ENDANGERED SIBERIAN TIGERS
In “The Amur Tiger”, Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov wrote: "Only five to seven thousand tigers are left in the wild on the planet. The Amur tiger, on the scale of endangerment of potential extinction, follows only the South China tiger. Not all that long ago, at the end of the 19th century, North American skies were filled with immense flocks of passenger pigeons. Now there’s not a single passenger pigeon left on the planet. The last female died, in a zoo, in 1914.Something similar is now happening with the tiger. Its rate of decline has been so swift that there is more than enough reason for concern. This is an enormous animal — we’re not talking about a passenger pigeon. The tiger takes a long time to mature. It breeds slowly. It needs a lot of space. In addition, not many tigers are left in the wild and that raises another concern: chance, local die-offs, and if does persist in low numbers, inbreeding depression and other genetic problems. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]
"The reasons for the tiger’s disappearance are the same the world over changes in habitat, decrease in prey, poaching, rash behavior, a rush to make short-term profit and a lack of adequate information and understanding of the animal’s needs. Is the tiger not also a natural treasure? Are the legends no longer alive in peoples’ minds? Surely the Amur tiger is seen as an indicator of wild areas and is greatly valued by other cultures and nations." ~~
Pressure have been put on tigers by legal and illegal logging and increased access to their home range by new roads. Studies have shown that tiger that live near roads don’t live as long as living deeper in the forest. Their habitat is also threatened by mining, new rail lines and oil and gas pipelines. It is likely that Siberian tigers are mating with close relatives, since there are so few tigers left in the wild and various populations are isolated from one another. Offspring of these matches are not necessarily genetically-impaired. One conservationist suggested that once the population falls below 120 extinction is a virtual certainty.
Challenges Preserving Siberian Tigers
Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: Problems suffered by Siberian tigers include "inbreeding, or the degradation of living organisms as a result of repeated breeding among close relatives. The offspring of such relatives are not, as a rule, biologically viable. Inbreeding problems are widely understood even outside scientific circles. A hunter, when looking for a dog, will look at the parents’ pedigree to exclude the possibility of ending up with bad puppies. The smaller the population, the fewer the sources of genetic material and the greater the chance that close relatives will breed. More and more often these offspring do not survive and inbreeding depression gradually leads to extinction of the species. So no matter how many Amur tigers there are in zoos, their well being, in the long term, is doubtful if new blood cannot be introduced. And a major source of this “new” blood is a wild population.~~ [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]
"Scientists agree that the tiger has a chance for long term survival in the wild if the numbers do not fall below 200 — 250 breeding pairs. True, a more conservative, optimal number is 500 pairs, but such a figure, given the conditions that we face in the Russian Far East, is not a possibility. It is abundantly clear that where tiger numbers have either increased or decreased, it is the human factor that has determined the animal’s fate. We understand and have compassion for the guy whose dog is killed by a tiger. The same is true for the guy who has to think about ways to deliver wild game to the state and who does not have time to worry about the fate of the tiger in the wild. We have to be concerned for the farmer whose cow is mauled by a tiger. But there is no way that we can condone the actions of a government that continues to put the skids on a plan to compensate these people. They should be compensated for their losses, for this is one way to preserve this unique cat in the wild.~~
"There are other areas of concern, like when a hunting society invests money and labor to increase the number of wild boar and red Manchurian deer. As soon as those populations begin to increase, tigers come from far and wide to madly devour the fruit of these peoples’ labor. You don’t get very far by trying to calm hunters down with a talk about just how rare this striped animal is in the wild. And the conflict will continue until the government takes it upon itself to conduct similar kinds of game enhancement programs in special wildlife refuges and reserves. We don’t have a choice. If we eat at the same table with the tiger and consume what is by right theirs, then we have to make an effort to augment what is out there.~~
"We humans are to blame for much of the problem. Tigers live near villages because our waste management on their outskirts leaves much to be desired; all the trash winds up on the edge of town. This is easy pickings for the sick, for the old, for young tigers who are left without a mother. Unguarded dogs wander the dumps. This attracts predators that gradually lose all fear of people.~~
"Hunters had best forget about using dogs in tiger habitat. They’re not all that much help anyway in the cluttered and hilly parts of the taiga. Trapping without dogs is more successful, and in any case, why tempt fate — a cat never makes peace with a dog. A dog is dangerous in tiger country. A tiger will jump a dog and the mutt will rush to its owner in search of protection. These situations never end peacefully; one of the three of them is a goner.~~
Matthew Shaer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “ But as old threats are addressed, new ones arise. Miquelle is particularly concerned about the arrival of canine distemper disease in tigers, a development that scientists still do not fully understand. “With conservation, you win battles, but not the war,” Miquelle told me. “You don’t get to say, ‘I’ve succeeded, time to go home.’ You’re in it for life, and all you can do is do your best, and hand it over to the next generation.” [Source: Matthew Shaer, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015]
Russian Attitude Towards Siberian Tigers
Russians who live in villages where tiger attacks have occurred have said the forest would be "boring" with out tigers. Cossack troops were hired to protect Chinese laborers—who built part of the Trans-Siberian railway—from tigers.
Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "Many wildlife managers, as well as some local and regional government officials are pretty exasperated by all the fuss over the tiger. “What’s the problem, there’s plenty of them around — half of ‘em ought to be shot!” We hear this fairly often and almost everywhere we go. If there is any truth in what these people are saying, it is only in the fact that the tiger is not going to just suddenly disappear in the wild. So what is the problem, you might ask? [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]
"But even if the government is unable to do anything that does not mean that we, the average Russians livingin the Far East, can’t do something to save the planet for future generations. A live tiger has a huge economic significance in the southern portion of the Russian Far East. Millions of dollars have already been spent to fight forest fires, to support environmental education, to advance sustainable economics. The tiger has brought these benefits to the region. The tiger has forced us to join together to overcome the problems we face in protecting the region’s biodiversity.
"To those who would accuse the tiger of gluttony, who would blame it for the reduction in wild animal numbers in the taiga — we suggest that you take a stroll along the ridges of the Khingan mountain range where tigers once lived. You won’t find an abundance of wild animals here! Elk and wild boar density is only a bit higher than that found in the Sikhote-Alin, where there are still some tigers. The wolf problem in the Jewish Autonomous Region is more problematic than anywhere else, and outbreaks of swine plague have caused colossal damage to both wild and domestic animal populations. There have been numerous cases of infection and death from rabies brought in from the forests by wild animals that infect dogs, who then infect people. So consider what we will gain and what we will lose as a result of the tiger’s disappearance. And if you are still having doubts, then take a walk on the Vandan. There were never any tigers there, and yet everyone recalls the abundance of wild boar and musk deer. Who ate these formerly abundant animals, where did they go? Could it be that the two-legged predator is to blame for this scarcity? And yet you are always pointing your finger at the tiger. ~~
Sharp Decline in Siberian Tiger Numbers in the Early 1990s
Between 1992 and 1994, approximately one hundred tigers — roughly one quarter of the country's wild population — were killed. Most of them ended up in China. Some estimates were higher. According to Time magazine, during the winter of 1993 between 80 and 96 tigers (more than one quarter of the population), were poached, and nearly as many were killed in the winter of 1994. [Source: Eugene Linden, Time magazine, March 28, 1994]
Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "The modern and probably the last population peak for the Amur tiger in the wild took place at the end of the 1980’s. Since that time, their numbers have declined dramatically, mostly because of a general decline in prey numbers. A string of winters with heavy snow and shortages of food inflicted heavy damage on the wild boar population. Deer and elk numbers have also declined. Deprived of the opportunity to move along boar trails, tigers hit the road. This occurred at a time when hunting and poaching hit a peak.[Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]
"At the same time, high revenues from sable trapping, growth in the leisure industry, and improved access to the taiga resulted in a massive influx of people into the taiga. Encounters between tigers and humans became more commonplace, and conflicts increased. Hungry, wandering tigers wound up in villages and this also exacerbated the situation. Complaints were registered with government officials and bureaucrats busy with entirely different issues, who began to gripe about having to deal with the tiger. Even before these new problems emerged, tigers were already being shot on the sly, burned, dropped into icy river, fed to weasels and crows. And as the bureaucrats grumbled, the press took up the issue and newspapers printed sensationalist stories. And then another problem made its way onto the stage: a market for tiger parts.~~
Siberian Tigers and Poachers
Large number of tigers have been killed by poachers. Many are believed to have been killed to supply bones and other parts for the Chinese medicine trade. Some may have been killed by Chinese hunters who come across the border into southern Russia. Most are taken by Russian hunters working on a contact basis with Chinese buyers. The hunters were getting paid around $25,000 per tiger crcass in the 1990s, several times what most Russians were making an entire year .
Dale Miquelle, an American scientist based in Primorsky, told Smithsonian magazine: "Mothers are a lot more vulnerable to poaching than other tigers, because they’ll try to stand their ground—a mother doesn’t want to abandon her cubs, and she might not have time to get them together to escape. So she ends up getting shot.”
During the winters of 1992, 1993 and 1994, dozens of tigers were trapped and shot and their bones, organs and skins sold in China. At this time the amount of money available for conservation sharply decreased and logging, mining and road construction to bring in foreign currency increased. The collapse of the Soviet Union made it easier for poachers to smuggle tiger parts into China and Southeast. There were also people collecting pine nuts, ginseng and musk deer in the forests where the tigers lived.
In 1998, there was big uproar over the fact that the governor of Russia's Far East gave the Belorussian president a Siberian tiger pelt as a gift when he visited Vladivostok. In 2004 a tiger poaching ring led by Russian police colonel was broken up.
