By Dr. Becker
Tigers are an endangered species across the globe. Wild populations have plummeted from an estimated 100,000 in the early 1900s to around just 3,000 today. Siberian tigers are among six surviving species and are native to the forests of China, Russia and North Korea.
Siberian Tiger Populations Are Growing Again in China
The tigers, once on the brink of extinction in China, are growing in numbers again thanks to a long-standing effort to restore their natural habitat. Logging has been banned, as have hunting and trapping of tigers.
For the last decade, the number of Siberian tigers living in the wild in China has been estimated at 18 to 22. (This is a much smaller population than tigers living in captivity.) New estimates double those numbers, and experts believe the tigers have also expanded their territory.
Both China and Russia have pursued campaigns to restore degraded forests. Russia actually began the work back in the 1940s and now has between 400 and 900 Siberian tigers -- the world’s largest population. More recently, China has followed suit in developing habitats that support the tigers in re-establishing their populations.
Hunting of Animals is Banned in China
Hunting of all animals other than rats is banned in China. But inhabitants of the poorest villages set traps that, while not intended for tigers, can easily ensnare them. In addition, when humans trap the natural prey of tigers (deer and wild pigs, primarily), the tigers are more apt to hunt and kill livestock.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Li Zhixing, who has worked for decades on tiger protection efforts in China, says it’s critical to tiger conservation to get rid of animal traps. Zhixing visits poor villages and offers residents beekeeping equipment as an alternative way to make a living.
China’s Efforts to Protect Siberian Tigers Have Earned Praise from Environmentalists
The Chinese government has taken steps to improve public perception of Siberian tigers by compensating farmers for livestock lost to the tigers. Chinese newspapers report on tiger attacks on farms, which raises awareness.
In addition, the Forest Ministry in Jilin province has designated over 100,000 acres of woodland as a wildlife preserve, and deer have been released into the preserve to attract tigers and leopards, another endangered species in China.
The Chinese people have been surprised not only by the growth of the tiger population, but also by how far they have spread. Despite their massive size, Siberian tigers are not often spotted by humans. Only their distinctive paw prints and the occasional missing or mauled livestock informs residents of the presence of tigers in the area. Unlike other subspecies, Siberian tigers are not considered particularly dangerous to humans, as they prefer to remain hidden in the woods when people are nearby.
Li Zhixing believes tiger attacks are rare in China because the Chinese have respect for the tiger, and in fact, many Chinese revere the animal as a mountain god. "There is a superstition here that a tiger will only attack you if you do something bad," says Zhixing. "Sometimes when people encounter a tiger, they don't run, they just kneel and pray."
The efforts in China to protect and reestablish Siberian tiger populations have earned high praise from environmentalists. According to the Los Angeles Times, a 2010 report in the journal of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies suggested that China might even earn the right to claim it “saved the tiger.”