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Is “Extinct” Forever? Central Asia’s Caspian Tiger Traverses the Comeback Trail

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Caspian tiger on reedy riverbank.
In reeds tinged red in the Central Asian sun, a tiger once roamed. Will it again? (Illustration: Helmut Diller, WWF)

I imagine a tiger.

He’ll move through the forest and his days

Leaving his traces on the mud banks

Of a river whose name he doesn’t know.

In his world there are no names or past

Or future, only the certainty of now.

—Jorge Luis Borges, The Other Tiger

In reeds tinged red in the Central Asian sun, a tiger once roamed.  There, in riparian forests that line rivers like the Vakhsh on the border of the former Soviet country Tajikistan, the Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) prowled.

Tugai along a Central Asian river in winter.
Reedy, tangled forests, or tugai, line rivers in Central Asia; tugai was the haunt of the Caspian tiger. (Photograph: Victor Lukarevskii, WWF-Russia)

The tiger stalked Bukhara deer along tugai, thicketed watercourses that flow through Central Asia’s otherwise vast, arid deserts.  The tiger’s route took it across shaded rivers and onto muddy banks.  Peering into shoreline bracken, the tiger went on.  It crawled through a latticework of tangled low shrubs, emerging into the willow and poplar forests favored by the deer.

And into danger.

In the late 19th century, the Russian government instructed its Army to exterminate all tigers as part of an agricultural conversion project across Central Asia.  When Caspian tigers were almost gone, farmers moved in, clearing tugai and planting crops like cotton.  The tigers retreated, first from lowland streams, then finally from marshes around larger rivers.

Last stronghold of the Caspian tiger

The Caspian tiger’s last stronghold was a reserve in Tajikistan: Tigrovaya Balka, “tiger former river channel.”  The name was given to this first of Central Asia’s protected areas, or zapovedniks, in 1938 after a tiger attacked two Russian Army officers riding horseback along a balka, or dried-up river channel.

In 1947, Russia banned hunting of the Caspian tiger and its close relative, the Siberian, or more properly Amur, tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), still found today in the Far East.  But the edict came too late for the Caspian tiger.

The last tiger in Tigrovaya Balka was glimpsed in 1958.  Although a matter of debate, the legendary final wild Caspian tiger is said to have been killed in February, 1970, in Hakkari Province, Turkey.  Panthera tigris virgata was extinct. Or was it?

Two Caspian tigers rest along a reedy riverbank.
According to DNA evidence, we may not have seen the last of the tiger-of-the-riverbanks. (Illustration: Wikimedia Commons)

Returning a tiger to life

DNA evidence, however, reveals that we may not have seen the last of this tiger-of-the-riverbanks, says Carlos Driscoll, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Chair in Conservation Genetics at the Wildlife Institute of India.

Now scientists at WWF and other organizations are working to bring the Caspian tiger back to life.

Museums in Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan hold the key.  Buried in their musty depths are specimens of Caspian tigers collected long ago.  Driscoll and colleagues compared the preserved tigers’ DNA with that of living Amur tigers.  “Caspian and Amur tigers turned out to be one and the same,” says Driscoll.  “The tigers are too closely related to be separate subspecies.”  Declaring the Caspian tiger extinct, he says, may have been premature.

The discovery sheds light on how tigers made their way across the fabled lands of Central Asia.  Some 10,000 years ago, Caspian tigers used a mere thread of a trail to migrate from eastern China to the region around the Caspian Sea.  “The tigers paved the way for what was to become the Silk Road between the Himalayan Plateau and the Mongolian Gobi desert,” says Driscoll.

The corridor they used – a narrow funnel not much wider than the dusty, caravan-traveled Silk Road itself – was bordered on one side by mountains, on the other by desert.  From there the tigers colonized Central Asia.  Eventually some returned eastward across southern Siberia, establishing the Russian Far East’s Amur tiger population.

Tigers likely stopped meeting at this ecological crossroads within the last 200 years, a result of increasing human presence in the region.

The findings, however, raise the possibility of repopulating a now tiger-less Central Asia with Amur tigers, says biologist Igor Chestin, CEO of WWF-Russia.  Chestin recently presented a plan for doing that at WWF headquarters in Washington, D.C.  “In the right habitat,” he believes, “the Caspian tiger’s former range is open to reintroduction with Amur tigers.”

