, and amateur tiger enthusiasts last week began fanning out across vast areas of eastern Siberia, looking for tigers -- or more likely, tiger tracks in the snow.

Susan Lieberman, the director of WWF's Global Species Program in Gland, Switzerland, said that tracking rare tigers in freezing, rugged terrain is difficult work.

"It is never easy to census wildlife," Lieberman said. "You just can't say to all the tigers, 'everyone stop in your tracks and stand up and be counted.'"

She said that paw prints are the key to carrying out the census. It is possible to identify individual tigers by their paw prints, as well as to estimate their approximate weight, age, and gender.

All the data is due to be processed by April, and will let conservationists know if Amur tiger population numbers are growing or slipping. Lieberman said that environmentalists are cautiously optimistic. She said the ideal safe population would be some 700 individuals.
It is possible to identify individual tigers by their paw prints, as well as to estimate their approximate weight, age, and gender.

The tiger-conservation effort clearly illustrates the interdependence of things in nature. Lieberman said the tiger can only be saved if elk, boar, and other prey are saved, too.

"The key with the Amur tiger -- there are the poaching issues, of course, and trade for their skin and bones -- but there are also issues having to do with availability of their prey," Lieberman said. "People are going in and hunting the things the tigers eat. That's one of the real challenges in that region, to make sure that the populations of the things tigers eat also increase. If there is enough food and enough space, the tigers will recover."

The Amur is one of five tiger sub-species alive today. Three other sub-species have become extinct, two of them -- tragically -- within the last half-century. The Caspian tiger -- which used to roam Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and Mongolia, is thought to have become extinct in the 1950s.

All the big cats that remain are under pressure, one way or another. The most populous sub-species at the moment is the Royal Bengal tiger, which numbers about 3,000 animals across India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

This sub-species illustrates the flexibility of tigers in adapting to numerous and diverse habitats. Bengals live in the hot, humid mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans in West Bengal, in savannah and dense forest in India, and in the cold pine forests of the Himalayas.

The most threatened of all is the South Chinese or Amoy tiger, which is found in central and eastern China and is considered to be the evolutionary ancestor of all other tiger sub-species. It is one the one of the smaller types, with widely spaced stripes. Only about 20 to 40 animals are thought to be left in the wild after years of decimation through heavy hunting.

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