From May 25th through 31st, 2009, Chinese and international specialists gathered in Changchun City (capital of Jilin Province) to plan for a future in northern China that includes tigers. Such a meeting would have seemed absurd 150 years ago, when Siberian tigers were abundant and considered a pest in the forests of northern China – what was then known as Manchuria. In fact, in those days, the Siberian tiger was often called the Manchurian tiger. However, with expansion of the Chinese empire north, and later with the dramatic population explosion of China, along with a “vermin” eradication program instituted during the Maoist days, the tiger population of northern China declined rapidly to only a few individuals.
Such a meeting would have also seemed absurd just ten years ago, but for just the opposite reasons. In the late 1990s, with help from Russian and Chinese colleagues, we led surveys to assess the status of tigers in Northeast China. The results were gloomy: tigers were nearly gone, with the few holdouts largely represented by animals dispersing from nearby habitat in Russia. It seemed as if the days of the “Manchurian tiger” were finished.
Over the last 10 years, however, some dramatic changes have occurred. Based on our recommendations, China created the Hunchun Tiger Leopard Reserve. Within the reserve, WCS has led a campaign to remove snares (that kill ungulates – the primary prey of tigers, as well as tigers themselves), with over 10,000 snares collected to date. And tigers are responding! Reports of tigers have been increasing both inside the reserve and across the Chinese landscape since 2002.
There is now sufficient reason to believe that a recovery of tigers is possible in Northeast China. Tigers are naturally dispersing from habitat in nearby Russia, and all we need to do is give them a reason to stay. That means adequate prey numbers, and large tracts of forest habitat with minimal human intrusions. Such forest tracts still exist in China, but the question remains – how do we identify the best potential habitat where human influences are minimal, and chances of tiger survival maximal? In short, how do we identify and plan for a landscape with tigers in China’s future?
An MOU signed by WWF, WCS, Northeast China Normal University, and Kora (a Switzerland-based wild felid research organization led by Christine and Urs Breitenmoser, heads of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group) provided a framework for collaboration. Preliminary meetings led by WWF identified the databases that would be needed, and helped organize collaborative associations of key organizations and individuals. This process culminated in the workshop held two weeks ago.
We started by focusing on the Changbaishan Mountain Ecosystem, which is a massive region that actually encompasses a series of mountainous ranges in Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces (with a sliver of Russia as well), interwoven with human settlements and transportation corridors.
The first step in this process involved developing a definition of tiger habitat. However, because there is so little information on where tigers existed historically in Northeast China, there is no way to predict directly where tigers could exist in this landscape. Therefore, it was necessary to define habitat requirements based on the nearby population of tigers in the Russian Far East. Here, forest types and ecological conditions are quite similar to those of nearby China, and provide a baseline. Therefore, we decided to first define suitable tiger habitat in the southern Sikhote-Alin Mountains of Russia and apply the findings to Changbaishan.
Because there are likely multiple factors that affect tiger distribution and abundance, one of the most effective approaches is to integrate these factors in a mathematical and spatially explicit model that can describe the influence of multiple parameters. However, because even the best models are crude approximations of the complexity of a natural system, and because all models have their limitations, we used several approaches in attempting to define potential tiger habitat in Northeast China.
Results are too preliminary to present in detail, but are nonetheless intriguing. We identified 9 large blocks of potential tiger habitat, but they vary greatly in relative suitability for tigers. Two habitat blocks look most promising. The first – the Hunchun-Wanqing-Doning-Suiyang habitat block, which includes Hunchun Reserve – still has large forest tracts mostly intact, and it abuts Russia, where suitable habitat along the border provides a means for tigers to disperse directly into this region. A second habitat block – Changbaishan (which includes the extinct volcanic mountain Changbaishan itself) occurs along the Chinese-North Korean border. Here, large forest tracts also exist, but there are no clear linkages to habitat where tigers presently occur, which may mean that translocations may be necessary to re-establish a population here. But only after prey populations have recovered, and there is adequate protection of forested habitat.
For tigers to recover and survive in Northeast China, planning on a landscape level is necessary to ensure that there is collective agreement about what the “conservation landscape” for tigers will be for the region, i.e., where tigers will be allowed to exist. It is also necessary to identify which patches of habitat have the greatest potential for recovery of tigers (prioritization) for short-term and long-term recovery goals. And finally, it is necessary to minimize the potential for conflicts between tigers and people by identifying areas for tigers that will prevent confrontation. This planning exercise represents an important step forward in this process. The results will become available this summer (2009), and then we will begin the process of discussion with government officials and other stakeholders to try to come to an agreement, and start implementing the recovery process. Hopefully, in the near future, a recovered population of these great cats might even regain the title of “Manchurian tigers.”