October 4, World Animal Day, has become a day to commemorate endangered and extinct species. The Siberian, or Amur, tiger tops the list of animals on the verge of extinction, even though hunting this subspecies was outlawed in Russia back in 1947. Today there are only 500 Amur tigers left in the Khabarovsk and Primorye territories of Russia's Far East.
In the last 100 years, the global tiger population has decreased from about 100,000 to 3,000 or 4,000 tigers. Three subspecies - the Persian (Turanian) tiger, the Bali tiger and the Javan tiger - have become extinct.
The number of tigers living in Russia has stabilized and the decline has slowed down in the last few years.
"There should be about 600 tigers in Russia, which is as many as could live comfortably in their taiga habitat," said Vladimir Krever, WWF Russia biodiversity coordinator.
The Amur tigers are the most tolerant of human beings in the species. Unlike the bigger Bengal tiger, or the smaller but more aggressive Sumatran tiger, the Russian tigers are more peaceful and attack humans only in self-defense. The Amur tiger measures up to 220 cm from head to tail and weighs about 200 kg. It is second only to the Bengal tiger in size, but is much hardier and can comfortably bear even the harsh Russian climate.
Between 50 and 80 tigers were shot annually in the Far East in the 1990s. Chinese pharmaceutical companies paid Russian poachers between $6,000 and $15,000 for the body of a large male tiger. In China, various parts of the tiger are believed to have strong medicinal properties. The border with China was completely porous back then, and customs officers had no experience stopping tiger derivatives smugglers, as this never happened during the Soviet era.
Logging is another threat endangering the Amur tiger. Its main feeding grounds are the cedar, oak and ash groves where their prey, wild boars, comes to feed. When cedars and oaks are felled, the boars leave, and the tigers go hungry. Hunting tigers is also much easier in sparsely wooded forest areas.
Everything is interdependent in nature. A decline in the number of tigers, who hunt old and diseased deer and boar, causes the number of hoofed animals to plummet due to epidemics. In addition, the tiger is replaced by the wolf, whose behavior is much more aggressive. A tiger kills only as many deer as it can eat, while wolves kill indiscriminately.
The Global Tiger Summit, to be held in November in St. Petersburg, will address the strategy for tiger conservation. It will be attended by the heads of government of 13 countries where tigers are found.
"We expect the participating countries to adopt a joint declaration of the common goal: to double the number of wild tigers across their range by 2022," Vladimir Krever said.
A Global Recovery Action Plan, which is being developed for the forum, should take into account both national tiger recovery programs and global elements, such as the illegal trade, storage and transportation of tiger pelts, international tiger protection programs, and efforts to promote awareness of the value of wild tigers to their respective ecosystems.
The first species strategy was approved in Russia in 1996 and was implemented the following year under the federal targeted program for the preservation of the Amur tiger. A network of state preserves, national parks and refuges was set up in the tiger's natural habitat and surrounded by buffer zones and protective forests.
But this is no longer enough to protect these tigers. The new Russian tiger recovery program involves a major extension of the protected territories. Ecologists hope the governments will approve the creation of a Russian-Chinese cross-border refuge on the Strelnikov Range in the Primorye Territory and the adjacent protected territory in China's Jilin Province. The refuge should include the Russian national park, Land of the Leopard, which consists of the Cedar Gully Preserve and the Leopard Reserve.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who visited the Ussuri Preserve two years ago, promoted the idea of developing a new strategy. During his visit to the tiger preserve, he took part in the medical examination of a female tiger and then fitted her with a GPS tracking collar.
At a minimum, scientists would like to put GPS tracking collars on all tigers in the Ussuri and the Lazo preserves, two model conservation zones in the south of the Primorye Territory. Radio collars are no longer effective, as they can actually help poachers find the tigers.
Currently, there are just a few camera traps set up to identify tigers, but these devices are, without a doubt, the future of the tiger recovery effort. They are so effective because each tiger can be identified by its unique coat pattern. Photographs of the tigers are stored on a special flash card, which scientists use to compile data on each tiger living in the area.
Tigers do not trust humans in Russia and never let them approach too close. After centuries of merciless tiger hunting, fear of humans has become almost inbred, and no protection or conservation programs can quickly undo this damage. But they can save many animals nonetheless.
RIA Novosti commentator Olga Sobolevskaya
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.