This International Tiger Day I will be spending in Harbin — capital city of Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province. One hundred years ago, tigers were hunted not far from the outskirts of Harbin, which still retains architectural remnants of the Russians who once populated this city and hunted those big cats.
Bengal and Indo-Chinese tigers, once common along the southern borders of China, have disappeared, as has the South China Tiger, which was apparently the predecessor from which all other tiger subspecies evolved. Today, the last hope for wild tigers in China is a handful of Amur (Siberian) tigers in scattered locations of Heilongjiang and Jilin Provinces along the Russian border. Yet, while 20 years ago most conservationists assumed that Amur tigers would also soon disappear from China, there is now great hope for a recovery.
In 1998 and 1999 I helped organize two surveys of tigers that combined the expertise of Russian biologists with the local knowledge of Chinese specialists. We walked the hinterlands of China’s northern provinces in winter, looking for tracks of the elusive big cats.
The combination of Chinese, Russians, and an American combing this region, often walking right along the international border itself (something that is today impossible) was a historically significant event, given that these countries had been shooting at each other along this same border in the 1970’s.
We found the distinctive tracks of tigers in snow (something that still seems incongruous for those who associate tigers with the jungles of Asia), but very few of them. Most of us found the results disappointing: not only were tigers scarce, but so were the deer and wild boar they depended on for prey, while snares littered the forest, killing anything that attempted to move through these remote areas.
Despite the dire situation, I saw reason for hope, and that hope lay in the expansive forests that still covered this landscape. Yes extensive logging had occurred, yet the forests remained, not so different from the forests of nearby Russia where tigers roamed freely. Russia had a border fence, but we had evidence that animals like tigers and leopards found their way over or through the barbed wires.
Remove the snares, recover the deer and wild boar, and tigers would come to China. In fact, they were already coming (we tracked animals crossing the border in our searches). We just needed to give them a reason to stay.
Based on the recommendations emanating from our survey, Jilin Province created the Hunchun Tiger and Leopard Reserve in 2001. As just a sliver of land draped along the Russian border, it was not much, but it was a stepping stone and an invitation for big cats to visit China. And they did. Not many at first. Snares were removed, reset again by local villagers, and removed again by park staff.
“I saw reason for hope, and that hope lay in the expansive forests that still covered this landscape. Yes extensive logging had occurred, yet the forests remained, not so different from the forests of nearby Russia where tigers roamed freely.”
Deer and boar populations slowly began to creep upwards. Increasing reports of tigers killing livestock were managerial nightmares requiring compensation to farmers, but were also an indicator that tigers were coming back.
But problems remained. The protected area was too small. Cattle roamed the forests, not only getting consumed by tigers, but competing with prey species for available forage. Clearing of lands for ginseng plantations, leasing of lands to frog farmers who not only harvested frogs, but most everything else that moved in the forests, and the continual demand for forest resources threatened to unravel the baby steps that had been achieved.
As we entered the second decade of this century, recovery of tigers in northeast China was still an open question. Soon after, a Professor Jianping Ge from Beijing Normal University took the lead in monitoring these big cats. Using his political connections to reach out to the upper echelon of the national government, he reiterated our call for more substantial protected areas for tigers.
Amazingly, his voice was heard, and in 2016, President Xi Jinping announced the creation of the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park. At 15,000 km2, this park represented the largest protected area in the world for tigers. The government backed up this announcement with substantial funding to get the park up and running.
Yet, as I head to Harbin this week for an international conference on tigers, I do not expect to find tigers on the outskirts of town, as they roamed 100 years ago. Nonetheless, in addition to this new protected area there are extensive tracts of forests that could hold tigers, if properly managed, and roaming tigers from Russia have demonstrated that recolonization is a real possibility.
My dream of an extended meta population of tigers across northeastern China merging with the Russian Far East population is still only a dream. Yet, more than twenty years after my first foray into the remaining “tiger lands” of China, I am still optimistic of a dramatic recovery. The potential is there.
“Experience has shown that tiger conservation is not a 100-yard dash. It is an ultra-marathon, and victories come with perseverance, patience and unbridled, continuous energy.”
The tiger’s fate in China remains unclear. The huge protected area exists on paper, but major obstacles still prevent it from becoming fully functional. Forty villages lie within the boundaries of the park, which includes land from two provinces and multiple counties, with confusing jurisdictional issues and chains of command. Tiger numbers have increased slightly, but the majority of tigers only live part-time in China, returning often to Russia and the more bountiful prey there.
My message to the attendees of this conference will focus on the need to convert the Northeast Tiger Leopard National Park into a functional haven for tigers — a place where females are successfully rearing cubs who will disperse across the entirety of the park, and beyond to those empty forests. A place that does not rely on “imports” from Russia.
In the past we tiger conservationists have had unrealistic expectations, declaring to the world that we will double tiger numbers in twelve years, promising zero poaching of tigers, and raising expectations for rapid results. Experience has shown that tiger conservation is not a 100-yard dash. It is an ultra-marathon, and victories come with perseverance, patience and unbridled, continuous energy.
We know how to save tigers. Successes in multiple spots across Asia have demonstrated a simple recipe: provide sufficient space and sufficient prey, and protect tigers from poaching and human interference. Tigers will do fine if we provide them with these simple necessities.
In this sense, the challenges faced in northeast China to “make room” for tigers is mirrored across the tiger range countries of Asia. And, as in northeast China, in each of these places there is a cadre of committed conservationists trying their very best to find that seemingly simple recipe for success. We still have wild tigers in Asia, and that in and of itself is a reason to celebrate Tiger Day 2019.
The question is whether we can muster the political will, the financial capacity, the tolerance and the perseverance to allow tigers the freedom to do what they do best: to go forth and prosper.
Dale Miquelle is Country Director for the Russia Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and WCS Tiger Coordinator.