Twenty-five years ago wild tigers in China were on the brink of extinction.
Centuries of hunting combined with habitat loss and declining numbers of prey meant the future seemed bleak for wild tigers in China. But in an unexpected turn-around, tigers are beginning to disperse from Russia into China and there’s been a rapid increase in political support for tiger conservation.
And in more positive news, a recent peer-reviewed paper* by Qi et al (2021) co-authored by Peiqi Liu who leads WWF-China’s Northeast China office, describes how there is potentially room for more than 300 tigers across four landscapes in Northeast China.
This new study has arrived at a critical time given the upcoming Tiger Summit in 2022, which is to be hosted across the border in Vladivostok, Russia. This is a unique opportunity for Tiger Range Country governments, including China, to commit to goals that will secure a future for tigers.
Between 2013 and 2018 camera-trapping across Northeast China identified more than 50 individual tigers. The vast majority of these are in the Northeast Tiger Leopard National Park (NTLNP) which is the largest protected area for tigers in the world. However tiger numbers here are lower than those in Russia and researchers wanted to understand why.
What is currently preventing tiger populations and ranges increasing in Northeast China?
The paper suggested that perhaps the biggest problem is a lack of suitable food, particularly large species such as Red deer. Tigers need to kill roughly 50 large sized prey per year and currently in China there’s enough large prey for about 50 tigers. But more than 300 tigers could be supported in the four landscapes based on the home range size of female tigers in Russia. To achieve this there is a strong need to recover large ungulate prey as the first step towards tiger recovery.
The study also highlighted the lack of connectivity between tiger habitats, warning it may be hindering tiger recovery. Monitoring and improving this connectivity has been identified by the Chinese government as a priority area of work. In some areas translocations and tiger reintroductions might be necessary to kick-start their recovery and expand their range. In May 2021 the Chinese authorities translocated a tiger into a remote area of NTLNP. This was the first ever wild-to-wild translocation of a tiger in China and presents a blueprint for such future work.
What is WWF-China doing?
Since 2006, WWF-China has been working with partners to conserve tigers in both Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces in Northeast China. Conservation efforts have been focused on anti-poaching patrols, habitat management and restoration, monitoring tiger and prey populations, prey recovery, mitigation of human-wildlife conflict and increasing public awareness. An ongoing project of WWF-China and The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, Welcoming Tigers back home - Phase 3, is supporting effective management protected areas, mitigating human wildlife conflict, and employ adaptive management for anti-poaching interventions in Changbai Mountain Landscape, one of the four landscapes included in the paper.
The impact of linear infrastructure, such as roads and railway lines, on habitat connectivity is being addressed by promoting policies which will support the creation of ecological corridors, ultimately connecting the four tiger habitats in Northeast China.
It’s encouraging to see China’s tiger population slowly increasing, and their conservation efforts in the last decade, combined with the insights from this new study, gives real hope to the future of tigers in the country.
Thomas Gray is the Tiger Recovery Lead at WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative
*The paper entitled ‘Integrated assessments call for establishing a sustainable meta-population of Amur tigers in northeast Asia’ is led by Feline Research Center of National and Grassland Administration, College of Wildlife and the Protected Area and Northeast Forestry University and WWF (co-authored by Peiqi Liu who leads WWF-China’s Northeast China office).