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The tiger reintroduction programme

The Caspian tiger © WWF-Canon / Helmut Diller
The tiger reintroduction program to the Kazakhstan is funded by the Contribute Foundation and Stiching Pharus

ZHOLBARYS. THE PREDATOR THAT VANISHED INTO THE PAST

The Caspian tiger, sometimes also referred to as Turanian or Transcaucasian, is an extinct subspecies that inhabited the area from Turkey to western China, including the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia. There is evidence of these tigers’ huge size (up to 224 cm in length and body weight of up to 240 kg) and endurance: the animals easily walked up to 100 km per day. The tigers lived in tugai forests along river valleys. A source of water was a must for their habitat. It is therefore no wonder that their permanent habitat at the northern edge of their natural range was Lake Balkhash, as well as the shores of the Amu Darya and other rivers. Due to its variegated coloration, this predator was reliably camouflaged among the reeds and thickets.

However, the cold, snowy winters posed them great hardship. Some individuals would seek out places with the least snow cover and make a den, while others went for long hikes of hundreds of kilometers, approached cities and often died at the hands of a person who saw danger in a tired and hungry predator.

WHY DID THE TIGER DISAPPEAR IN KAZAKHSTAN?

By the second half of the 20th century, the tiger in Kazakhstan had been completely exterminated. The main reason for its extinction was the plowing of the most fertile floodplain lands for cotton fields, which drove ungulates, staples of the tiger's diet, to nearly disappear from these areas. At the end of the 19th century, tigers were deliberately killed to ensure the safety of farmers. The last documented sightings of tigers in Central Asia were recorded in the early 1970s.

CAN THE STRIPED CAT EVER COME BACK?

It was demonstrated through research that the Caspian and Amur tiger populations are genetically virtually identical. This allows for the possibility of restoring the extinct population, and World Wide Fund for Nature Russia (WWF Russia) initiated this project. The idea of ​​reintroducing tigers in Central Asia using the Amur tiger from the Russian Far East was being discussed for ten years. The government of Kazakhstan supported the project back in 2010. But in order to start the program, it was needed to first conduct scientific research, to determine the possible reintroduction sites and to study the possible results of the reintroduction under various scenarios.

This work took almost 10 years, and finally, in September 2017, a Memorandum was signed between WWF and the Government of Kazakhstan on the implementation of a tiger restoration program in Central Asia.

THE TIGER’S NEW «HOUSE»

On June 27, 2018, the long-awaited Ile-Balkhash State Natural Reserve, a protected area of over 415 thousand hectares, was introduced into the system of protected natural areas of Kazakhstan. The territory of the reserve includes a part of the Ili River delta, floodplain, saxaul forests and wetlands on the southern coast of Lake Balkhash. An ecosystem suitable for tiger habitat will be restored on the territory of the new reserve. The reintroduction program includes the protection of the existing wildlife and the restoration of populations of ungulates (Bukhara deer, roe deer, wild boar), which form the basis of the tiger’s diet, as well as kulan, saiga and gazelle.

WHEN WILL THE FIRST TIGERS BE BROUGHT TO ILE-BALKHASH?

The first delivery of Amur tigers to the reserve is not expected until 2024, and in 50 years, at least 150 tigers might live in Kazakhstan according to scientists.

The creation of a minimally stable tiger population will take at least 10 years. The total cost of the first 10 years of the program will be about 15-20 million euros. The program will be financed from the budget of the Republic of Kazakhstan, WWF partners and donors.

WWF published a study on the prospects for restoring the tiger population in Kazakhstan and, together with national specialists, prepared a program for the restoration of this endangered species, having held a broad discussion both with leading tiger specialists from around the world and with relevant ministries and departments of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

According to the results of the study, there is an area of ​​415 thousand hectares, which is suitable for tiger habitat in the delta of the Ili River to the south of Lake Balkhash.

Intermediate documents produced in the process of preliminary assessment with respect to recovery of Turanian tigers in Central Asia

Kazakhstan posters on the Tiger Summit