Return of the snow tiger

After a 70-year absence, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is hoping to reintroduce an apex predator to the snow-covered steppes of Kazakhstan

A cold wind sweeps up a flurry of bitter snow. An elk gnaws at a rare clump of grass, the only sign of life on an otherwise barren steppe. Suddenly, a flash of orange pierces the swirling wall of white. Unaware of the looming threat, the elk continues to chew its precious meal. A silent track of pawprints winds its way towards the unsuspecting ungulate. In a moment, the phantom hunter pounces, claiming its prey with a fatal bite to the neck. The wilds of Kazakhstan once again shiver in the shadow of the tiger.

This routine struggle of life and death in the frozen lands of the ninth largest country in the world is a scene that has not played out for over 70 years, and as is nearly always the case, we are to blame. However, we could also be responsible for reversing the situation by successfully reintroducing tigers to Kazakhstan for the first time in seven decades, which would be the first time that tigers will have been successfully reintroduced to an area in which they have been extinct for over 50 years. But before we find out how this titanic task may be achieved, we first need to understand how this travesty came about.

The largest of the wild cats, Amur tigers can grow to 3.3 metres (10.8 feet) long and possess a bite force of 950 pounds per square inch, not to mention a swipe strong enough to kill a cow and a top speed of over 65 kilometres (40 miles) per hour. As if to enhance their regal appearance, Amur tigers also feature a mane that helps to fend off the cold winds of their homelands.

So how did this powerful predator find itself forced out of its former kingdom, a land of over almost 3 million square kilometres (11.6 million square miles)?

A key factor in the demise of this majestic beast is deforestation, which has decimated the tigers’ natural range in both Kazakhstan and Russia. Such was the level of devastation that tigers were believed to have completely vanished from the former Soviet state by the 1940s. The roads constructed to enable the logging industry to take hold in the region also contributed to tiger fatalities, with studies proving that an area featuring primary roads can result in a tiger survival rate of just 55 per cent.

Poaching is another reason behind the dramatic decline in Amur tigers in the region. While their fur is a thing of beauty, a tiger’s stripes (each set as unique as a human fingerprint) have also proved to be a curse, for they are highly prized by poachers. Yet this isn’t the only reason that tigers find themselves in a hunter’s gun sights. For more than 1,000 years tiger parts have been used in Chinese traditional medicines. Their bones are believed to treat a range of ailments, including ulcers, typhoid, dysentery and even malaria, while their whiskers are worn as protective charms or used to treat toothache.

Ungulates such as deer and elk form a key part of an Amur tiger’s diet, but their prey are also targets for local hunters, which can often result in the depletion of the tigers’ food supply. This in turn forces tigers to venture into urban areas in search of food, which often results in them killing cattle or an unfortunate dog. Humans regularly retaliate with lethal force. On top of this, hunters will often shoot tigers in order to remove the competition for ungulates, taking even more of these precious animals from the wild. It’s therefore hardly surprising that humans are responsible for 75 per cent of Amur tiger fatalities every year.

It is no exaggeration to say that the prospect of turning this situation around is a daunting one, but the government of Kazakhstan does not stand alone.

Following the announcement of this ambitious plan in September 2017 by the Kazakh authorities, the WWF signed a memorandum with the Kazakh Government vowing to aid them in their quest to reinstate the nation’s largest predator into the Ili-Balkhash region. Some of this help will come in the form of a £7.3-million ($10.1-million) funding grant. The aim is to create a 1,036-square- kilometre (400-square-mile) habitat for the tigers, with a release date set for 2025. While nothing has been confirmed yet, this new population would likely derive from orphaned tigers in Russia’s Far East.

A threat from across the Chinese border comes in the form of tiger farms, which have driven a huge surge in poaching to feed consumer demand and thereby continue to threaten current and any future tiger populations. When the US transported eight captive-born tigers to China in 1986 it did so in the belief that the chosen cats would help to found a captive breeding programme. However, their new hosts had other ideas, and the unfortunate tigers were instead used to establish China’s first commercial tiger farm.

Fully sanctioned by the Ministry of Forestry, the Hengdaohezi Breeding Centre in the province of Heilongjiang was constructed with one thing in mind: using tigers to turn a profit. The first victims were China’s wild tigers, but once this supply had all but been drained poachers turned their gaze to populations elsewhere, leading to a significant decline in the world’s tigers.

