EXISTING SUBSPECIES : Siberian Tiger

Siberian_tiger_-_in Copenhagen_Zoo,_Denmark (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

The biggest of eight tiger subspecies, also the largest living feline, Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), also known as Amur, Ussuri, North Chinese, Altaic or Korean tiger once ranged throughout Western and Central Asia and eastern Russia, and as far east as Alaska during prehistoric times. At present this animal is confined to the wilderness of Amur-Ussuri region of Primorsky Krai and Khabarovsk Krai in far eastern Siberia and it is also protected by law. The largest cat of this subspecies can attain weight of up to 320 kg (710 lb).

The fur of Amur tiger is reasonably thick, coarse and sparse as compared to other felines. The Far Eastern Siberian tiger’s winter and summer coats contrast sharply with other subspecies in comparison to the now-extirpated westernmost populations. The pelt in western populations is attractive, brighter and more uniform than that of the Far Eastern population. While, the summer coat is coarse, the winter fur is denser, longer, softer and silkier and it often appears quite shaggy on the trunk and is noticeably longer on the head, almost covering the ears. Result is stripes emerge broader with less defined outlines. The whiskers and hairs at the back of the skull and on the top of the neck are also considerably elongated. Compared to the summer coat, the background colour of the winter coat is less bright and rusty and tends to be more pale yellow.

Size and weight

As compared to the Bengal or Royal Bengal tigers that are approximately 107-110 cm (42-43 inches) tall, the Siberian cousins are about 5 to 10 cm (2.0–3.9 in) taller at the shoulders. This claim has been often disputed. Males are 270 to 330 cm (110–130 in) long and weigh 180 to 306 kg (400–670 lb) even up to 320 kg (710 lb) in extreme cases; female measures 240 to 275 cm (94–108 inches) in length and weighs from 100 to 167 kg (220–370 lb). The largest male, with largely assured references, measured 350 cm in total length. The body mass of the individuals belonging to the now extinct western race was generally less massive than that of their Far Eastern family members, and their average size was also slightly less.

According to a research on wild Siberian tigers of Sikhote-Alin, average adult male (>35 months) weighs 176.4 kg (389 lb). The mean weight of historical Siberian tigers is supposed to be higher: 215.3 kg (475 lb) for males and 137.5 kg (303 lb) for females. Disputing the popular belief that the Siberian tigers are the largest cats, Dale Miquelle, program director of the Siberian Tiger Project, wrote that, despite repeated claims in the popular literature that the Siberian is the largest of all tigers, their measurements on more than fifty captured individuals suggest that it’s body size is, in fact, similar to that of Bengal tiger. Measurements, taken by the scientists of the Project in Sikhote-Alin, show that the average head and body length was 195 cm (77 in) (ranging from 178 to 208 cm (70–82 in)) for the males and 174 cm (69 in) (ranging from 167 to 182 cm (66–72 in)) for females.

Siberian tiger skull is distinguished by its larger overall size and greatly developed sagittal crest. On the basis of skull measurements, scientists have drawn a conclusion that the biggest Siberians came from Manchuria, where today the cats are reduced to a handful of individuals. The largest skull from Manchuria recorded 406 mm (16.0 in) length, which is 20 to 30 mm (0.79–1.2 in) more than the maximum skull lengths achieved by tigers from the Amur region and northern India.

Siberian Tigress with cub -- 1Reproduction

Age for sexual maturity of Amur tigers is four years. Once they reach that stage they can mate at any time of the year. While in the process of mating female spends 5 to 7 days with male and during this period she is receptive only for three days. Before this she attracts her mate by leaving scratch marks and urine deposits on trees in her territory. Gestation period is from 90 to 105 days after which two to four blind cubs are born in well concealed and sheltered hideout. Place is carefully selected so that when tigress leaves in search of food nobody reaches the cubs that are extremely vulnerable to predation.

At birth cubs are divided equally between genders. Female offspring remain with their mothers for longer period of time and later establish their territories closer to their original ranges. Whereas males undertake, long journeys away from their family and range farther earlier in their lives.

Genetics: Caspian tiger in Siberian Tiger !!!

