The Siberian Tiger

I don’t believe that saving species one at a time is really the answer: we should try to save whole ecosystems. But our planet is full of truly awesome creatures, and it’s good to take time to celebrate them. We need to remember, not just what we’re fighting against, but also what we’re fighting for. Not just a world that’s better for us, but a world with room for magnificent beings that are older and stronger than us.

One is the Siberian tiger, also known as the Amur tiger. If any species deserves the title “charismatic megafauna”, it’s this. Here’s a photo of one, taken by John Goodrich:

At one point, there were only 30 Siberian tigers left in the wild. Now there are several hundred. Most of them live in the birch forests of eastern Russia, with a few in China and North Korea. Their range is far smaller than it once was. They used to live in many places, including Iraq and Kazakhstan. In their western range they were called the “Caspian tiger”. Many were killed by the Russian army in early 20th century.

There’s a reason the Russians killed off these tigers. They’re fierce!

Yesterday I heard the story of a poacher who made the mistake of shooting a Siberian tiger and wounding it but not killing it:

The true story of a man-eating tiger’s ‘vengeance’, Morning Edition, NPR, September 14, 2010.

Give it a listen! Some good lines:

“Imagine a creature that has the agility and appetite of the cat and the mass of an industrial refrigerator.”


How high can an Siberian tiger jump?

“As high as it needs to.”

Hint: don’t tease one if the fence between you and it is only 3.8 meters high. (For you Americans, that’s twelve and a half feet.)

The full story is in this book:

• John Vaillant, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, Knopf, New York, 2010.

You can see an excerpt on the NPR website.

The irony, fully brought out in the book, is that this fierce, deadly creature now needs our protection to survive — because we’re even more fierce and deadly. We’re the biggest kids on the block: it’s time to start acting like grownups.

From the book:

One of the many negative effects of perestroika and the reopening of the border between Russia and China has been a surge in tiger poaching. As the economy disintegrated and unemployment spread throughout the 1990s, professional poachers, businessmen, and ordinary citizens alike began taking advantage of the forest’s wealth in all its forms. The tigers, because they are so rare and so valuable, have been particularly hard hit: their organs, blood, and bone are much sought after for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Some believe the tiger’s whiskers will make them bulletproof and that its powdered bones will soothe their aches and pains. Others believe its penis will make them virile, and there are many — from Tokyo to Moscow — who will pay thousands of dollars for a tiger’s skin.

Between 1992 and 1994, approximately one hundred tigers — roughly one quarter of the country’s wild population — were killed. Most of them ended up in China. With financial assistance (and pressure) from international conservation agencies, the territorial government created Inspection Tiger in the hope of restoring some semblance of law and order to the forests of Primorye. Armed with guns, cameras, and broad police powers, these teams were charged with intercepting poachers and resolving a steadily increasing number of conflicts between tigers and human beings.

In many ways, Inspection Tiger’s mandate resembles that of detectives on a narcotics detail, and so does the risk: the money is big, and the players are often desperate and dangerous individuals. Tigers are similar to drugs in that they are sold by the gram and the kilo, and their value increases according to the refinement of both product and seller. But there are some key differences: tigers can weigh six hundred pounds; they have been hunting large prey, including humans, for two million years; and they have a memory. For these reasons, tigers can be as dangerous to the people trying to protect them as they are to those who would profit from them.

Some good news: in 1986, the Chinese government established a Siberian tiger breeding base at Heilongjiang Northeast Tiger Forest Park. According to the current breeding rate of tigers at the park, the worldwide number of Siberian tigers will break through 1,000 sometime this year!

Even better: Iranian and Russian ecologists are planning a joint project to return Caspian tigers to the wild in Central Asia. They want to do the same for an even more endangered species, the Asiatic cheetah, but some scientists think this is a risky move, since there is no captive breeding population of the Asiatic cheetah.

