Friday, June 10, 2011

Nat Geo: Tigers of the Snow

I recently watched a National Geographic documentary on the plight of the Siberian tiger. Like so many wild cats, the Siberian tiger (or Amur tiger) is endangered and on the verge of extinction. Although the Siberian tiger is the largest cat on the planet, there are only 300-350 remaining in the wild. These tigers were once protected under old Soviet law but after the regime change, these laws have become more relaxed and many of the tigers fall prey to poachers who sell their body parts in Asian medicine markets. Every part of the Siberian tiger is thought to have healing powers and their pelts can fetch up to $10,000. Deforestation is the other main reason for the tiger’s decline. Siberian tigers used to range over all of Asia, but now the remaining few are only found in a small mountain chain along the coast of Japan. The largest natural forest in the world, which extends over most of Russia, is being cut down at a rate of about 10 million acres every year, leaving less and less suitable habitat for these animals (and countless other animals).

WCS field staff collect data during capture
of a juvenile Amur tiger.
Photo by John Goodrich, WCS.
American and Russian scientists are working together to try to save these mystical creatures, but it is not an easy task. The landscape where these animals live makes it difficult to track them in the wild and most of the tracking must be done in the winter when they are most visible; (this is also the time of year when poachers are most active.) Scientists use humane snares to trap them and also dart the tigers from helicopters. Once a tiger is sedated, a radio collar is put on the animal so its habits can be tracked. Unfortunately, the life of a radio collar is only for two years and then the battery must be replaced. So the scientists are constantly needing to re-dart tigers so they can continue to track them. Scientists also ear tag tiger cubs when they come across a den, however, this is very dangerous. Although Siberian tigers have never been known to be “man hunters,” a mother tiger will defend her cubs to the death. So there are a lot of elements that the scientists must contend with in order to save these animals.

Siberian tigers are also being studied in captivity. Often times tiger cubs are orphaned so scientists take them to study them and so they can become part of a breeding program. Another obstacle for tigers is that the mortality rate of cubs in the wild is relatively high at 30% and it is common for tigers in captivity to not care for their cubs. Scientists take particular care to raise the cubs so that they may be released back into the wild. Russian scientists reach out to the public and educate school children not to be fearful of Siberian tigers (since they live in close proximity to these animals) and on the importance of protecting the species. The more people understand about these animals, the more they will be willing to protect them.

From tracking tigers in the wild, scientists have discovered that most of these animals are traveling outside the parameters of the nature reserves that have been set up for them. Again, it is highlighted how vast their ranges are and the land that is needed to support these creatures. Females will have a range of around 200 square miles, while a male tiger can have a range of up to 500 square miles. Dr. Maurice Hornocker, an American scientist, says, “You can literally define an entire ecosystem by studying a big cat.” He says by protecting a large predator, like a tiger, you will in turn protect an entire ecosystem, which will protect countless other species. Man is the biggest threat to these magnificent creatures and once they are gone, it is possible that the entire ecosystem that they were once a part of will also collapse.

For more information on the Siberian Tiger Project, please visit Wildlife Conservation Society Russia.

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