Siberian Tiger Poaching After the Break Up of the Soviet Union
John Vaillant wrote in “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival”: “One of the many negative effects of perestroika and the reopening of the border between Russia and China has been a surge in tiger poaching. As the economy disintegrated and unemployment spread throughout the 1990s, professional poachers, businessmen, and ordinary citizens alike began taking advantage of the forest's wealth in all its forms. The tigers, because they are so rare and so valuable, have been particularly hard hit: their organs, blood, and bone are much sought after for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Some believe the tiger's whiskers will make them bulletproof and that its powdered bones will soothe their aches and pains. Others believe its penis will make them virile, and there are many — from Tokyo to Moscow — who will pay thousands of dollars for a tiger's skin. [Source: John Vaillant. “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival” (Knopf, 2010) |=|]
“Following perestroika, virtually everything in Russia went on sale, and vast quantities of military ordnance disappeared from local armories. In the course of their raids on the many anonymous hunting cabins that dot the forest here, Trush and his men confiscated plastic explosives, TNT, and 12mm (.50 caliber) machine guns, robbed from armored vehicles. Trush could not imagine what one would do with guns that size in the forest, but the explosives were easier to explain: they were used in creeks to kill fish en masse, or to blow bears out of their dens. The Asian market is less interested in the intact skins or carcasses of bears than it is in their paws and gall bladders; the paws go into soup, and the gall bladders are used for medicinal purposes. In Primorye, in the mid-1990s, life, for man and animal alike, was cheap, and corruption was widespread at every level of government. During these years, Trush made busts involving high-ranking police officers and members of parliament, and these were dangerous enemies for a person to have. Trush, however, was well suited to this work because he is a formidable adversary, too." |=|
Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "A modest article, written by a wildlife manager in Vyazemskii Raion and entitled “How Much is a Tiger Worth?” was published in the newspaper Tikhookeanskaya Zvezda. The author calls for a massive tiger hunt. The article cites fantastic prices, all in “bucks,” and asserts that the tiger’s sexual organs are worth their weight in gold. We have an inkling that this in fact is useless “gold” still sits around in freezers somewhere in abundant quantity, awaiting the purported buyers. Such is the consequence of an irresponsible, mongering newspaper article and the embarrassing, “professional” bacchanalia of a local author and wildlife manager. "In any case, the hunt for the tiger took on a new intensity. Snares, traps and poison were employed. Patrols were set up along forest roads. And for quite a while, contraband dealers from China were indeed buying up the product. But judging by the fact that none of the hunters got very rich from their efforts, the prices hardly seem worth the risk. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]
Siberian Tigers and Chinese Medicine
Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "At some point in the distant past, wise healers from the East figured out that the tiger is a walking pharmacy. All kinds of ointments and salves were prepared for bone problems; the meat and blood was used to treat exhaustion; drugs were made from the sexual organs to satiate the human’s desire for endless love; and an amulet containing a tiger whisker was worn to protect one from all kinds of harm. All these “miracles” were supposed to come from a tiger. The medicines were very expensive and intricate in their makeup. Extracts from medicinal herbs were added to the mixtures and extraordinary stories were told of the results achieved. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]
"Peter Jackson, one of our long-time colleagues and a person who knows a great deal about felines, related to us the results of some modern research done on this issue in the beginning of the 1990’s. It turns out that the medicines are indeed helpful. However, they seem to work even with the “tiger filling” that, as it is thought, has a placebo effect... We ran some of our own research. When a certain Chinese herbalist told us that even a toothache will stop aching if you dig round in it with a tiger whisker, well, we dug around in good faith and what do you think? Sure enough, the tooth stopped hurting, that is, as soon as it was yanked!
"We don’t want to take on the issue of Chinese-Tibetan medical traditions. It would be difficult to undermine the tradition. Eastern healers work miracles that are at times beyond the reach of modern medicine. That is why China raises tigers in pens and offers medicine in beautiful packaging. Perhaps there is some basis for the practices; perhaps it is just a form of self indulgence. In Hong Kong in 1996 there was a gathering of practitioners using traditional eastern medicine. Unfortunately for the tiger, they came to consensus that, based upon biochemical research and clinical experiments, tiger bone does in fact have a therapeutic effect.~~
"Do what you want, it will be extremely difficult to eliminate the consumer market for animal-based medicines — the roots of the practice go back for centuries. The Chinese pledge to halt the trade in tiger parts, even though it is clear that the struggle to halt their use will be difficult. We witnessed for ourselves just how difficult it will be for the Chinese officials to stop this trade when, visiting China itself, we stepped into a pharmacy and asked for something made from a tiger. The salesperson carefully brought out from under the counter a box that vanished into thin air as soon our Chinese partners gave him a threatening glance. So to end this discussion, what we want to say is that one should not try to prepare medicines from tigers! These are mysterious concoctions, and as Chinese who know these things assure us, not just any healer, even in China, knows how to prepare them properly. These are professional secrets! Even so, the Chinese appear to be serious about tiger conservation; now the killing of a tiger in the wild is punishable the death penalty.~~
"So as to not fan the flames, according to international agreements, tiger corpses are destroyed. That is what the international community has decided to do with them and so that is the way it is going to be. And as long as we comply with this taboo, we will continue to receive funds for tiger conservation. Failure to comply means economic sanctions can be placed upon the country that violates the conventions, something that has already happened to Taiwan.~~
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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016