Someday I’ll write much more about “rewilding” projects, like a plan to restore parts of North America to a semblance of its late-Pleistocene state. With genetic engineering we might get mammoths back; otherwise we’d have to settle for elephants.

18 Responses to The Siberian Tiger

  1. John F says:

    The relevant term in ecological restoration is endpoint selection. The aha moment of Dorothy Merritts in Pennsylvania a decade ago (e.g. “Natural Streams and the Legacy of Water-Powered Mills”, 2008, Science 319, 299-304), considering stream morphology while standing shin deep, led to a largely unacknowledged (not even grudgingly, because of jealousy) upheaval in official federal strategies for endpoint selection. But the process has indeed changed and is now much more operationally defined than previously. In the case of Siberian tigers, suppose hypothetically that previously it was decided that there should be 4 breeding bases maintaining numbers of at least 4000. Then a consequence of that decision is that tactics such as sacrificial offerings of tied cattle could have been appropriate.

    This is not to say that strictly operational guidelines are good either. It may be amusing to jump examples from charismatic megafauna to repulsive microflora. For sewage treatment plant efficacy guidleines in the US, the only enforceable EPA and other standards have *only* operational specifications. For illustration, a sewage treatment plant operator only has to show that the sewage has a residence time of say two days, *not* that 90% of E. coli is gone.

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks for the info. When the Azimuth Project wiki starts up, I’d love it if you could write some little articles about ‘endpoint selection’ and any other relevant concepts we should know about. A definition, some examples, some links… that would be a great start.

      I have only a rough sense of your background (though more than I’m letting on). Are you trying to remain semi-anonymous, or can I ask you some questions about your work?

      • John F says:

        Yes, I plan to help. If you haven’t worked in the environmental field much you may not be cognizant of their terminology. Somebody may have already linked this:

        I still say their even though I’ve been partly working on environmental things for a couple of decades. As you may know I’m on a leash, albeit a long one. I don’t get out much but I can answer most questions you may ask.

        I have a varied work background. I mostly get funded to do validation. Although I get to work on some of the world’s largest simulations, I also have to deal with other people’s data (OPD), which requires exactly the same temperament as dealing with other people’s spouses. Unfunded, I am here “that guy” to whom is given many sows’ ears, but I can also pursue my own interests.

        Here is a background anecdote. In the 80s during a committee meeting about me starting yet another thesis topic, in part because the funding for the previous one was canceled because it was only worth a 10 page sponsor report, I mentioned that so-and-so was going to get me some real data to compare. They all laughed. An experimentalist proffered that the committee members would all take cracks at that data for years before I would ever see it.

  2. Hi there, John (?);

    Many thanks for taking the time to read and comment on The Tiger.

    Those tiger parks in China are very dubious operations. There’s no way those cats can be reintroduced to the wild, and most of these “parks” appear to be financed by businessmen hoping for a reversal of the tiger trade ban (in place since 1993). I visited one and it was pretty appalling.

    Take a look at this:

    • Jonathan Watts, Bred for the freezer: how zoo rears tigers like battery hens, The Guardian, Friday 13 April 2007.

  3. Graham says:

    A very recent article (3 days ago!) in PLoS Biology, “Bringing the Tiger Back from the Brink-The Six Percent Solution” is available here:

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks, Graham!

      For those not in the know, PLoS means ‘Public Library of Science’, and the great thing about it is that anything published in PLoS is free online and okay to copy and distribute. It’s science the way it should be.

      For those too lazy to click the link, here’s a bit of the sad story. I hadn’t known it was this bad:

      The Tiger Summit, to be hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Russia in November 2010—the Chinese Year of the Tiger and the International Year of Biodiversity—promises to be the most significant meeting ever held to discuss the fate of a single non-human species. The Summit will culminate efforts by the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), launched in 2008 by Robert Zoellick, World Bank President. Leaders of 13 tiger range states, supported by international donors and conservationists attending the summit, are being asked to commit to substantive measures to prevent the unthinkable: extinction of the world’s last wild tiger populations.