New researches conducted on Siberian tigers and the preserved remains of extinct Caspian Tigers (P.t. virgata) have shown that both share a comparatively recent common history, at least when it comes to mtDNA lineages. It seems that striped cats colonized central Asia not more than 10,000 years ago, and the existing Siberian stock may be the result of a few Caspian tigers subsequently wandering east via northern Asia.

After the recent genetic analysis experts have started claiming that the extinct Caspian tiger lives on in the modern Siberian Tiger. Scholars from the Oxford University collected tissue samples from 20 Caspian tiger specimens preserved in museums across Eurasia. Researchers from the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in Frederick, Maryland, sequenced parts of five mitochondrial genes. What came out was the Caspian Tiger’s mitochondrial DNA is only one letter of genetic code separated from Siberian Tiger DNA, while it is easily distinguishable from the DNA of other subspecies. This means the Caspian and the Siberian tigers are actually one. It was also concluded that the two subspecies are so similar because both have come from the same migrating ancestor that colonized Central Asia via the narrow Gansu Corridor from eastern China. It is also suggested that through the early 20th century, Siberian and Caspian populations intermingled, but hunters subsequently isolated the two groups resulting in the Siberian population splitting off from the Caspian population only in the past century. A Genetic research conducted in 2009 has also revealed that the current Siberian population is almost identical to the Caspian tiger, a western population once thought to have been a distinct subspecies.

Behaviour

Siberian tigers can kill almost any animal for food ranging from deer to horse and wild boar to dogs, but the surprising thing is that the Asian Black and Ussuri Brown Bears, which themselves are quite fierce animal, are also on their menu list. To entice bears some tigers have been reported of imitating the Asiatic black bear calls. It has been observed that Brown bears are attacked by tigers more often than black bears, perhaps, due to inhabiting more open areas and their inability to climb trees. While going for bear, the big cat positions itself from the leeward side of a rock or fallen tree, waiting for the prey to pass by. As the bear passes, the tiger springs from an overhead position and grabs the bear from under the chin with one forepaw and the throat with the other. The immobilized prey is then killed with a powerful bite to the spinal column. Once, the bear is dead process of eating starts from groin, back and hams, which are the spots of fat deposits in the dead animal.

Siberian Tigress -- Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Tigers are also aware of the dangers of attacking bears. So they do this only when ungulate population decreases and there is food scarcity. Despite the fact that Siberian big cats can successfully hunt bears, there are also instances when brown bears succeeded in killing tigers. This happens either in dispute over prey or in self-defence. There is also an instance in which bear ate up a tiger. Both kinds of examples are there. On one hand bears have been observed changing their path after coming across tiger trails, on the other bears following tiger tracks with no indications of fear.

History

Siberian tiger, formerly known in its western range as Caspian tiger, has never been a simple beast for the people who shared the region with this magnificent cat. It has always overawed them with its power, strength, stealth, agility and the chilling horror. People of Tunguska, an ill-defined region of Siberia, revered it almost like a deity and often referred to it as “Grandfather” or “Old man“. The Udege that lived in the Primorsky Krai and Khabarovsk Krai regions of Russia and Nanai people called it “Amba“. The Manchu people, who originated in Manchuria (today’s northeastern China), regarded it as Hu Lin meaning the king. Not only that the most elite unit of the Chinese Imperial Army in Manchu Qing Dynasty is called Hu Shen Ying, literally meaning The Tiger God Battalion.

Heavy persecution

Despite being revered in some cultures and communities, Siberian tiger has faced heavy persecution too, which ultimately resulted in pushing it to near extinction. Till 19th century the subspecies inhabited wide areas of Western and Central Asia. In the middle of the century tigers were killed 180 km northeast of Atbara, Kazakhstan and near Barnaul, Russia. The only reported tiger from Iraq was killed near Mosul in 1887 (Kock 1990). In 1899, the last of the subspecies was killed near the Lop Nur basin in Xinjiang, China (Ognev 1935). It disappeared from the Tarim River basin in Xinjiang, China, by the 1920s. (Nowell & Jackson 1996). The last known animal in the Caucasus region was killed near Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1922 after it killed domestic livestock (Ognev 1935). The last record of the tiger on the Ili River, their last stronghold in the region of Lake Balkhash, Kazakhstan, dates to 1948. (Nowell & Jackson 1996)

