Siberian tigers today are confined primarily to the Ussuri Taiga, a forest different from the normal Russian taiga. Located between the Ussuri and Amur Rivers in the Far East and dominated by the Sikhot Alim Mountains, it is a monsoon forest filled with plants and animals found nowhere else in Siberia or Russia and instead are similar to those found in China, Korea and even the Himalayas. In the forest there is s lush undergrowth, with lianas and ferns. Wildlife include Siberian tigers, Asian black bears, Amur leopards and even tree frogs. The Siberian Tiger Project is located here. The 1970 Akira Kurosawa film Dersu Uzala, about a Tungus trapper, was set here.

Sikhot Alin Reserve and Kedrovaya Pad Reserve within the Ussuri Taiga are the last homes of the Siberian tiger. The largest wildlife sanctuaries in the Far East, they embrace 1,350 square miles of forested mountains, coastline and clear rivers. Other animals found in Sikhot Alin reserve and Kedrovaya Pad reserve include brown bears, Amur leopard (of which only 20 to 30 remain), the Manchurian deer, roe deer, goral (a rare mountain goat), Asian black bears, salmon, lynx, wolf and squirrels with tassels on their ears, azure winged magpies and the emerald-colored papilio bianor maackii butterfly. Over 350 different species of bird have been sen here.

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: “In the 19th century, aside from the Sikhote-Alin and Malyi Khingan portions of Russia, tigers were found in southeastern Transcaucasia, in the Balkhash basin, in Iran, China and Korea. Now the Amur tiger is found only in Russia’s Primorskii and southern Khabarovskii Krais. This is all that remains of an enormous tiger population that formerly numbered in the thousands and that lived mostly in China. In the spring of 1998, one of the authors of this booklet took part in an international scientific study investigating the best tiger habitat remaining in the Chinese province of Jilin. We found three to five tigers there, mostly along the Russian border. Our general impression is that there are no more than twenty or thirty Amur tigers in all of China. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

The general area where Siberian tigers lives is called the Primorskii or Primorye, a region of the southeast Russian Far East that embraces Vladivistok. John Vaillant wrote in “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival”: “Primorye, which is also known as the Maritime Territory, is about the size of Washington state. Tucked into the southeast corner of Russia by the Sea of Japan, it is a thickly forested and mountainous region that combines the backwoods claustrophobia of Appalachia with the frontier roughness of the Yukon. Industry here is of the crudest kind: logging, mining, fishing, and hunting, all of which are complicated by poor wages, corrupt officials, thriving black markets — and some of the world's largest cats.” [Source: John Vaillant. “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival” (Knopf, 2010)]

Biodiversity of the Ussuriskii Taiga Forest

Siberian tigers inhabits the Ussuriskii taiga forest, a coniferous broadleaf forest that specifically favors the so-called Manchurian forest type. The Manchurian forests are located in riparian areas and are particularly high in biodiversity. John Goodrich of NPR wrote: “The most bio-diverse region in all of Russia lies on a chunk of land sandwiched between China and the Pacific Ocean. There, in Russia's Far East, subarctic animals — such as caribou and wolves — mingle with tigers and other species of the subtropics. It was very nearly a perfect habitat for the tigers — until humans showed up. The tigers that populate this region are commonly referred to as Siberian tigers, but they are more accurately known as the Amur tiger. "Imagine a creature that has the agility and appetite of the cat and the mass of an industrial refrigerator," Vaillant tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "The Amur tiger can weigh over 500 pounds and can be more than 10 feet long nose to tail." [Source: John Goodrich, NPR, September 14, 2010]

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "The range of biodiversity experienced by the early explorers in the Ussuriskii taiga forest is hard to imagine. Read Vladimir Arsenev and Nikolai Przhevalskii and you’ll realize that the region’s present-day richness is but a sad remnant of what was once found here. The fact is, that not all that long ago there was a lot more to be found in our taiga. Old-timers can still vividly recall the herds of deer, numbering in the hundreds, that migrated the lightly snow covered regions of China, the incessant moan in the taiga when red Manchurian deer were mating, the endless waves of birds, the rivers boiling with salmon. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"And my lord, how many wild boar there used to be in the taiga! All winter long, the southern exposures of oak-covered hills were dug up by droves of wild pigs. Snow under the crowns of Korean pine forests was trampled to ground level as wild boar gathered pine cones throughout the winter. A symphony of squeal and moan! Mud caked wild boar racing around the taiga, rattling around in coats of frozen icycles after taking mud baths to cool passion-heated bodies. Horrible, blood caked wounds, chattering tusks, snorting, bear-like grunting, squawky squeaking, oh the life of a piglet.~~

