NEW YORK - With assistance from the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Chinese government will create a new protected area along its border with Russia in order to safeguard the nation's remaining population of endangered Siberian (Amur) tigers and Far Eastern leopards.
The agreement by China's Jilin Forestry Department to establish the Jilin Hunchun nature reserve in the region long known as Manchuria, along the border with Russia's Primorski Krai (state), comes following the recommendation of WCS biologists who say that the new protected area represents critical habitat for the big cats.
Creation of the Hunchun Tiger-Leopard Reserve represents the beginning of a long-term process of rebuilding tiger populations in China. Surveys in Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces, co-sponsored and organized by WCS, UNDP, and the forestry departments of Jilin and Heilongjiang, found that tigers hover near extinction. WCS biologist Dr. Dale Miquelle, who helped organize and conduct tiger surveys in China and Russia, said, "There are few tigers left in northeast China, and most of those are animals dispersing from the Russian side of the border. Therefore, the best opportunities to protect tigers in northeast China are along the Russian borders at known crossover points."
"With no evidence of breeding females, and only a handful of scattered individuals, it was clear that the only thing preventing extirpation of tigers in northeast China was the existence of a healthy population of the big cats in nearby Russia," Miquelle added.
At a recent workshop in Harbin China, organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Forestry Department of Heilongjiang, plans for recovery of tigers in China began to take shape.
Gennady Kolonin, representative of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, promised cooperation with China in all efforts to protect this species by coordinating transboundary conservation efforts.
Liu Yongfan, deputy director general of the Department of Conservation of China's State Forestry Administration, said, "China's newly released master plan for wildlife and protected areas has listed transboundary protected areas in Jilin and Heilongjiang as top conservation priorities." Tigers that do migrate to China from Russia often find little to eat in forests and hence prey on livestock, which often results in reprisal killing of the tiger. Snares in the forest, meant to capture wild deer, also occasionally kill tigers. Last winter a tiger was killed by a snare in the Wandashan Mountains of Heilongjiang. Removal of snares, and protection of wild prey, will be critical ingredients to the recovery process.
"We have large tracts of intact forests in northeast China, and if we protect wild prey populations, tigers will naturally recover in these areas. We have a great opportunity to demonstrate how recovery of endangered species can be done in China," said Endi Zhang, who has led conservation efforts as WCS country program director in China.
In addition to helping set up the reserve, the Wildlife Conservation Society will also assist in its management. This will include providing training to reserve personnel, while helping design and implement a public education program. WCS is working to establish a fund to compensate farmers for livestock losses due to tigers, and to implement a monitoring program to follow the recovery process of tigers and their prey.
The Hunchun Reserve will protect not only Siberian tigers, but the even rarer Far Eastern or Amur leopard. While an estimated 330-370 Siberian tigers exist in the wild, a single population of only 25-40 leopards remains. Creation of this reserve will increase the amount of suitable habitat, which should in turn bolster leopard numbers.
Efforts are also underway in Heilongjiang to create a second protected area in the Wandashan Mountains, another key area for tigers in northeast China. Xioachen Yu, a Heilongjiang Wildlife Institute wildlife biologist who has been conducting a tiger monitoring program with the support of WCS, has located areas where tigers cross the international border from Russia into the Wandashan Mountains.
"We have tigers in Heilongjiang," Yu said. "If we protect them, I know we can recover the population here." Based on recommendations from the Heilongjiang Wildlife Institute and WCS, the Heilongjiang Forestry Department and Heilongjiang Forest Industry Bureau are seeking to create the Wandashan Reserve within the upcoming year. The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild lands through careful science, international conservation, education, and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together, these activities change individual attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in sustainable interaction on both a local and global scale. WCS believes its ability to perpetuate such a world is intrinsic to the integrity of life on Earth.