The Russian Civil War was one of the main causes for vanishing of the tigers. In the initial years of War, both White and Red armies in Vladivostok nearly wiped out the local Siberian tiger population. In 1935, when the Manchurian Chinese were driven back across the Amur and the Ussuri, the tigers had already withdrawn from their northern and western range. The handful of cats that remained in the East Manchurian Mountains were cut off from the main population by the building of railroads. Very soon the last viable tiger population was confined to Ussuriland. Till 1947 there was no ban on tiger hunting in the erstwhile Soviet Union which allowed numerous big cats to be killed without any check, but after 1947 when the government prohibited hunting situation started improving dramatically.

Siberian -- White Siberian Tigers prowling through the snow while blending in perfectlyIn fact it was the Russian government that worked heavily to exterminate this animal during planning a gigantic land reclamation programme in the initial years of the 20th century. In their scheme of things there was no room for the Caspian tiger so the army was given orders to kill all the big cats around the Caspian Sea. The task was carried out very efficiently. Once it is done the farmers cleared forests and planted crops. Intensive hunting and deforestation forced the cat to retreat first to the forested ranges from the lush lowlands, then further to the marshes around some bigger rivers, and finally, deeper into the mountains, until it almost became extinct. Sooner the government realised the need of saving these handsome cats so Tigrovaya Balka, a national park, was opened in Tajikistan in the undercurrent of Vakhsh River between the Piandj and Kafirnighan near Afghanistan border in 1938. Purpose was to save Riparian forests and rare animals, including the Tiger, but it didn’t work well at least for the tigers. The last of the Caspian tigers was seen there in 1958, which once used to be its stronghold in the country.

As a consequence of collapse of the Soviet Union in 1987 situation for Amur tigers became really bad. Administrative and government machinery became ineffective and the fear of law nullified. Vested interests became powerful causing denudation of forests, bribery of park authorities and break down of law and order became rampant. This made poaching an easy job putting the Siberian cat once again at the risk of becoming extinct. Fortunately, before the cats could be lost The Siberian Tiger Project founded in 1992, did commendable job and the subspecies started making a steady recovery and stabilization. One of the main causes responsible for the success has been meticulous research carried out on these animals which led to the longest ongoing study of a single tiger, Olga Project Tiger #1. This enabled the authorities to focus on improving the quality of habitat and decreasing tiger mortality besides strengthening anti-poaching patrols, consultation with local governments on man-animal conflicts, reducing forest felling and stopping other habitat depleting activities. Due to the efforts of the project the population of tigers that has gone down to 80-100 in 1960s, rose to 500 by 2010. In mid 1980s the estimated population was approximately 250 individuals.

Extermination of western populations

Some claim the last Caspian tiger was killed in Golestan National Park in Northern Iran in 1959 (Vuosalo 1976). Other reports say the last of the Chinese Caspian tigers vanished from Manasi River basin in Tian Shan mountains in the west of Ürümqi, China, in 1960s (Nowell & Jackson 1996). The last record from the lower reaches of the Amu Darya river near Lake Aral was an unconfirmed observation near Nukus in 1968, while tigers disappeared from the river’s lower reaches and the Pyzandh Valley once a stronghold, in the Turkmen-Uzbek-Afghan border region by the early 1970s (Heptner and Sludskii 1972). There are even claims of a documented killing at Uludere, Hakkari in Turkey during 1970 (Üstay 1990; Can 2004). Some claim the last tiger was captured and killed in Northeast Afghanistan in 1997.

The most often quoted date for the extinction of tigers is late 1950s, but it has almost no substantiation to back it up. It seems that this date came to be accepted after being quoted by H. Ziaie in “A Field Guide to the Mammals of Iran”. But whatever evidences have come out after the publication of the above book reflect an even earlier date of extinction. The area of Iran, which had the last Caspian tiger population, was in fact the eastern part of Mazandaran in Northern Iran. According to E. Firouz in “A Guide to the Fauna of Iran, 1999”, the last of the subspecies was killed near Agh-Ghomish Village, 10 km East of Kalaleh, on way to Minoodasht-Bojnoord in 1947. Exact date of extinction is not known.