"This was an earlier image of the Ussuriskii taiga. Just 30 years ago a professional hunter could take 60 to 80 wild boar in a season! There was more than enough game for the tiger out there among the riotous forest “swine.” Tigers strolled lazily, baron-like and important. They avoided the thick forests: why waste energy with all the boar trails around — you could roll along them sideways! It was only later on that the tigers took to following human trails.~~

"How many tigers there used to be in the wild can only be conjectured. Southern Khabarovskii Krai is a natural edge of their habitat; at one point in history there was a substantial tiger population that spilled over into surrounding regions. The tiger’s range coincided, for the most part, with Korean pine and wild boar distribution, and the number of tigers in the Russian Far East in the last century was at least one thousand. Tigers densely settled the Malyi Khingan and the Korean pine, broad leaf deciduous forests typical of southern Amurskaya Oblast. Lone animals wandered out as far as Lake Baikal and Yakutiya."~~

History of the Siberian Tiger in Southeast Russia

Sergei Stroganov wrote in his book “The Wild Animals of Siberia. Predators” (1962): “A series of authors have written about the appearance of tigers at the limits of eastern Siberia. Nikolai Severtsov (1855) recalls that a tiger was caught in 1828 in the Balagansk region (on the Angara River, 52 degrees 30 minutes north). Gustav Radde reports a tiger being seen in the Trasnsbaikal region (1862). According to Radde, this tiger was killed in 1844 near a factory in Nerchinsk. Rikard Maak (1859), as well as other travelers, writes that tigers were seen on the Argin and in Transbaikal, in the mountains of the Stanovyi range and even in Yakutiya. A stuffed tiger killed in November 1905 on the Aldan River, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) below Ust-Mai, is housed in a Yakutsk museum. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

“Tracks of a second tiger were observed in the same region. According to a report in the January 14, 1945 edition of the newspaper “Konsomolskaya Pravda,” two tigers were bagged in Chitinskaya Oblast in the same year. We suspect that the tigers seen in Chitinskaya and Irkutskaya Oblasts came in from China, while those in Yakutiya came from Priamure. However it happened that tigers appeared in those regions, even this modest bit of data from the scientific community of the time confirms that the population of this now rare predator was large and thriving.~~

“The tiger has always been hunted. The animal was practically outside the law and by the 1930s, fewer than thirty individuals of the Amur subspecies were left in the wild. World War II saved the tiger from total annihilation. People went to fight in that war and most of them never returned. For a while, few humans were in the taiga. Then the borders were closed down and the one time lively trade in contraband bones and skins ground to a halt. A total ban on hunting was put in place in 1947. According to the data of Lev Kaplanov who studied tiger distribution in the 1940’s, during the times of his research, there were no tigers left in the Bikin and Khor river watersheds and in the entire Russian Far East there were less than 20-30 individuals. Later, in 1952-55, the famous naturalists Vsevolod Sysoev and Gordei Bromlei pointed out that in Khabarovskii Krai, the tiger was population was limited to the Mukhen, Nelma and Sutary river basins.~~

“Relatively regular census data have been gathered since 1957. The earliest of these recorded at least 23 tigers in Khabarovskii Krai: eight in the Bidzhan River watershed in the Jewish Autonomous Region, 12 in Imeni Lazo Raion and one each in Vyazemskii, Nanaiskii and Komsomolskii Raions. Bromlei’s data for Primore — 35 tigers — brings the total to 60 individuals. The situation in China at that time is at best a guess. But it is clear that intensive hunting and forest harvesting and habitat conversion continued in China and that by the 1960s, all that remained were isolated, small pockets of tigers. Census data for Khabarovskii Krai indicates tiger numbers for certain years: 1970 - 20; 1978 - 34; 1985 - 68-69; 1986 - 91; 1993 - 54-56; 1994 - 57-58." ~~

