There was a time when tiger expert Dale Miquelle wasn’t sure if there’d ever be a substantial population of Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) in China again. In the 1990s, Miquelle and his colleagues estimated there to only be about eight of these big cats, also commonly referred to as Siberian tigers, left in northeastern China. But in the last eight years, change has come in leaps and bounds: recent camera trap footage reveals there are at least 55 Amur tigers living in forests in northeastern China.
“Persistent efforts to protect tigers have paid off,” Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Russia, told Mongabay in an email. “Change has not come quickly, but there has been slow, steady progress, and we see there are great opportunities for even more recovery.”
According to a recent study in Biological Conservation, of which Miquelle is a co-author, camera trap footage taken between 2013 and 2018 identified 55 Amur tigers in four forested landscapes in northeastern China: Laoyeling, Zhang-Guangcailing, Wandashan, and the Lesser Khinghan Mountains.
The scientists also genetically analyzed tiger scat, urine and hair to identify 30 tigers in the region. However, only Laoyeling is believed to support a breeding population, the paper suggests.
The reason for the tigers’ sudden appearance in northeast China is due, in a large part, to a Chinese national policy called the Natural Forest Protection Project (NFPP), Miquelle said.
“By stopping [the] harvest[ing] of trees in many parts of China, they essentially made whole villages whose economy was based on timber harvest economic wastelands,” Miquelle said.
“Many of these people have had to leave the region to find new work, thereby pulling more and more people out of the forests.” With the timber industry shutting down, the forests were able to recover, and that’s “a big reason why tigers are expanding.”
The NFPP was part of the Chinese government’s “huge sweeping policy change” that has shifted the country toward environmental stewardship and wildlife protection, Miquelle said. Another big change happened in 2001, when the government established at least three nature reserves, including the Hunchun National Nature Reserve, to provide critical habitat for Amur tigers and Amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis). And in 2016, China established the Northeast Tiger Leopard National Park (NTLNP), which spans nearly 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 square miles) in northeast China, encompassing the Hunchun National Nature Reserve and representing the largest tiger refuge in the world.
“China is working hard to turn this [national park] into a model for conservation in China,” Miquelle said.
Aimin Wang, director of WCS China, said that, overall, local people have been supportive of the environmental changes orchestrated by the government and the reemergence of tigers in the region. However, he said the establishment of the NTLNP has caused a few issues since people can no longer use this land to graze their cattle.
“This is quite a big issue now and the government is looking for solutions for that,” Wang told Mongabay in a Zoom interview.
Amur tigers are currently the most endangered of all big cat subspecies. In the 1930s, scientists believed there to be as few as 20 to 30 Amur tigers left, mainly in Russia. But drastic conservation measures led to a slight recovery of the subspecies, and the most recent population census in 2010 estimates there are about 350 Amur tigers living in the region.
John Goodrich, chief scientist and tiger program director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, said the discovery of the 55 tigers in northeastern China is “great news” since species tend to fare better when their range isn’t limited to one country.
“While they have done reasonably well there [in Russia], having all of a single species residing in one country is risky,” Goodrich told Mongabay in an email. “For example, Amur tiger numbers declined dramatically in the early 90s with the political and social challenges of Perestroika. Now the risk is spread over two countries.”
Amur tigers may have a foothold in northeastern China now, but they will face the same threats they would face anywhere in the world, Goodrich said. This includes poaching, prey loss, habitat loss and fragmentation, and human-wildlife conflict.
Amur tigers will also face a number of threats linked to climate change, although northeastern Asia should continue to provide suitable habitat for the subspecies, Miquelle said.
“A warming climate will mean that there may be more and better habitat in northeast China in the future (and definitely more potential habitat in Russia),” he said. “But with a more variable or drier climate, forest fires pose a serious threat to tiger habitat.”
In their recent paper, Miquelle and his co-authors argue that northeastern China could support a much larger “meta-population” of Amur tigers if additional efforts are made to minimize human impacts, and to create ecological corridors between tiger habitats. They write that if appropriate measures are taken, the region could actually support about 310 tigers, including 119 breeding females.
“There is still a long way to go to build a viable future for tigers in northeast China, but the situation looks good,” Miquelle said. “National leaders of both Russia and China have demonstrated a sincere interest in Amur tiger conservation, providing a strong foundation for their recovery.”
Qi, J., Gu, J., Ning, Y., Miquelle, D. G., Holyoak, M., Wen, D., … Jiang, G. (2021). Integrated assessments call for establishing a sustainable meta-population of Amur tigers in Northeast Asia. Biological Conservation, 261, 109250. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109250
This article by Elizabeth Claire Alberts was first published on Mongabay.com on 21 September 2021. Lead Image: A photo of a tiger captured on a camera trap in northeast China. Image by WCS.
What you can do
Support ‘Fighting for Wildlife’ by donating as little as $1 – It only takes a minute. Thank you.
Fighting for Wildlife supports approved wildlife conservation organizations, which spend at least 80 percent of the money they raise on actual fieldwork, rather than administration and fundraising. When making a donation you can designate for which type of initiative it should be used – wildlife, oceans, forests or climate.