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China's tentative tiger rebound

  • Written by  Jacob Dykes
  • Published in Wildlife
An Amur tiger runs in the snow, captured at the Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin, China. The government wants to boost numbers of wild Amur tigers that live outside of farms such as this An Amur tiger runs in the snow, captured at the Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin, China. The government wants to boost numbers of wild Amur tigers that live outside of farms such as this
27 Jan
2022
China’s Amur tiger population is recovering, reflecting the country’s changing stance on wildlife

Over the past two decades, as tiger numbers have dwindled to zero in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, rare populations of Amur tigers (also known as the Siberian tiger) are rebounding in China’s northeast. 

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Camera-trap footage from four forested regions in northeastern China along the border with Russia, captured between 2013 and 2018, revealed the presence of 55 individual Amur tigers, a significant increase from a low of just eight individuals a few decades ago. ‘Persistent efforts to protect Amur tigers have paid off,’ says Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia programme.

In 2010, 13 tiger range countries – including China – agreed to double the world’s tiger population by 2022. Since then, China has made significant progress, but tigers were once far more abundant there. About 500 Amur tigers ranged in the country at the beginning of the 20th century, alongside three other subspecies. Chairman Mao’s efforts to rid China of ‘dangerous beasts’ were reversed during the 1950s, when the Chinese government banned tiger hunting, before eventually listing the Amur tiger as a protected species in 1977. However, China’s tiger populations continued to shrink in the face of persistent poaching and habitat loss. 

National policies targeted at protecting forest habitats have enabled habitat and prey populations to recover on the Chinese side of the border. In 2016, China established the Northeast Tiger Leopard National Park (NTLNP) to provide habitat for Amur tigers. Spanning around 15,000 square kilometres, it’s the largest tiger refuge in the world and a crucial stepping stone for Amur tigers entering China from Russia. The prevention of logging also allowed tiger habitat to recover. ‘Tigers were already coming across the border, we just had to give them a reason to stay,’ says Miquelle. ‘When the timber industry stopped, people left for other areas to find new work. That reduced the human presence in the forest, thus reducing the snaring of the tiger’s wild prey.’ 

To ensure the continued growth of tiger populations in China, WCS conservationists are now calling for four mountainous landscapes to be better connected. A viable population of tigers is thought to require at least 83 breeding females –  more than twice the capacity of NTLNP, necessitating contiguous protected areas across the Sino-Russian border. ‘Russia and China are in discussions over the creation of transboundary protected areas. The creation of such transboundary management units would be a huge boost for Amur tigers,’ says Miquelle. 

The tentative recovery so far is, to some, a reflection of China’s renewed focus on environmental conservation. ‘The Chinese government has been very responsive to our recommendations,’ says Miquelle. ‘It’s a huge country and change is slow, but I’ve seen a shift in the way that environmental protection is prioritised.’ 

Nevertheless, there remains a contradiction. Due to demand for tiger parts, which are sometimes used in Chinese medicine, China has long operated tiger farms. In 2018, there were some 5,000 tigers being kept in captivity at 200 facilities. And, despite a new ban on the trade and consumption of almost all terrestrial wild animals, commercial breeding of captive tigers is still permitted. Conservationists argue that such farms destigmatise the use of tigers as a commodity. To truly save this great cat, they say, it’s time to end this harmful practice.

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