American conservationist Dale Miquelle believes that there were as few as 20 Amur tigers left in the Far East. But communism, which had been ruinous for many Russian people, was actually good for Russia’s big cats. During the Soviet era, the borders were tightened, and it became difficult for poachers to get the animals into China, the primary market for tiger pelts and parts. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the borders opened again, and perhaps more calamitously, inflation set in. “You had families whose entire savings was now worth zilch,” said Miquelle, whose wife, Marina, is a native of Primorsky. “People had to rely on their resources, and here, tigers were one of the resources. There was a massive spike in tiger poaching.” In the mid-1990s, it seemed possible that the Amur tiger would soon be extinct. [Source: Matthew Shaer, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015 \*/]

Siberian Tigers in Khabarovskii Krai

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "Khabarovskii Krai covers 78 million hectares (192 million acres). Tigers now live on 3.3 million hectares (8.1 million acres) of which only two million hectares (4.9 million acres) is typical tiger habitat. Prime habitat is Korean pine, broadleaf deciduous forests, Korean pine and spruce forests, and Korean pine and broad leaf deciduous forests that cover portions of Bikinskii, Vyazemskii, Imeni Lazo and Nanaiskii Raions. Lone tigers are encountered in Komsomolskii, Sovgavanskii, and Vaninskoi Raions. That’s the full extent of the tiger’s home in Khabarovskii Krai. In truth, the latter three Raions are no longer the tiger’s primary habitat, just its outer range. The same can be said for Khabarovskii Raion, where there is very little habitat that is suitable for tigers. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

The sighting "of two tigers in the Khekhtsir was a big sensation, as it marked the tiger’s first appearance here since 1937. But in reality, it is already too late for tigers to return to the Khekhtsir for good. The creeping of the suburbs from the large city has brought too many people here, and conflict with the tigers is inevitable.~~

"Tigers are no longer encountered on the left bank of the Amur River. The last tiger tracks on the Minor Khingan were spotted in 1975. And the situation in the Sikhote-Alin is not much better. The foothills and the lower areas of the mountains are slowly, but irreversibly, being transformed by humans, and higher up there is nowhere to spend the winter. The snow pack is heavier and there is less prey. A heavy snow pack will shrink tiger habitat dramatically and will crowd the animals into the areas with less snow. But these areas overlap with heavily populated foothills. The result is panic! And how is there panic! There what panic there is! Tiger tracks seem to be everywhere! Although, in reality, there no more tracks than there used to be.~~

" In 1996, there were between 64 and 71 tigers in Khabarovskii Krai. Is that a lot or a few? We believe, given the situation at hand, that this question is a little out of place. People might say that there are “a lot” of tigers only because they happen to think there is insufficient game for the hunters. But then the real solution is to reduce the amount of poaching of tiger prey, not the number of tigers. There is also a need to reduce the number of wolves, brown bear, lynx and wolverines, since in the foreseeable future, these animals are not endangered. As for the tiger, in the 1980’s it might have made sense to hold the numbers to between 40 and 50, but it is definitely too late to do that now. At least twelve adults were lost annually in the early 1990s and still today we are losing no fewer than eight to ten annually. All this when the total population is around fifty.~~

Siberian Tiger Prey in Khabarovskii Krai

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "Tiger habitat in Khabarovskii Krai has 4,800 wild boar, 10,800 deer, 7,300 roe deer, 8,500 elk and 13,600 musk deer. In addition, bears, badgers, raccoon dogs, hares and other forest animals are also becoming the tiger’s prey. We know very little about the tiger’s summer feeding habits, but there are reasons to suggest that it preys on not just large mammals. The tsar of animals supplements its diet, as it can, with small things from the forest and has even been know to go after frogs. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"Side by side with the tiger are 740-780 brown bears and 1,800-2,000 Himalayan bears, around 100 wolves and approximately 130-140 lynxes and wolverines. To a certain extent, these animals also “live at the expense” of the ungulate populations. For example, wolves annually kill from six to ten percent of the musk deer, 5.5-11 percent of the wild boar, 2.5-10.7 percent of the red Manchurian deer and 2.5-6 percent of the roe deer and elk. A tiger is a large animal, and to say the least, it has a hearty appetite. It takes from 20-30 percent of the wild boar, 8.5-12.0 percent of the red Manchurian deer, 3.5-5.1 percent of the musk deer and 1.5-2.0 percent of the roe deer and elk.In absolute terms, this means that every year a tiger will do in 1,000 wild boar and red Manchurian deer, around 200 elk, a few more than 500 roe deer and 300 musk deer.~~

