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Tiger, tiger, burning out: What is killing Russia’s critically endangered Amur tigers?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Amur tigerIt may not be long before we witness the extinction of one of the world’s six species of tigers, the Amur (or Siberian) tiger (Panthera tigris altaica). As we have previously reported, Amur tiger populations have dropped precipitously in recent years to around 250 animals, and the species faces a genetic bottleneck that puts it at risk of inbreeding. Now, a mysterious illness has started spreading through the Amur population, causing the death of four adult tigers and several newborns in the past 10 months.

“We may be witnessing an epidemic in the Amur tiger population,” Dale Miquelle, director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Russia Program, told the Guardian.

The as-yet-unidentified disease seems to affect tigers’ ability to hunt wild game. Left in a weakened and hungry state, the four infected tigers had started coming into human territory in search of easy food. They had to be shot as potential threats to people.

The most recent death was a 10-year-old female named Galya, which had long been tracked and studied by WCS Russia. At her healthiest, Galya was estimated to weigh 140 kilograms. When she was shot, she weighed just 90 kilograms. Galya had recently abandoned her three-week-old cubs, all of whom were found dead with no food in their bellies.

The disease was first observed in a male tiger last year. Galya and two other female tigers believed to have carried the disease had been in contact with the male.

These may not be the only tigers affected. “We are extremely concerned about the possibility of an epidemic that could be sweeping through this region,” Miquelle said. “Animals we have studied extensively, and known well, have demonstrated radically changed behavior, which is extremely disconcerting.”

Already facing major danger from poachers, who kill an estimated 30 to 50 Amur tigers a year, this disease represents a threat the tigers may not be able to survive. “The addition of disease-related deaths to existing sources of mortality could push this population over a tipping point,” Miquelle told the Guardian.

Photo: Amur tiger, via Wikipedia

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  1. 1. hawkeye 1:01 am 06/26/2010

    At population 250? Extinction is inevitable, especially since poachers continue to kill them. I am ashamed at my species.

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  2. 2. MtMama 2:13 am 06/26/2010

    The tigers that were considered a danger to humans should have been tranquilized and studied in an attempt to find a cause of disease. More manpower should be used to keep out poachers. With 250 Amur Tigers remaining, this cannot be that huge of a job. Amimal lovers from all over the world would be willing to help guard these precious animals. One question, were the dead cubs and adults autopsied and studied to seek a solution to the problem? I certainly hope that scientist are on the ball with these methods. Not only are the tigers precious beautiful animals, but a link in the chain that we cannot afford to lose. What is the situation of their main source of food? Please don’t take a light tack at this. It is certainly an emergency situation for our planet’s beloved species.

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  3. 3. doctorfrank 11:43 am 06/26/2010

    Kill the poachers! Once this happens a few times there will be fewer tiger hunting aspirants.

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  4. 4. highhorse 3:26 pm 06/26/2010

    Not to minimize the seriousness but isn’t there only one species of tiger – isn’t the Amur tiger a sub-species?

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  5. 5. wetlaundry 12:45 am 06/27/2010

    No mention of the national park in China where the Siberian tiger is thriving?

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  6. 6. hawkeye 8:12 pm 06/27/2010

    I believe they were discussing Russia’s tigers, not China’s.

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  7. 7. wetlaundry 10:52 pm 06/28/2010

    "I believe" it is the same exact species of tiger, on the Russian border with China. They were talking about the actual felid itself — whose habitat has been pushed to the western edge of Russia over the past decades — but I guess you head is too far up your rear to read the text eh?

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  8. 8. wetlaundry 10:53 pm 06/28/2010


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  9. 9. Shaylin M. 3:37 pm 07/13/2010

    I am curious as well about autopsies. One can hope that it isn’t related to human and chemical waste in water resources and even in the air but it has to be taken into consideration. We are slowly killing our world through experimentation and ill thought plans. We have lost so much and and can very easily loose so much more quickly. Will it stop .. or even slow before we loose to much to live?

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  10. 10. Jokunen 6:26 pm 07/19/2010

    There should be money allocated as awards for native people who report any tiger that is coming to human areas to feed and which are consequently captured for studies and feeding until they can again be released to wild. Pay people to protect animals and they will do that.

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