Poaching and habitat loss have caused populations of Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) to drop as much as 40 percent in the past 12 years, according to a new report from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
Also known as Amur tigers, Siberians are the largest of the six living tiger species. After being hunted nearly to extinction early in the 20th century, the species received legal protection from the Soviet Union in 1947. At the time, there were as few as 20 Siberian tigers left in the world. Sixty years later, thanks to strict protections and conservation efforts, wild Siberian tiger populations were estimated at around 500 animals. (More than 400 additional tigers live in captivity.)
But this new report from the WCS estimates that there are now just 300 Siberian tigers in the wild—200 fewer than believed just a few years ago.
How did WCS come up with this number? Annual tiger counts are conducted at 16 monitoring sites across a 23,550-square-kilometer area that is known to represent around 15 to 18 percent of the tiger's habitat in Russia. This year's survey counted only 56 tigers, down 41 percent from the 12-year average of 95 tigers. WCS extrapolated this decline across all Siberian tiger populations to come up with their new estimate of 300 wild tigers.
Whereas WCS acknowledged that a harsh winter may have made it harder for tigers to travel, and for them to be counted, they also point to a "four-year trend of decreasing numbers of tigers" to support the evidence gathered at the main monitoring site.
"While the results are indeed bad news in the short term, we believe the overall picture for Siberian tigers remains positive," said Colin Poole, director of WCS's Asia Program, in a prepared statement. "There is an enormous amount of good will for saving Siberian tigers. We just need to translate this into action."
This news comes just a few weeks after Russia announced a plan to raise up to $1 billion (through as-yet-undetermined means) to support conservation of all tiger species. The plan, detailed on November 11 by the Russian Federation's natural resource ministry and the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund, aims to more than double the world's total tiger population from 3,200 to 6,500.
WWF–Russia estimates that 30 to 50 Siberian tigers are still killed every year by poachers, who sell the pelts and body parts for use in traditional Asian medicine as cures for a variety of ailments. Sergei Aramilev of WWF–Russia told the Associated Press that Chinese poachers often attach fat-lathered explosives to trees. Tigers eat the bait, and then die when the bombs explode in their mouths.
Image: "Lutka," a Siberian tiger photographed in Russia. Photo by Dale Miquelle/Wildlife Conservation Society