"If the ungulates were to suddenly stop reproducing, then the abundant predators and hunters would completely empty the taiga in 2-3 years. But nature looks after things. Could it really be that she didn’t sense our economic crisis, or the collapse of the state hunting industry, or the inability of protection agencies to maintain order? As estimates show, for the majority of species, the balance between use and reproduction is either just hanging on or is declining. As a result, there is a slow but steady decline in the number of wild ungulates, the main prey for predators.~~

"The picture, to be blunt, is pretty sad. And this information is grist for the opponents of tiger conservation. But don’t rush out and grab yourself a club. Kill off the tigers, and wolves will immediately fill the tiger’s niche. Wolves, provided there is prey, will multiply very quickly; a typical birth might produce five to seven cubs is typical. Wolf packs currently hang on the edge of the habitat of a tiger that is being mercilessly wiped out. Thus persists the ageless conflict between cat and dog.~~

"Wolves have gotten smart enough to figure out when a tiger has retreated to the edge of its habitat so that the wolf may safely cut across the territory without risk. Hunters often find ripped-up red Manchurian deer and elk on the ice along rivers. A wolf is much more frightening a predator than is the tiger. People in the taiga have fought with them since time immemorial. And not only have humans been unable to wipe them out, but attempts to limit their numbers have also been ineffective. It has been calculated that if more than 27 percent of their spring population survives, wolf numbers will increase because the young from litters cover losses.~~

Siberian Tiger in China

On Siberian tigers in China in the late 1990s, Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "We found tracks of three to five tigers, all of them along the Russian border within China. Given these circumstances, one has to sadly admit that the even partially viable populations of Amur tigers are going to be found in the wild only in Russia...The last tiger in the Malyi Khingan [a mountain range in China's Heilongjiang Province and the adjacent parts of Russia's Amur Oblast and Jewish Autonomous Oblast] disappeared in the early 1970s. At least ten animals were present there in the 1950s. The disappearance of this population is a targeted warning to those who would suggest that there are adequate numbers of tigers in the wild. The reason the tigers disappeared from the Malyi Khingan is simple — the perimeter was enclosed with a thick barrier of barbed wire and the animals were left in total isolation. Exchanges of genetic material and breeding individuals with Chinese populations ceased, growth could not keep pace with natural death, and no one has seen any sign of a tiger in the reserve for more than 20 years now. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"Our general impression was that China’s Jilin Province has wonderful, carefully cared for forests. Everywhere, vigilant fire spotters keep watch over the land from high observation towers. Gates are locked when there is no snow; the forest is entered only with special permission and a clear objective — even a cash bribe will not gain on entrance. At times of forest fire danger, smoking is prohibited not only in forests, but also on village streets. A smoker’s punishment is to be fired from the job, which, in China, is like a death sentence. Timber is intensively harvested, but without the use of tractor skidders that stamp out anything alive that gets in its path. Trees are skidded along trails with oxen; there are almost no tracks are left behind. The timber- felling units and the forest management agencies have been combined into one structure, but they aren’t biting the hand that feeds them: harvest sites are being replanted with larch, oak, ash. In a word, things are grand; if only it was like that in Russia! ~~

"But that is only one side of the coin. The other side is that these grand forest landscapes are almost lifeless! Everything has been caught in snares and cagey traps and then eaten by the locals. You will find neither grayling nor taimen in Jilin’s magnificent mountain streams; these waterways have been rendered into deserts. Small fish are caught with electrodes, and mollusks and frogs are wrestled out from under rocks with crowbars; all of the rocks along the stream bottoms have been turned over many times. Where spotted deer, musk deer and wild boar still exist, all animal trails are laden with snares. In general, Jilin’s wild animals are an order of magnitude less than what one finds in Russia; they are being replaced by cattle that wander the forest year-round on unrestricted pasture. Cows, like elk, break and eat rose willow, and like red Manchurian deer, trample down horsetail and gather acorns. It is almost not even worth posing the question: where did the Amur tiger — more numerous in China one hundred years ago than in its northern habitat in Russia, — disappear in China?" ~~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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