In a landmark effort WWF is supporting a project aiming to return tigers to their ancestral home in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s Caspian tiger was declared extinct 70 years ago after falling victim to habitat loss, systematic hunting by military troops and reduction of prey – mainly boar and Bukhara deer. But today with the leadership ofthe Government of Kazakhstan and the promise of the ecologically significant region of Ili-Balkhash long-term tiger recovery is within our grasp. If successful it could mark the first international tiger reintroduction in history, and will be an invaluable opportunity to secure the future of this big cat.
Grigory Mazmanyants, Director of the Central Asia Programme for WWF-Russia, tells us more about the project.
HOW WAS THE REINTRODUCTION SITE SELECTED?
Two areas were proposed for potential reintroduction based on an initial analysis of lands in Central Asia using materials from the “Econet Central Asia” project. With WWF-Russia’s support, an expert group studied these potential sites from 2005-2009 and found that the most promising conditions for tiger restoration are on the Ili River delta and the south shores of Lake Balkhash. Here there are significant natural tiger habitats, although they are partially settled by humans and used for grazing livestock.
COULD YOU EXPLAIN THE STEPS INVOLVED IN THE TIGER REINTRODUCTION PROGRAMME?
It will take at least 15 years, and will include three key stages: First – habitat preparation. This started in 2018 and will last until 2024. The release phase will last another nine years, until 2033. In the programme we speak about the translocation of at least ten tigers in this period, starting with three individuals: two females and one male. Finally the programme monitoring will start in 2033 and continue for at least 15 years. This involves control and population monitoring, developing sustainable management, ecological tourism and so on.
HOW ARE YOU PREPARING THE LANDSCAPE FOR TIGERS?
We’re doing a number of things such as establishing a protected area to ensure protection and increasing the prey base up to 25 individuals per 1000 ha, as well as reforesting at least 10,000 ha of riparian forest. Importantly, we are consulting and working with communities throughout the process, and will be developing prevention mechanisms for potential human-wildlife-conflict issues, as well as preparing compensation mechanisms in the even that any cattle are lost to tigers. We are also constructing enclosures for temporary holding of tigers so they can be monitored closely to ensure they are fit for release.
WHERE WILL THE TIGERS COME FROM?
The tigers will come from the Russian Far East, as DNA analysis has shown that the Amur tiger is the closest living relative to the Caspian tiger that once lived in Kazakhstan.
WHAT WILL THE TRANSLOCATION PROCESS LOOK LIKE?
They will be captured in the wild, and after receiving veterinary care they will be transported by special aircraft for six hours, by helicopter for two hours, and finally released into an enclosure in the Ili-Balkhash Landscape.
HOW MANY TIGERS COULD ILI-BALKHASH SUPPORT IN THE FUTURE?
The area has the capacity to support 120 tigers if there is sufficient prey. We will need to ensure the population is sustainably managed perhaps with nature based tourism in place.
WHAT KIND OF CHALLENGES DOES A PROJECT OF THIS SCALE FACE?
Well there are a lot – but the biggest thing is that we need to involve a lot of people: reserve staff, locals and officials. Reforestation, reintroduction, increasing the prey et cetera – this is all possible with money. But even with billions of dollars it is not possible to finish the project without people, their professionalism, support and as most importantly – their wish to do it.
THE CASPIAN TIGER WENT EXTINCT IN KAZAKHSTAN NEARLY 70 YEARS AGO, DUE TO FAMILIAR CHALLENGES. HOW DO WE KNOW HISTORY WON’T REPEAT ITSELF?
There are three main reasons tigers went extinct. First, it was perceived as a threat. The common position was ‘kill the tiger!’. That situation has changed. Today the tiger is a protected species, and tiger tourism is a potential source of income, so their presence can be positive. We need to be certain that the communities are fully in support of the project, putting in place every measure to ensure human- wildlife conflict is mitigated.
Second, the level of prey was decimated by unregulated hunting. The Bukhara deer, for instance, went extinct in Ili-Balkhash in 1912. Nowadays we have a reserve, nature protection as well as a hunting free zone.
Finally, agriculture development – cutting trees and reeds, increased cattle, overgrazing and so on contributed to the Caspian tiger’s extinction. We now have a chance to steer future development in a sustainable direction that supports both people and tigers.
THIS IS A MAJOR PROJECT. THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE SCENES MUST BE DEDICATED. ON A PERSONAL NOTE, WHY DO YOU CARE SO MUCH ABOUT BRINGING TIGERS BACK TO KAZAKHSTAN?
I started to work for nature protection 35 years ago. It is the opportunity of a lifetime to be involved in such an ambitious conservation project. We are not only conserving and stabilising a situation, but we are on the counter attack in the fight to protect nature, and I want to be in the front row!
Find out more about the work being done to double global tiger numbers in our 2019 Annual Report, out now!