Doubts about extinction of western population

The following excerpts are taken from “Can, O.E. 2004. Status, Conservation and Management of Large Carnivores in Turkey.

“Earlier in the 20th century, the presence of the Caspian tiger had been known by Turkish (Turkish Republic Official Gazette, 1937). Yet, when the Caspian tiger was declared extinct in the world, international zoologists did not accept the idea that the Caspian tiger distribution range extended as far as eastern Turkey (Dr. George Schaller, Ankara, Turkey, personal communication, 2003). In fact, the species was officially a pest species until July 11, 2004 in Turkey. In the 1970s, surveys conducted by Paul Joslin in Iran turned up no signs of the Caspian tiger and the conclusion was made that the Caspian tiger had been extirpated. International cat experts only became aware of the presence of the Caspian tiger in Turkey after a tiger was killed in Uludere, Þõrnak 1970 (Uludere was a sub-province of Hakkari in 1970). Three years later, a botanist visiting the area saw and photographed the tiger pelt and published the story (Baytop, 1974).”

Turkish scientists, during a study on the field, reached some information on the presence of the Caspian tiger.

“Within the framework of South-eastern Anatolia Biodiversity Research Project of WWF-Turkey, a survey was conducted to reveal the large mammal presence and distribution in the region (Can & Lise, 2004). Within the framework of the first attempt to collect systematically the large mammal data in South-eastern Turkey. First, a questionnaire was designed and distributed to 450 military posts in the region. The questionnaire included questions about the presence of large mammal species and each questionnaire was accompanied with Turkey’s Mammal Poster of Turkish Society for the Conservation of Nature (which became WWF-Turkey later). The questionnaires were filled out by military personnel in cooperation with the local people and 428 questionnaires were returned to WWF-Turkey. The questionnaires also included questions related with the historical tiger presence in the region. Later, the questionnaire results were used to identify the areas on which the field survey will focus.

The questionnaire revealed that some military personal had heard rumours about the presence of large cats in the region. During the interviews with local people, the mammal team collected rumours about big cat sightings and met local people that claimed to hear roaring from different sites. In addition, it was reported that there was a local tiger pelt trade in the region and three to five tigers were killed each year and the pelts were sold to rich land lords in Iraq until the mid-1980s. This confirms Turan’s findings (1984) who obtained his information from local hunters in the region. Baytop (1974) similarly reported that 1-8 tigers were killed each year in the Þõrnak region.

Considering that 1 to 8 tigers were killed each year in Eastern Turkey until the mid 1980s, the tiger that was killed in Uludere was a young individual according to the stripe patterns. The Caspian tiger is likely to have existed in the region at least until the early 1990s. Nevertheless, due to lack of interest in addition to security and safety reasons, trained biologists had not attempted to survey in Eastern Turkey before.”

Captivity

The wild population of Siberian tigers consist of several hundred animals most of which are found in eastern Russia; however, some are present in China and North Korea too. They are bred with the support of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), in a project based on 83 wild caught tigers. Today, around 165 tigers are participating in the SSP, which makes it the most widely bred tiger subspecies within the program. At present there are about 255 individuals in the tiger SSP from three different subspecies. Developed in 1982, the SSP for Siberians is the longest running program for a tiger subspecies. The EEP (European Endangered Species Programme) Siberian tiger population is larger than the SSP population, in the EEP there are about 235 Siberian tigers, and the EEP also have more wild-caught Founders than the SSP Siberian tiger population.

This subspecies can be bred in captivity without much problem, but the likelihood of survival for animals bred in captivity and later released in the wild are very small. In such circumstances conservation efforts that secure the wild population are very crucial. If a captive bred tiger were to be released in the wild, it would not have the necessary hunting skills; as a result there will be a greater risk of its dying due to starvation. Such animals can also come close to human habitations in search of food, since they have learned to associate humans with feeding and lack the natural shyness of the wild tigers. In such a situation there is very likelihood of hungry tigers becoming man-eaters. In wild tigers are taught by their mothers how to hunt when they are still cubs, but the tigers bred in captivity do not get such chances. In such a situation the programme aimed to release captive bred tigers into the wild would create great difficulties.

