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Amur tigers come back from the brink

Su Zhou
Updated: Apr 10,2015 10:42 AM

A wild tiger captured on a hi-resolution camera on Dec 18, 2013, in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province.[Photo/Xinhua]

The population of the endangered big cats is rising again in Northeast China, as the animals travel south for prey.

As a forest ranger in Heilongjiang province, Li Gang has spent the last six years patrolling the protection zones for big cats, removing poachers’ traps and checking on the monitoring cameras.

“Once, after I collected a memory card from a camera, I checked the footage and discovered a tiger had passed by just a minute before I arrived,” said the 35-year-old. “If I’d have been just a few moments earlier, I’d have come face to face with it.”

Despite not seeing one in the flesh, Li has developed an attachment to the big cats through photographs and videos. “I miss them if I don’t see them on camera for a while. I think about where they go, or if it snows, about whether they have enough food.”

Li, who patrols his native Dongning county, is among the many villagers of Heilongjiang and Jilin - two provinces in Northeast China with long traditions of hunting - who are devoted to protecting Siberian tigers, also known as Amur tigers. And their efforts appear to be paying off.

Wildlife studies show the endangered species, which all but disappeared from China for decades, is making a comeback in the northeast.

Volunteers follow their guide through Dongfanghong Forestry Farm in Heilongjiang to remove poachers’ traps. [Photo/Xinhua]

Breeding hope

The Amur tiger is the largest cat living in the wild. Before the 1960s it was abundant in China’s northeastern region, but by the 1990s it was estimated that fewer than 20 still remained in the wild.

That trend has been slowly reversing. According to the latest official data, the number in Jilin has now risen to 27, with 12 to 14 roaming the wilds of Heilongjiang. Combined, the population is roughly double that reported in 2010.

A study to evaluate the potential habitat in Northeast China discovered the area could accommodate up to about 130 Amur tigers. Experts from the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Northeast Normal University in Changchun, wildlife NGO KORA and the University of Montana contributed to the study, which ran from 2008 to 2010.

Shi Quanhua, senior manager of WWF China’s Asian big cats program, said long-term monitoring had shown two major trends: First, the tigers have been moving from the China-Russia border to inner areas of northeastern China; and second, they are breeding.

“The first activity we monitored was about 50 kilometers from the border. Now the area covered by the tigers reaches to about 300 km from the border,” she said, explaining that the expansion indicates the population is increasing, as each tiger claims its own territory.

In February, the WWF recovered video footage of an Amur tigress with two cubs 30 km from the Russian border. John Barker, Asian programs leader for the WWF, told The Guardian newspaper that the footage confirms the animals are not just coming in and out from Russia, and that signs indicate the big cats are breeding in China.

Shi echoed the opinion: “At the beginning, with our cameras we could see single tigers traveling between China and Russia. In the past two years, we monitored families of tigers.”

New families have also been spotted in the Wangqing area of Jilin, Shi added.

Rangers check wild tiger images captured on a hi-resolution camera at Hunchun Natural Reserve in Jilin province.[Photo/Xinhua]

Human withdrawal

Officials in Jilin and Heilongjiang have vowed to enhance the protection of tigers, leopards and the environment.

Jilin has banned commercial logging, to boost the recovery of wood resources and wildlife habitats, and will also “establish three to five nature reserves to protect Amur tigers and their habitats,” as well as gradually form a tiger protection network on Changbai Mountain, according to Lan Hongliang, director of the provincial forestry authority.

Wang Jihui, deputy director of the Suiyang county forestry bureau, in Heilongjiang, described his authority’s policy as “tigers advance, people withdraw”.

Many residents of Suiyang have already been moved out of key protection zones since the establishment of nature reserve and the banning of commercial logging. Although it has cause financial loss, Wang said it was necessary. Employees at forestry farms have adjusted their work from logging to wildlife protection.

“Tigers need space,” Wang said. “And as our environment keeps improving, we can attract more tigers from Russia.”

A national protection plan is expected soon. In March, Zhao Shucong, director of the State Forestry Administration, called the tigers a working priority and said China is cooperating with regional authorities, as well as university and academy experts, to formulate a strategy.

“China is going to conduct a national survey of wild tigers to provide a base for research and management,” he said.

Chang Youde, a senior officer for WWF China’s Asian big cats program, said the Amur tiger is an “umbrella species” whose survival indirectly protects many other animals in its habitat. “Protecting tigers is protecting other wildlife,” he added.

Just like Chinese and Russian tourists, increasing numbers of Amur tigers are crossing the border, and according to the WWF, a fourth corridor used by migrating animals has recently been identified.

Shi at WWF China said the route runs through Xiaoxinganling Mountain, in northeast Heilongjiang, and along the Heilongjiang River, which marks the boundary between China and Russia. Observers spotted the corridor thanks to Kuzya, an Amur tiger released by Russian President Vladimir Putin that traveled south looking for prey.

Russia is conducting its once-in-a-decade census of Siberian tigers, with 2,000 people searching for signs of the animal in the country’s far east. The Russian government hopes to show the numbers in the wild have risen from 450 in 2005 to 600, according to The Guardian newspaper.

“The size of the population in Russia means that the Siberian tigers have reached saturation point,” Chang said. “The construction of corridors provides opportunities for tigers to migrate to China.”

Making space

Despite the promising situation, conservationists say habitat fragmentation and an unbalanced food chain remain major challenges for tiger protection efforts.

Wu Jingcai, a researcher at the State Forestry Administration of China’s Feline Research Center, said more woodland is being used for city construction and highway projects.

“We have called for wildlife habitats to be taken into consideration when making plans for infrastructure construction, so that we leave space for connecting habitats and corridors for animal activities,” he said.

Chang at WWF China also expressed concern about the lack of funding from the central government to build nature reserves. “It’s not easy to build a nature reserve on a local level, not to mention a national level,” he said. “It needs large investment from the start and beyond.”

Although the ban on commercial logging had removed another avenue for local authorities to make money, he predicted officials would be more proactive if the central government provided more funding and personnel.

“WWF China has made many plans with local governments, but all projects need funding, possibly tens of billions of yuan,” Chang said. “If there were national tiger protection projects, just like for the giant panda, it could work. If not, the plans will just remain plans.”

When it comes to prey for the tigers to hunt, he added that the problem is not density, but the type of animals roaming the forests.

Since 2010, the WWF has carried out an annual survey on ungulates - hoofed mammals - in Northeast China. Generally, it has found the numbers are growing.

Wang Fuyou, who helped set up Wangqing National Nature Reserve, said in 2011, when the reserve plan was mooted, the main issue was the lack of prey for big cats. “When we did the first survey, we felt like even 1,000 square kilometers area couldn’t support one tiger,” he said.

The situation today is better, with “definitely one roe deer within 1 sq km in some areas”, according to Chang. The gap in density compared with Russia is narrowing, he insisted, but the problem is whether the density and balance can be sustained.

“For example, now we have many boar and roe deer but fewer spotted deer. This is not good for the tigers,” Chang explained. “As they hunt, a tiger consumes energy. A spotted deer can support a tiger for seven days, but a roe can only support it for one or two days.

“In Russia, the prey structure is balanced. In China, the whole ecological system still needs time to recover.”