Nav: Home

Tigers could roam again in Central Asia, scientists say

January 17, 2017

Caspian tigers, some of the largest cats that ever lived -- up to 10 feet long and weighing more than 300 pounds -- met a grim end in the middle of the 20th century.

Until the mid-1960s when they were designated as extinct, they ranged from modern-day Turkey through much of Central Asia, including Iran and Iraq, to northwestern China. The reasons for their extermination are many: poisoning and trapping were promoted by bounties paid in the former Soviet Union until the 1930s; irrigation projects during the Soviet era destroyed the tugay woodlands (a riparian and coastal ecosystem of trees, shrubs and wetlands) and reed thickets that were critical tiger habitat; and the cats' prey disappeared as the riparian habitat vanished.

But there is a chance that tigers -- using a subspecies that is nearly identical, genetically, to the extinct Caspian -- could be restored to Central Asia.

A study published online in the journal Biological Conservation lays out the options for restoring tigers to Central Asia and identifies a promising site in Kazakhstan that could support a population of nearly 100 tigers within 50 years.

"The territory of the Caspian tiger was vast," said Professor James Gibbs, a member of the research team and a conservation biologist who is director of the Roosevelt Wild Life Station at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, New York. "When they disappeared, the number of nations that hosted tiger populations was reduced by more than half."

The researchers say introducing tigers in a couple of locations in Kazakhstan won't make a widespread difference immediately but it would be an important first step.

"The idea of tiger reintroduction in Central Asia using the Amur tiger from the Russian Far East as an 'analog' species has been discussed for nearly 10 years. It met with considerable support from the government of Kazakhstan in 2010 during the Global Tiger Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia," said Mikhail Paltsyn, an ESF doctoral candidate who oversaw analytical aspects of the study.

"But the program needed a strong scientific foundation to evaluate the full habitat potential for tigers and to better explore different possible outcomes of the reintroduction in different scenarios," Paltsyn said.

In addition to Paltsyn and Gibbs, the research team includes ESF scientists Liza Yegorova, a recent master's graduate; Dr. Igor Chestin, director of WWF-Russia; and Dr. Olga Pereladova, director of WWF Central Asia Program. Paltsyn is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Cat Specialist Group and has served as a consultant with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and United Nations Development Programme.

The scientists say two factors have combined to raise the possibility of restoring tigers to the Ili-Balkhash region of western Kazakhstan:
    * The breakup of the Soviet Union and introduction of market economies in newly established states has led to the recovery of tiger habitats in some areas as state-sponsored agricultural programs along rivers were abandoned.

    * Recent work in phylogenetics (the study of evolutionary history) indicates Caspian tigers were closely related to Amur tigers that still exist, making Amur tigers a likely "analog" species for restoration of tigers to the region.

But Paltsyn laid out the challenges that would need to be addressed before tigers start roaming the landscape again.

"First, it is necessary to stop riparian zone degradation caused by uncontrolled fires. Second, it is vital to restore wild ungulate (broadly defined as a hoofed mammal) populations in the area. That, alone, could take five to 15 years," Paltsyn said. "Third, human safety and socio-economic benefits for local populations need to be addressed to provide a sustainable future for both tigers and people. And, finally, water consumption from the Ili River needs to be regulated in both Kazakhstan and China to support sufficient water level in Balkash Lake for tugay and reed ecosystems - the main tiger habitat. However, WWF and the government of Kazakhstan seem to be ready to deal with all these difficult issues to bring tigers back to Central Asia."

Tiger reintroduction has support from the Kazakhstan government and local communities because of potential economic benefit from wildlife tourism, small-business growth and employment opportunities at Ili-Balkhash Nature Reserve.

In the study, the researchers analyzed scientific literature that revealed Caspian tigers once lived in an area about 800,000 to 900,000 square kilometers in size (between 300,000 and 350,000 square miles), mostly within isolated patches of riparian ecosystems (land along rivers or streams). Generally, two or three tigers occupied an area that covered about 100 square kilometers (about 40 square miles).

Spatial analyses based on remote sensing data indicated that options for Amur tiger introduction are limited in Central Asia. But at least two habitat patches are potentially suitable for tiger re-establishment, both in Kazakhstan. When the researchers considered current land use and the low density of the local human population, they found the most promising site is the Ili River delta and adjacent southern coast of Balkhash Lake. The river flows from northwestern China into southeastern Kazakhstan; it drains into Balkhash Lake, the 15th largest lake in the world.

The team identified about 7,000 square kilometers (about 2,700 square miles) of suitable habitat. Population models for animals that tigers typically prey on -- wild boar, Bukhara deer and roe deer -- suggest the area could support a population of between 64 and 98 tigers within 50 years if 40 to 55 tigers are introduced.

The Amur tiger is apparently the only subspecies that has significantly increased in number in the last 65 years. Scientists estimate some 520 to 540 still live in the wild. Moving some of them from the Russian Far East to the Ili River delta could be enough to eventually establish a wild population in 50 years, and would not harm the Russian population, the study says.

Around the world, similar relocation programs have worked for cat populations. The study says: "... case studies suggest high adaptive potential of big cats to novel environments. We know of no large cat translocation programs that failed strictly due to maladaptation of source population to environment of release."
-end-
This study was supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Russia) (grant #WWF566) and NASA's Land Cover Land Use Change Program (grant #NNX15AD42G) to ESF.

SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Related Tigers Articles:

Mental health disorders rife in post-conflict areas
A new study has found that 58 percent of people displaced following the civil war in Sri Lanka have suffered mental health problems.
Climate change may destroy tiger's home
A James Cook University scientist says the last coastal stronghold of an iconic predator, the endangered Bengal tiger, could be destroyed by climate change and rising sea levels over the next 50 years.
Urbanization may hold key to tiger survival
A new WCS-led study published in the journal Biological Conservation says the future of tigers in Asia is linked the path of demographic transition -- for humans.
NSU researcher part of team that conducted genome-wide study of tigers
Study brings important context and conclusions to recovery and management strategies for a treasured endangered species, and included subspecies, at high extinction risk.
Genome-wide study confirms 6 tiger subspecies
Fewer than 4,000 free-ranging tigers remain in the wild. Efforts to protect these remaining tigers have also been stymied by uncertainty about whether they represent six, five or only two subspecies.
Research methods that find serial criminals could help save tigers
A geographic profiling tool used to catch serial criminals could help reduce the casualties of human-tiger conflict, according to scientists who collaborated on an innovative conservation research study.
Tigers cling to survival in Sumatra's increasingly fragmented forests
A research expedition tracked endangered tigers through the Sumatran jungles for a year and found tigers are clinging to survival in low density populations.
Sumatran tigers on path to recovery in 'in danger' UNESCO World Heritage site
A new scientific publication from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park Authority looks at the effectiveness of the park's protection zone and finds that the density of Sumatran tigers has increased despite the continued threat of living in an 'In Danger' World Heritage Site.
News from WCS: Tiger breakthrough: Camera trap time stamps provide valuable data for conservationist
Spatial capture-recapture model analysis is often used to estimate tiger abundance.
Limited gene flow between 2 Bengal tiger populations in the western Himalayan foothills
The flow of genes between Bengal tigers in two reserves of the Terai Arc Landscape in western Himalayan foothills is too low, according to a study published April 26, 2017, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Surendra Prakash Goyal from Wildlife Institute of India, India, and colleagues.
More Tigers News and Tigers Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.