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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Paw Prints Disappearing for Siberia's Amur Tiger

MTAmur tigers running through a habitat in the Moscow Zoo. Their numbers in the Khabarovsk region have been in sharp decline.
Over the last six years, Yury Dunishenko has walked 12,000 kilometers through the snow. He has been looking for paw prints left by Amur tigers, an endangered species in the Far East Khabarovsk region.

To operate such a large scale monitoring project, Dunishenko and his colleagues from the Khabarovsk Wildlife Management Institute teamed up with a group of experienced local hunters.

Although the unlikely partnership proved successful, its findings were depressing. The number of trails on which tiger prints were found fell from 80 in 1997 to 30 this year, and the amount of prints themselves decreased dramatically. Even more alarming was the fact that the number of tiger cubs dropped from 28.5 percent of the total population in 1997 to just 9.5 percent this year.

"The risk of the species' extinction has not been averted," Dunishenko said last week during a meeting in Moscow celebrating 10 years of working to save the tigers. "The research showed that the population has lost its ability to reproduce normally."

There are only 60 Amur tigers left in the Khabarovsk region and more than 300 still roaming the vast Primorye region. Dunishenko said that if conditions remain unchanged, the tigers will disappear from Khabarovsk in 20 to 30 years.

Vast effort and serious investment has gone into keeping the Amur's numbers stable, but saving a large predator such as this is a monumental task. The enormous political, economic and social change that Russia has endured since the initiation of these efforts has not helped.

"This change has been negative," said Ed Anhert, president of the ExxonMobil Foundation, which has donated more than $2 million to the Save the Tiger Fund. "But there is an important story to be told. Saving the tiger is not just nature preservation, it's building strong civil society in the Far East."

Amur tigers, like tigers everywhere in the world, have long suffered from illegal poaching, depletion of prey and loss and fragmentation of habitat due to forest fires, roads and human expansion.

Their numbers, reduced by vicious extermination at the beginning of the century to roughly a dozen, started slowly picking up in the 1930s. In 1947, the Soviet Union banned tiger hunting. In 1972, the Amur became an internationally recognized endangered species.

But with the arrival of the market economy came some backsliding. Impoverished Russian hunters began placing ads in Vladivostok newspapers offering tiger hides for sale. Soon, they gained access to consumers willing to pay $120,000 for an Amur tiger in neighboring China, where tiger hides and bones are used in traditional medicine. Customs officials often allow poachers to cross the border in exchange for a bribe.

Research findings illustrate the scale of the poaching problem. According to Dale Miquelle, the Far East coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society, 80 percent of the 47 tigers given radio monitoring collars in the course of 11 years died of unnatural causes. Most were poached. Some were killed by farmers retaliating after tigers ate their cattle. (This is often a result of the fact that tiger prey -- deer and wild pigs -- are also being hunted to extinction.)

All the same, some efforts made to protect the tiger have been reasonably successful. A group of international nongovernmental organizations have worked together to create private anti-poaching teams, train customs workers and educate the locals about the tiger's plight. By 2002, the volume of illegal contraband produced for the Chinese market had decreased dramatically.

But an important part of the process -- lobbying for new legislation -- has stalled, particularly since the State Nature Committee, the government environmental watchdog agency, was disbanded in 1999. The Ministry of Natural Resources, which is now in charge of both use and protection of the environment, shelved the World Wildlife Foundation's project to create natural parks and protected areas. Moreover, the existing ones are increasingly under threat. Logging and deforestation have become difficult to prevent there.

Although the Russian government has been increasingly concerned with preservation, allocating three times the funds to the environment last year than it did in 1999, neglect seeped in when the State Nature Committee was disbanded.

"The numbers of rangers and inspectors dropped," said Igor Chestin, director of the WWF Russian branch, which acts on behalf of the Siberian tiger in the State Duma. "And pollution, particularly air pollution, grew immensely. We taxpayers are paying three times more money for environmental protection that is much worse than we used to get."

Because the tiger can only survive in a healthy ecosystem of the Far Eastern boreal forests -- which, incidentally, produce most of the oxygen for the Earth's atmosphere -- its survival can stand in for the survival of our planet as a whole.

"When we cut down these forests, which happen to be the natural habitat of the Amur tiger, or allow them to burn, we are stepping on our own throats," said Anatoly Astafyev, director of the Sikhote-Alin reserve, home to 90 percent of all remaining Amur tigers. "If we save the tiger, we'll save ourselves."