      Wild tiger numbers are at an historic low. There is no evidence of breeding populations of tigers in Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and DPR Korea. Current approaches to tiger conservation are not slowing the decline in tiger numbers, which has continued unabated over the last two decades. While the scale of the challenge is enormous, we submit that the complexity of effective implementation is not: commitments should shift to focus on protecting tigers at spatially well-defined priority sites, supported by proven best practices of law enforcement, wildlife management, and scientific monitoring. Conflict with local people needs to be mitigated. We argue that such a shift in emphasis would reverse the decline of wild tigers and do so in a rapid and cost-efficient manner.

      The Decline of the Tiger

      Despite a long history of concern for wild tigers, both their range and total number have collapsed: fewer than 3,500 animals now live in the wild, occupying less than 7% of their historical range. Of these, approximately 1,000 are likely to be breeding females.

      In most countries, overhunting has been the driver of the decline in tigers and their prey. Additionally, loss and fragmentation of habitat was locally important. Nevertheless, beginning in the early 1970s, conservation initiatives helped establish a large number of tiger reserves, particularly in India, Nepal, and, to a lesser extent, in Thailand, Indonesia, and Russia. Probably the most successful of these, at least initially, was Project Tiger in India, which was launched in 1972 with the political support of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The apparent success of these reserves prompted, in the 1990s, many conservationists (including some of the co-authors of this report) to shift their focus to a landscape approach, which sought to conserve tigers well beyond protected areas, so as to maintain the genetic and demographic viability of populations of this low-density, wide-ranging species. Conservation investments subsequently increased, but the array of activities was complex, less directly related to tigers, and spread thinly across large landscapes. With hindsight, it also became clear that protection and management of many reserves remained inadequate (the extirpation of tigers in the Indian tiger reserves of Sariska, reported in 2004, and Panna, reported in 2010, is illustrative) and this, coupled with an increased demand for tiger parts, meant that poaching of tigers and prey decimated populations across Asia, both inside and outside reserves.

      Read on…

      Hey, look: there are tigers just a bit north of Singapore, where I live… near the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula!

      The yellow regions are 1.5 million square kilometers of surviving habitat still suitable for tigers. The green spots are 42 “source sites,” which concentrations of tigers that have the potential to repopulate larger landscapes. These sites contain the majority of the world’s remaining tigers.

  4. Zoran Škoda says:

    Regarding an interesting detail on the cold area tigers of different kind cf. Highest living tigers found in Himalayas.

    • Tim Porter says:

      Adding to Zoran’s comment, the three programme series was shown recently on the BBC. Fantastic. Tigers way up higher than ever anyone seems to have guessed. The filming is marvellous, and the programmes should be marked TO SEE if they come your way. In the mean time the BBC website that Zoran linked to has some information and clips. This was all in Bhutan but made me wonder if there were other high altitude tigers elsewhere in the rest of their old range.

  5. Tim van Beek says:

    Science has published an article about the

    Genetic Restoration of the Florida Panther


    • John Baez says:

      When an interesting story appears in Science, their publicity team makes sure it shows up in the news all over. Here’s a news story about the Florida panther:

      • Christopher Joyce, Bounding, rebounding: panthers make a comeback, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, September 24, 2010.

      A quote:

      By 1995, there were only about 25 Florida panthers left. And Melody Roelke, a veterinarian who has tracked them for years, says they were a mess: suffering from heart disease, infertility and undescended testicles.

      “[With] the males, even with one testis, the quality of that sperm was just abysmal,” she says. They just couldn’t reproduce. “We were actually watching the extinction process right in front of our eyes. And this is what happens with small populations and inbreeding of close relatives.”


      … a geneticist who studies big carnivores, Stephen O’Brien of the National Cancer Institute, devised a plan to save the panthers: He combined genetics and math to calculate the panther’s fate.

      “They were going to go extinct in 25 years with a 99 percent probability if we left them alone,” he says. “That’s what stimulated the decision to act, to intervene.”

