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Siberian tigers hang tough


Results of latest survey show tiger numbers in Russia stable

Results of the latest full range survey indicate that tiger numbers in Russia appear to be stable, say the coordinators of a 2005 winter effort to count the animals, led by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. After a massive winter endeavor to determine distribution and abundance of tigers in the Russian Far East, the last stronghold of Siberian tigers, researchers report that approximately 334-417 adult tigers remain in the region, along with 97-112 cubs. While stressing that results are preliminary, the news is welcome relief to tiger conservationists around the world, who have seen spiraling decreases in tiger numbers in other parts of Asia. The announcement also comes just a few months after WCS conservationists learned the Olga, a 14-year-old Siberian tiger had been killed by poachers, after scientists had been continuously monitoring her whereabouts from more than a decade.

To determine numbers of tigers in this remote, densely forested land, researchers sent out nearly one thousand fieldworkers to canvass the entire region where it is believed tigers could occur. Though wary of people, and seldom seen, tigers nonetheless leave evidence of their presence with their massive footprints in the snow. With some workers spending months in the field and covering over 21,000 km (13,000 miles) of transects by foot, ski, snowmobile, and car, over 4,100 tracks were recorded, most representing multiple tracks of a single individual. Researchers map out the location of all these tracks, and then estimate a minimum number of tigers, based on their size and distribution.

Dale Miquelle, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (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 project was funded not only by Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources, but by a host of international organizations, led by Save the Tiger Fund, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund (both from the US), Britain’s 21st Century Tiger, and WWF.

The last winter survey, conducted in 1996, reported 330-371 adult tigers, with 85-105 cubs. "The difference in results between 1996 and this survey," said Dimitri Pikunov, coordinator of the survey in Primorye Province, and a well-known specialist on this big cat, "is not due to a change in numbers, but simply reflects the additional effort we made to survey the entirety of tiger range." Coordinators agree that this survey represents the most extensive effort to date to count tigers in Russia.

Tiger conservationists around the world were buoyed by these results, especially since India, once considered the greatest stronghold for tigers, is now under pressure after recent reports of tigers completely disappearing from some of their core tiger reserves. Yuri Darman, Director of the WWF Russian Far East Office, declared, "these results are a tribute to the hard work and dedication of conservation organizations and government officials here in Russia. Despite massive poaching pressures in the 1990s, we have been able to turn back the tide, and retain our tiger population." John Seidensticker, of the Save the Tiger Fund, a partnership between Exxon Mobil, U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, added, "Russia is a bright spot in the conservation of tigers in Asia, and is proof of our belief that a few dedicated individuals, with sufficient motivation and adequate support, can make a difference in the world."

Coordinators of the survey effort gathered in Vladivostok today to present their results, but emphasize that numbers are still preliminary. Still to come will be an assessment of the prey species tigers are dependent on, and a more rigorous analysis of tiger distribution and abundance. According to Miquelle, "Over the next few months, we will be completing the geographic database to ensure these data are preserved, and then we will begin a more intensive analysis of the data. Results may change slightly, but we think it’s safe to say that the population appears stable."

Stephen Sautner | EurekAlert!
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