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Vladimir Putin Really Loves Tigers — And It's Actually Making a Difference in the World

A recent World Wildlife Fund census found as many as 540 Siberian tigers living in Russia’s eastern forests, which is up from no more than 40 in the mid-twentieth century.
Photo via RIA Novosti/Reuters

Here's a rare bit of good news from conservationists: Russian tigers poached nearly to extinction seem to be making a comeback.

A recent census found as many as 540 Amur tigers living in Russia's eastern forests, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). That's an improvement over the last count, in 2005, which found between 423 and 502 of the tigers. In the 1940s, their numbers were no more than 40.


"It seems to have increased quite significantly, and that's extremely encouraging," Barney Long, director of species conservation for the WWF, told VICE News. "The fact that [the Russians] can sustain that over such a large area over time is what's really impressive."

Amur tigers, also known as Siberian tigers, are the largest tiger subspecies in the world. They also live farther north than any other tiger, historically inhabiting Russia, northeast China, the Korean Peninsula, and northeast Mongolia.

But due to poaching and habitat loss, they're now confined almost entirely to Russia's Far East, where the few remaining tigers roam a vast area of nearly 700,000 square miles, about the size of Alaska. Legal hunting in the 19th century drove their numbers down so badly that by the end of the 1930s, when a Russian biologist conducted the first survey of the species, less than 30 of them remained on the planet, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

'It's great to see an increase, but it's still got a ways to go.'

Russia has had strict anti-poaching measures in place for at least the last two decades, Long said, and has taken additional measures in recent years to create new parks and protect the tigers' prey animals. In 2010, the country banned logging of the Korean pine, which provides food for the deer and boar that tigers rely on to survive the harsh winter months.

"The success has really been primarily due to political leadership," Long told VICE News. "We're talking such a vast area in the Russian forest, that to make impacts across that entire area you really need high-level political support."


But even with the improvements, the tigers are a long way off from being in the clear, said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. Most research shows that the minimum number of animals for a healthy, sustainable species ranges somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 individuals.

"It's not like the population is skyrocketing," Greenwald told VICE News. "It's great to see an increase, but it's still got a ways to go."

The 540 tigers found in this census also includes about 100 cubs, which is a worrying point, Greenwald said. Many of the cubs are unlikely to survive to adulthood, when they can reproduce. A 2003 WCS study of Amur tigers found that between 41 and 47 percent of cubs die before they reach their first birthdays.

Related: China outlaws the eating of tiger penis, rhino horn, and other endangered animal products

To save the tigers in the long run, it's crucial that the Russians continue strict enforcement of anti-poaching laws, said Michael Russello, a biologist with the University of British Columbia who's studied the tigers.

"Conservation efforts in this region are critical to the long-term viability of the subspecies," Russello told VICE News. "It will be especially important that current efforts to curtail poaching continue to be expanded and enforced."

Amur tigers are hunted for their fur, bones, and other body parts, which are frequently used in traditional Chinese medicine. Hunters often illegally kill deer and boar, threatening the tigers' prey population. And as roads reach ever further into remote regions to support logging and development, the tigers are in danger of being struck and killed from vehicles.

Because of all of these threats, WCS estimates that humans are responsible for up to 85 percent of all Amur tiger deaths.

"I'm encouraged that numbers of Amur tigers are going up," Greenwald told VICE News. "But with roughly 500 individuals in the world, they remain very endangered."

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Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro