On a clear winter day in Russia’s far east, a huge cat races across the glittering snow, chased by a helicopter. As a sharpshooter with rifle in hand leans out of the helicopter, the tiger leaps up a tree and roars a challenge. The man fires. The helicopter lands, and its occupants cautiously approach the stricken beast.
ARE the men poachers? No, they are researchers who use tranquilizer darts. They have come to study one of the most endangered animals on earth, the elusive Siberian tiger.
A Magnificent Creature
Siberian tigers once roamed Korea, northern China, Mongolia, and as far west as Lake Baikal, in Russia. But over the past century, their numbers have dwindled. Their last retreat is a remote range of mountains north of Vladivostok, Russia, by the Sea of Japan.
Tigers get to know each other well by their scent, and this allows male tigers to seek out females when it is time to mate. Tiger cubs are born two or three at a time, blind and squirming. Unlike kittens, however, Siberian tigers never learn to purr. Growling softly, they drink their mother’s milk for five or six months and then begin to eat meat. Initially they go on hunting trips with their mother but are not ready to hunt on their own until 18 months of age. Young tigers may stay with their mother for up to two years. Then they leave and establish their own territory.
In the wild, some of these tigers grow to be very large. Males may weigh about 600 pounds [270 kg] and reach a length of more than ten feet [3 m], including the tail. The tigers are well-equipped for cold, snowy winters. Thick fur covers their body, and the tiger’s huge feet are padded with fur that serves as a snowshoe.
Siberian tigers have a pattern of dark stripes on orange fur. Unique to each tiger, their stripes make it possible to distinguish one tiger from another as surely as fingerprints distinguish people. In the forest the tiger’s markings and colors often make a stationary tiger undetectable. But if a tiger comes out in the open in winter, it shows up clearly against the snow. This visibility in winter does not escape the notice of the tiger’s only predator, man.
Its Survival Threatened
To survive, the Siberian tiger must bring down large animals, including deer, elk, and boars. But such prey have become few in the wilds of eastern Siberia. A forest area of 500 square miles [1,000 km2] might provide enough game for only four or five tigers. So if Siberian tigers are to survive in the wild, they must have sufficient territory.
For many years Siberia’s immense and inaccessible forests provided ideal territory for these great tigers. Humans, who pose the only serious threat to the cats’ existence, seldom ventured there. In recent times, however, lumber companies from abroad have been clear-cutting much of the forest cover.
As the trees disappear, so do the deer, elk, and boars, as well as the Siberian tigers. To help stop their decline, the Russian government maintains large wildlife preserves, such as the Sikhote Alin Nature Reserve. But when the tigers travel outside these areas, they expose themselves to poachers involved in the trade of exotic souvenirs. Tiger teeth, claws, bones, and pelts, including those of young cubs, all fetch a high price.
Saving the Tiger
Greater efforts are being made to save the Siberian tiger, and local inhabitants have taken the lead in these. As a result, the Siberian tiger has made a modest recovery. A census carried out in 2005 found that between 430 and 540 tigers live in Siberia.
On the other hand, Siberian tigers in captivity breed readily and do relatively well. There are more than 500 Siberian tigers in zoos around the world. So why not release some of these and replenish the number of tigers in the wild? Scientists hesitate to do that. “There is little point in releasing an animal into the wild,” one researcher explained, “unless its future safety can be assured.”
The Siberian tiger is sometimes called the Amur tiger, since these animals are now found mainly in the Amur River basin of the Russian far east.
THE LARGEST CAT
The Siberian tiger is exceeded in size by the liger, the offspring of a lion and a tigress. Ligers may grow to exceed 10 feet [3 m] in length and can weigh over 1,000 pounds [500 kg]. The liger is bred in zoos and is rarely, if ever, found in the wild.