Ili River Delta wetlands and shrubs: tugai.
Tugai along the Ili River Delta in Kazakhstan, a prime location for the possible reintroduction of the Caspian tiger. (Photograph: Hartmut Jungius, WWF)

Tugai is the key

That habitat is tugai.  Rivers that cut through the steppes and deserts of Central Asia bring life to these dry lands.  “They allow tugai to flourish,” says Olga Pereladova of WWF-Russia, “and with it tigers.”

Tugai spans a transition from open waters to sand or mud banks, shoreline reeds, fringing shrubs and tangled forests.  Stretching in green, snake-like bands through Central Asia, tugai was once widespread.  Now it remains only as fragments along rivers such as the Ili in Kazakhstan.

WWF biologists have conducted a feasibility study for Caspian (Amur) tiger reintroduction in Central Asia.  The Ili River Delta looks especially promising, says Chestin.  The 894-mile-long Ili runs from northwestern China to southeastern Kazakhstan, finally flowing into Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash.  There it forms a large delta with vast tugai wetlands.

The Ili River Basin offers some 400,000 hectares of likely tiger habitat, the WWF study found.  “The region has enough healthy tugai to offer cover to good numbers of tiger prey,” Chestin says.  WWF and other scientists are attempting to increase numbers of Bukhara deer and other prey such as wild boars.

Bukhara deer along the Ili River in Kazakhstan.
Scientists are working to increase numbers of Bukhara deer and other tiger prey in Central Asia. (Photograph: Olga Pereladova, WWF-Russia)

What are the prospects for the “Caspian” tiger?  Will it return to Central Asia by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022?

That’s the goal of the WWF effort, a partnership with the Government of Kazakhstan and the Kazakhstan Geographic Society.

The program represents a new direction in the ecological development of Kazakhstan, according to Karim Massimov, Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister.  As part of the project, he says, a national park will be created, riparian woodlands revived, and the diversity of fauna and flora in general increased.

Driscoll, Chestin, Pereladova and other researchers are hopeful.  “Tigers’ reintroduction to these landscapes would provide an effective conservation framework for the protection of many other species,” they state in a paper on Caspian tiger recovery in the Journal of Threatened Taxa.

The Caspian tiger once ruled Kazakhstan's Balkhash District.
Kazakhstan’s Balkhash District welcomes visitors to the former – and perhaps future – home of the Caspian tiger. (Photograph: Natalia Ogar)

Challenges along the trail

The way ahead will not be easy, says Claudio Sillero, deputy director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, or WildCRU, at the University of Oxford in the U.K.  “Reintroducing predators such as tigers is expensive and fraught with technical challenges, but it can be done,” Sillero says.  “With political will and proper planning, we may not be too far from seeing these majestic creatures roaming Central Asia again.”

Axel Moehrenschlager, chair of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Species Survival Commission Reintroduction Specialist Group, agrees.  “Restoring large carnivores can be difficult and success cannot always be guaranteed.  That said, many species have been saved because proponents persevered to realize a dream against all odds.  A serious evaluation of options with all stakeholders could yield eventual benefits for this species, for the country [Kazakhstan], and for conservation in general.”

Where would the tigers come from? Once their prey has reached sufficient numbers, says Chestin, the tigers could be taken from three sources.

They might be from purebred Amur tigers in zoos. With behavioral training to hunt in the wild and to avoid people, some biologists say, pure Amur tigers in captivity around the world may offer a source for translocation.

Wild orphaned young Amur tigers in Russia are also a possibility.  “Mother tigers die for different reasons,” Chestin says.  “They perish in accidents, but mostly at the hands of illegal hunters,” leaving their offspring abandoned.

Another option, he says, “could be to take a few adult Amur tigers from areas where their numbers are highest so as not to undermine local tiger populations.”

The once and future tiger

Russia’s Amur tiger, however, may hover on the brink.  Poaching, prey depletion, forest habitat loss from logging, and infectious diseases have taken down the tigers.

Despite a drop in wild Amur tiger numbers, supporters of a tiger reintroduction in Central Asia say it’s an important goal.  Their plan allows for restoration of the tigers’ natural range, they maintain, and hedges against the risk of extinction facing all small populations from factors like disease.

When a tiger vanishes into the forest, legend says, last to fade from view are its eyes.

The eyes of the former Caspian tiger may be forever closed.  Will a relative close enough to be its shadow again rustle through Central Asia’s reedy tugai?

Amur tiger walks along frozen waterway.
A relative close enough to be the Caspian tiger’s shadow may again rustle through Central Asia’s tugai. (Photograph: Klein & Hubert, WWF)

 

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