Attacks on humans

In contrast to Bengal or Royal Bengal subspecies, Siberian tigers have been rarely known to have attacked humans or becoming man-eater. Most of the cases that have been recorded of Siberians attacking humans are from 19th century, occurring generally in Far East, central Asia (excluding Turkmenistan) and Kazakhstan. Despite the recorded attacks on shepherds in the lower reaches of Ili, these animals have never been considered dangerous unless provoked. In Far East, during the middle and third quarter of the 19th century, attacks on man were recorded. In China’s Jilin Province, Caspian tigers reportedly attacked woodsmen and coachmen, and seldom entered cabins and took away people. On Tsymukha River tigers killed 21 men and injured 6 others in 1867.

According to Japanese Police Bureau in Korea, in 1928, striped cats claimed just one human life, whereas leopards killed three, wild boars four and wolves 48. In 20th century Russia only six cases of unprovoked attacks leading to man-eating were recorded, while provoked attacks were however more common, usually the result of messed up attempts of capturing the big cats.

In an incident, which took place on 25 December 2007 at the San Francisco Zoo, an Amur tiger named Tatiana escaped from the enclosure and killed a visitor also injured two others. Soon police shot it dead. There are also cases of zoo keepers in Anhui province; Shanghai; Shen Zhen, People’s Republic of China were respectively attacked and killed in 2010.

Russia-Iran Re-population project

Experts from Russia and Iran are planning a joint project to reintroduce Asiatic Cheetahs and Caspian Tigers into the wilderness of Central Asia. These cats were wiped out from the said region some half a century ago. Caspian Tiger from Iran and Asiatic Cheetah from Russia have been exterminated. After the recent studies have proved that Siberian (or Russian) Tiger is virtually identical to the extinct Caspian Tiger, the Russians want to offer their Tiger to Iran to repopulate the former range of Caspian Tiger in northern Iran. In exchange, they want some critically endangered Asiatic Cheetahs from Iran to reintroduce them in the northern Caucasus region of central Asia, their last abode. While there are good numbers of healthy Russian Tigers in the captive breeding programme in various zoos, there is no captive-bred population of Asiatic Cheetah in any zoos anywhere. Many experts do not endorse the move for relocating these animals. Their fear is the limited gene pool of Asiatic Cheetah in Iran will suffer a tremendous blow.

Russia has exchanged 2 captive Amur Tigers for Persian Leopards with the Iran Government in 2010, as conservation groups of both the countries have agreed on restocking these animals back into the wild within the next 5 years. Some experts, however, doubt even this plan as they feel that this is a political publicity exercise.

Saving the Siberian Tiger

According to the Save Tiger Fund, wild tiger numbers worldwide have slid from around 100,000 as recently as early 1900’s to as low as 3200 in 2010 (WWF). Extinction appears ominous for the Siberian tiger, which are thought to be around 500 at present, claimed to be the world’s largest cat. A 2009 report by the Siberian Tiger Monitoring Program, which was coordinated by the Wildlife Conservation Society in association with Russian government organizations amongst others, revealed that recent Siberian tiger numbers have plummeted by 41 per cent.

In late 2009, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin unveiled a one billion dollar effort to save the Siberian tiger. An international summit with the World Bank in Vladivostok, Russia, in September 2010 has set the goal of doubling wild tiger population worldwide to 6500 by 2022.

China establishes world’s largest Siberian tiger breeding base

China established the world’s largest Siberian tiger breeding base named “Heilongjiang Northeast Tiger Forest Park” in 1986. The stated object of the park is to build a Siberian tiger gene pool to ensure the genetic diversity of the animal. The introduced measures are such that the Park and its existing tiger population would be further divided into two parts, one as the protective species for genetic management and the other as the ornamental species. This has been a very successful project. When the Park was established it had only 8 tigers. China says it has nearly 6,000 tigers (of all species) in captivity, but just 50 to 60 are left in the wild, including about 20 Siberian tigers.

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