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The Amur tiger census to be held this winter

22 november 2004
A press conference in Vladivostok marked the beginning of the 2005 winter survey of the Amur tigers in the Russian Far East. Last surveyed in 1996, the population, then estimated at 415-476 individuals, has been under continuing pressure from poaching, logging, and hunting pressures.

Dale Miquelle, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Russia Program, and overall coordinator for the project, remarked, “This tiger survey represents a milestone in cooperative, international conservation efforts, with full political support from both regional and national governmental bodies of the Russian Federation, as well as financial and technical support from the international conservation community.”

The lone remaining population of Siberian tigers was under intensive poaching pressure during the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in political and economic chaos, forcing local residents to seek any means, including poaching of endangered species like tigers, to earn a living. With renewed enforcement efforts, the survey conducted in 1996, along with subsequent monitoring, initially indicated that the Siberian tiger population had stabilized. However, in the past 5-7 years, some indicators suggest that tiger numbers may again be decreasing. Decreasing numbers of prey, possibly due to overhunting, may be at least partially responsible for a decline in reproduction, and along with continued poaching of tigers, may be driving tiger numbers to critically low levels. Thus, an assessment of numbers of prey (the deer and wild boar which tigers depend upon), is also built into the survey design. As Alexei Surovy, lead specialist of the Provincial Wildlife Management Department, noted, “without information on the status of the prey base, we simply cannot say with any certainty what the status of the tiger population is, or what the future holds.”

Tiger surveys in Russia are conducted in winter, when a complete blanket of snow allows fieldworkers to canvass the vast region of Sikhote-Alin Mountain Range, which holds 95% of the remaining Siberian tigers, looking for tracks left by tigers as they traverse their home ranges looking for prey. A geographic database records the location and characteristics of each track reported, allowing specialists to estimate minimum numbers of tigers in the entire region.

Formerly, under the Soviet system, a complex and well regulated army of biologists and professional “hunters” or outdoorsman, were sent into the forests, under mandate, to do the count. In the new political and economic climate, such scientific endeavors are more difficult, and the costs of doing such work have escalated dramatically. As Boris Tsoy, assistant Director of the Provincial Department of Natural Resources, noted, “To develop effective strategies to conserve endangered species, it is essential to know how many there are out there…Such surveys, of course, are very expensive, but thanks to the support of both the federal government and non-governmental organizations, we ll be able to obtain this vital information in 2005.” In fact, for the first time in 10 years the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources has allocated funds for tiger conservation, with $50,000 specifically earmarked for the survey. However, this amounts to only about one-sixth of the $300,000 required to do the work. Fortunately, a host of international organizations have come forward to provide the remaining amounts, including the Exxon-Mobile Save the Tiger Fund, the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenburg Foundation, 21st Century Tiger, Wildlife Conservation Society, and WWF.

Despite the costs, most believe the investment is worthwhile. As Pavel Fomenko, WWF staff and one of 15 survey coordinators noted, "we need this information to obtain a complete understanding of the present state of the Siberian tiger population – both to assess whether our past efforts were effective, and to plan for future tiger conservation measures."