Today, 5,000–6,000 tigers are confined in breeding centres, zoos and circuses across the country, often in awful conditions and restrained so that tourists can pose with them. Once the tigers have served their purpose they are killed to serve paying customers. In this abominable pursuit nothing is spared; almost every part of a tiger is used. While the most obvious demand comes from the fur and traditional medicine trades, tiger bones are also soaked in alcohol to produce wine.

Despite signing up to an international treaty in 1981 formulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and a commitment to establish a reserve for tigers and leopards, China is yet to tackle the commercial tiger trade, a failure that has now seen tiger farms spread into Thailand, Lao and Vietnam.

We spoke to Aron White of the Environmental Investigation Agency about why there is such demand for tiger parts and what can be done to stop it.

“Different parts of the tiger are consumed in different ways in China – skins are made into rugs for luxury
home decor or taxidermy, bones are used in traditional medicine and to make tonic wines, while teeth and claws are fashioned into jewellery and amulets. Tiger skins, teeth and claws are in demand among some wealthy Chinese consumers as a way to show off their wealth, a phenomenon that has grown in severity with China’s rapid economic growth.

“Tiger bone wine is much more affordable to general consumers, marketed as a prestigious gift or a virility product, and it is easily available both in China and in markets frequented by Chinese consumers in neighbouring countries. Tiger parts and products are also used as non- financial bribes to government officials.

“Another reason [for the demand] is that the Chinese Government has allowed both the commercial breeding of tigers, including in large-scale ‘farms’, and a legal trade in captive-bred tiger skins through a permit system. This ‘commercialisation’ of tigers has legitimised consumption of tiger products in the eye of some consumers, stimulating further demand by reducing social taboos and increasing both visibility and availability of tiger products in general.

“Finally, there has been a lack of targeted campaigns aimed at reducing demand for tiger products beyond use of tiger bone in traditional medicine. A number of campaigns have been launched aimed at reducing demand for elephant ivory in China, although the majority of these have been led by NGOs rather than the Chinese Government. We urgently need to see more targeted campaigns to reduce demand for tiger.”

So is the international community doing enough to pressure China into changing its approach to tigers?

“Unfortunately, there has not been the same level of high-level international pressure on tigers as there has been on elephants. International pressure, particularly from African elephant range states, was a major factor in the Chinese Government’s ban on domestic trade in elephant ivory [enforced as of 1 January, 2018], which has been hailed as a major step towards saving elephants from poaching. This pressure was helped by strong public awareness in China and worldwide of the threat posed to elephants by the ivory trade and by high-level foreign individuals raising the issue with Chinese leadership. Unfortunately, tigers, which are even more endangered than elephants, have slipped down the international agenda. We are calling for China to build on the momentum of the ivory ban and end the commercialisation of tigers by ending tiger farming and tiger trade. We need to see much greater pressure from the international community.

“Readers can help too. First of all, don’t visit tiger farms or ‘tiger selfie’ spots in China or Thailand. A facility that offers the chance to feed a cub or touch a tiger offers zero conservation benefit to tigers, and many of these places have been implicated in clandestine trade in tiger parts. Secondly, write to your MP or elected representative and ask them to call on the Prime Minister and other senior members of government to raise the issue of tiger farming and tiger trade with the Chinese leadership. The future of wild tigers depends on China committing to ending all tiger trade, and the international community needs to send a strong message.”

While Chinese support for the project in Kazakhstan would provide a major boost, all is not lost if the country doesn’t get onboard with the programme: a smaller tiger population could still be settled in Kazakhstan. Either way, the plan is both ambitious and exciting, but it will be an incredible challenge. Ekaterina Vorobyeva, director of WWF-Russia Central Asia programme, explained.

“The hard work remains ahead of us. We have to up our efforts to make this region ready for tigers and involve all stakeholders to make this happen. That means tackling poaching and illegal activities, having well-trained and equipped rangers, thriving prey populations and engaged local communities.”

If all of this can be achieved, one of the world’s most beautiful predators may yet one day roam the wilds of Kazakhstan, the king of the animals returned to its realm.


Words: Charlie Ginger