      He helped persuade the federal government to capture eight female pumas in Texas and release them in Florida to mate with the panthers.

      That was a controversial move. The Endangered Species Act advises against mixing subspecies (here, for example, pumas and panthers). But O’Brien argued that Eastern and Western pumas had been interbreeding for millennia before highways and housing developments intervened: This would not be a “man-made” creature.

      Others said, “Why bother?” — there were enough pumas out West. O’Brien countered that subspecies may have traits developed within their isolated habitat that make them special. Even Darwin, he says, believed that subspecies could, under the right circumstances, become a unique species someday.

      So the Texas cats came to Florida.


      Before the Texas females arrived, the Florida panthers were, according to Roelke, pretty lame. “They would be lying there in the tree like, ‘Oh, just let me just die up here,’ because they lacked any kind of vigor.”

      Now, 15 years later, O’Brien says the Florida panther is a new cat. “I think we can say cautiously that it was the right decision,” he says. “The population increased in number threefold. The admixture cats, which are hybrids, are more robust and they look a little bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger versions of cats.”

  6. Deniz says:

    Unfortunately breeding & repopulation strategies might suffer from a lack of genetic diversity, and other issues arising from domestic keep resulting in “functional extinction”:

  7. Tim Porter says:

    Locally on the island of Anglesey where I live, there has been a drive to reinstate the native red squirrel (see Thirty years ago red squirrels were common but then grey squirrels from the mainland came across the bridges. A few years ago there were virtually no reds left.

    A project to reintroduce reds after eradication of the non-native greys was put forward and although the few local reds were judged to be of a slightly different race the fact that there were very few left suggested that their genetic diversity was insufficient to maintain that race separately. Squirrels from several of the few remaining natural colonies in the UK were reared and then carefully released into various parts of the island some 3 or 4 years ago. The population seems now to be about 300 whilst it was in the twenties before the `reintroduction’. The full story can be followed via that link I think. The key as suggested above would seem to be genetic diversity not just habitat retention.

  8. Usman Masood says:

    I have heard that Siberian tigers are bigger than the African lions. The African lion weighs 500 pounds on average, while The Siberian tiger weighs 600 pounds. Is it true? I just found this information on

    Is this true? I have browsed a lot of websites online, some rate lions as bigger than tigers while some rate tigers as bigger than lion. Who is bigger? Just so much confused?

  9. John Baez says:

    Summit aims to save tiger from extinction, Morning Edition, 24 November, 2010.

    Only 3200 tigers remain alive outside captivity, and they live just 13 countries. The World Bank and Vladimir Putin — a self-described tiger enthusiast who got a cub as a birthday present in 2008 and has been videotaped tranquilizing a female tiger and putting a radio tracking collar on her — teamed up to host a ‘tiger summit’, with the aim of doubling their population within 12 years. Keeping them from going extinct in the wild will already be hard.

  10. John Baez says:

    • Rowan Jacobson, Number one with a bullet, Outside, 30 August 2011.

    What does India’s lush Kaziranga National Park have that the rest of the country’s decimated reserves do not? Plenty of tigers, for starters. (The world’s highest ­density.) Fleets of endangered one-horned rhinos. (More than two-thirds of the remaining population.) And, since last year, a take-no-prisoners antipoaching policy that allows rangers to shoot on sight. Welcome to the future of conservation.

    Is the shoot-on-sight policy really the main reason for the success of Kaziranga National Park, or is this article hyping that policy because it will excite the American hunters who subscribe to Outside? I don’t know. But the article certainly does succeed in giving wildlife conservation a badass image:

    To keep the megafauna capital of the universe going strong, it helps to shoot first and ask questions later.

  11. […] Sumatran tigers have webbing between their toes, which makes them really good swimmers! They get up to 2.5 meters long, but they’re is the smallest of tigers, as you might expect from a species on a hot tropical island. (The biggest is the Siberian tiger, which I talked about earlier.) […]

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