SUNY-ESF

Study from SUNY-ESF researchers may give new hope to legacy of extinct tiger species

Courtesy of SUNY-ESF

Mikhail Paltsyn poses with a taxidermied Amur tiger, the subspecies his research team hopes can repopulate Central Asia.

A close relative of the long-extinct Caspian tiger — the largest tiger subspecies in history — may be the key to bringing tigers back to Central Asia.

A team of researchers that includes scientists from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry recently published a study in the journal “Biological Conservation,” analyzing the best possible regions in which to reintroduce a tiger population to Central Asia. This is a major step in a process that has already taken nearly 10 years, according to a SUNY-ESF press release.

The plan is to repopulate the identified region, the Ili-Balkhash region of western Kazakhstan, with Amur tigers, a subspecies so genetically similar to the Caspian that they should be considered one species, according to the Global Tiger Initiative’s website.

While the Amur tiger currently resides in the Russian Far East, the Caspian tiger once roamed vast expanses of Asia, from modern-day Turkey through Central Asia to northwestern China.

“When (the Caspian) disappeared, the number of nations that hosted tiger populations was reduced by more than half,” said James Gibbs, a member of the research team and a conservation biologist who is director of the Roosevelt Wild Life Station at SUNY-ESF, in the release.

During the era of Soviet control in Central Asia, a variety of factors decimated the Caspian population, eventually leading to its extinction. The main threats to the population were state-sponsored hunting, agrarian reforms that destroyed their habitat and the resulting loss of their prey there. The subspecies was designated as extinct in the mid-1960s.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the abandonment of the harmful agricultural projects, the reed thickets and wetlands that make up a tiger’s ideal habitat have had the chance to regrow.  The sites that the research group have focused their efforts on are the Ili River delta and adjacent southern coast of Balkhash Lake, per the release.

The Amur tiger also has a healthy, sizeable population, according to the release, and relocating approximately 50 tigers would not harm the current ecosystem in the Russian Far East.

Gibbs, along with two other scientists from SUNY-ESF and two scientists with the World Wide Fund for Nature, found that there are further obstacles to overcome before the plan can be implemented. Mikhail Paltsyn, an ESF doctoral candidate, identified four such obstacles in the release:

  • Uncontrolled fires in the identified habitat zones must be stopped.
  • Hoofed animals, the tiger’s ideal prey, must be restored to the region first. This may take five to 15 years.
  • The safety of the local human population and how they can socio-economically benefit from a new population of wild tigers needs to be established.
  • Water consumption in the Ili River must be regulated in both Kazakhstan and China in order to ensure adequate habitat conditions.

The government of Kazakhstan has already voiced their support for the reintroduction of Amur tigers when it was proposed in 2010 at the Global Tiger Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The study was funded by Russia’s WWF branch and NASA’s Land Cover Land Use Change Program grant to ESF.

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