Team Approaches to the Conservation of Endangered Species: The Siberian Tiger as a Paradigm
The role of science in biodiversity and endangered species conservation is dynamic; the role of veterinarians in this scheme—although essential—is only part of performing a successful effort. Only through integrated, comprehensive approaches will conservation projects be truly successful, both in the short term and long term. We present evidence from the first ever U.S./Russian field study of the ecology of the endangered Siberian tiger, and efforts to secure a long-term framework for its conservation.
Siberian tigers face two main threats to their continued existence: poaching for the Asian medicine market, and logging or habitat alteration. Our project, begun in 1992, proceeded in two phases. The primary focus of phase one was to obtain ecological and biological information from the wild population. To date, 14 tigers have been radio-collared, and tracked through both ground and aerial telemetry. Biological data was collected, including blood and tissue samples for genetic assessment, and over 500 locations have been recorded from these study animals. The emerging picture of land use patterns, habitat requirements, land tenure structures, and individual and population health assessments is invaluable. Preliminary data indicate primary prey species for tigers to be Manchurian elk, and Russian wild boar. Our preliminary data also indicate male home ranges are much larger than for females, between 400–500 and 200–300 km2 respectively. Female study animals appear to reproduce every other year, after 4-yr-old, averaging two offspring/litter.
Field work is ongoing, but once this picture was sufficiently complete, phase two, conservation activities for the Siberian tiger, was initiated. There are two main areas of focus: development of a zoning plan to provide a framework for a tiger corridor throughout the tiger range, and environmental education to increase awareness of the threats that tigers face. Project efforts are making a difference for the future of Siberian tigers. Poaching, unchecked at the beginning of the project, with an estimated 50 animals killed each winter has decreased to less than 20 animals/yr. Anti-poaching teams, a recent addition to the forests, are an effective deterrent, and only two study tigers have been lost to poachers. The Siberian tiger population is stable, estimated at 330–380 adult individuals.
Poaching activities can create difficult situations, where linkages with zoological parks can be helpful. In 1992, one study tigress was poached, leaving four nursing orphans. Two cubs died, but the surviving two were sent to zoos in Omaha and Indianapolis, and added to the breeding pool of captive Siberian tigers.
The integrated role of zoo biology, veterinary science, wildlife field biology, conservation biology, genetics, and environmental education—along with successful cultural integration and long-term commitment—form the essentials for successful conservation.