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Russia: Environmentalists Save Tigers From Extinction

London, 29 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A new report says the Siberian tiger, one of only five sub-species of the giant cat left in the wild, may be clawing its way back from the brink of extinction, partly because of the success of Russian anti-poaching measures.

The report says the number of Siberian, or Amur, tigers fell sharply after the collapse of the Soviet Union that led to the opening of the previously-sealed Sino-Russian border, and to increased poaching by gangs seeking to meet the commercial demand for tiger bones for use in traditional Chinese medicines.

But eight new anti-poaching brigades, and the effective policing of strict wildlife laws, are helping to save the Siberian tiger.

The report was published this week by a conservationist charity, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Its release is timed to coincide with the Chinese New Year -- the Year of the Tiger -- and aims to focus attention on the illegal trade in tiger parts.

The report estimates that only 5,000 to 7,500 tigers remain in the wild today -- in the Russian Far East, India, South China, Indochina and Sumatra -- compared with 100,000 at the turn of the century. Thus, numbers have dwindled by up to 95 percent.

The reason for this steep decline is illegal hunting; the clearing of forests and grasslands for farming, logging and housing; and retaliation for attacks on local farmers' livestock. Another problem is depletion of the species on which tigers feed: deer and wild boar.

Three of the eight sub-species of tiger that existed 100 years ago have already been lost. The Bali tiger became extinct in the 1940s, the Caspian (which used to roam across the Caucasus and Central Asia) in the 1970s, and the Javan disappeared in the 1980s.

Today, the Bengal tiger may number only 3,000; the Indo-China tiger just over 1,000, and the Sumatran and Siberian each about 400. Most animals are in national parks or protected areas, outside of which they would not survive. The South China tiger is so rare the WWF does not even have a photograph of it. No more than 20 are believed to be alive today, compared with 4,000 in the 1950s.

Robin Pellew, director of the WWF-UK, said the Chinese Year of the Tiger will be crucial to the conservationists' fight for the animal's survival. He expressed hope that the interest sparked by the calendar event will serve as a catalyst for action and "help reverse the fortunes of this critically-endangered species."

The trade in body parts for use in Chinese medicines is banned in all the countries where the tiger exists, including Russia, and is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But a significant black market keeps the trade alive.

In Cambodia, for instance, two or three tigers are killed by poachers every month, and tiger parts are openly sold on markets.

Tiger bones are used in traditional Chinese medicine for treating rheumatism; the flesh is supposed to have qualities in fighting malaria; and the eyeballs are taken to cure cataracts.

How to save the tiger? Encouraging news has come from the Russian Far East where loss of 60-70 animals to poachers each year in the early 1990s has been reduced by the new anti-poaching brigades. Poaching cases fell to 13 and 18 in 1995 and 1996.

These brigades not only stop the poachers in the forests and mountain ranges of Primorysky Krai and Khabarovsk Krai but deter the trade in tiger parts in cities such as Vladivostok and Ussuriysk. The brigades were set up by the Russian government with the support of U.S. and British conservation groups, including the WWF. The Russian government issued a decree in August, 1995, that declared the tiger one of the country's most valuable natural resources, and specified a federal program for its conservation.

Now, plans are underway to set up a network of protected areas covering 65,000 square kms that would support 70 resident female tigers, each capable of producing 6-9 cubs in their fertile years.

Pavel Fomenko, coordinator of the WWF's tiger conservation program in Vladivostok, said: "In the past four years we have made tremendous progress in the battle against poachers."

And a WWF official said: "We aim to make 1998, the Year of the Tiger, the Year for the tiger."