A Roaring Comeback: How China’s Tigers Returned From the Dead
According to the Chinese zodiac, 2022 is the Year of the Tiger. At first glance, tigers might seem to be the odd animal out in the traditional zodiac scheme, one with relatively little connection either to Chinese culture or the everyday life of its people, but these big cats have a long history in China, where they are admired for their imposing presence and fearless nature. Indeed, tigers are often spoken of in the same reverent tones typically reserved for dragons; they are symbols of majesty, power, and authority. A line in the ancient text “Book of Changes” states: “Clouds follow the dragon, and winds follow the tiger.” To battle a tiger is shorthand for bravery in Chinese culture, most famously shown in the classic novel of grassroots heroism “Water Margin.”
Outside the fictional realm of the jianghu, however, tigers had all but disappeared from China as recently as two decades ago. Taxonomically, all tigers in the world belong to a single species, though the global population was roughly divided into nine subspecies based on geographical distribution. Unfortunately, three of these subspecies — the Javan, Caspian, and Bali tigers — were driven to extinction by the mid- to late-20th century. The South China tiger, although still hanging on, is considered extinct in the wild.
Of the remaining five subspecies in the wild — Bengal, Sumatran, Siberian, Indochinese, and Malayan tigers — only the Bengal and Siberian are not in dire straits. The current global wild tiger population is estimated to be around 4,000, representing a decline of more than 95% over the past 100 years.
Around the time of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, estimates put the number of South China tigers in the wild at over 4,000. However, decades of human population growth, agricultural development, and both private and state-sponsored hunting campaigns led to a sharp decline in both their numbers and range. By the 1990s, the South China tiger had disappeared from the wild. By the turn of the millennium, experts believed the Siberian tiger had also basically vanished from China’s forests. The other two subspecies found in the country — Bengal and Indochinese tigers — were already few and far between. In short, the fate of China’s tigers was on a knife’s edge.
Things began to improve after the turn of the millennium, as the country gradually recognized the environmental and ecological damage done by decades of industrialization and calls for sustainable development grew more frequent. Although tigers are not out of the woods yet, the Siberian tiger represents a real conservation success story; it is a prime example of how China is working to protect both flagship species and the ecosystems as a whole.
In 2015, after nearly 10 years of fieldwork and the development of a wildlife monitoring network of 3,000 infrared cameras, a team from Beijing Normal University definitively proved that there were at least 27 wild Siberian tigers and 42 Amur leopards in Hunchun, Jilin province, on the border between China and Russia. Based on this evidence, the construction of a highway in the region was suspended and a high-speed railway line from Hunchun to Vladivostok in Russia was rerouted — both moves that would have been unthinkable just a few decades prior. The following year, China established the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park.
Siberian tigers have frequently been recorded in several other areas along the China-Russia border. In September 2014, a male Siberian tiger named “Kuzya” from the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russia crossed the border into China’s Lesser Khingan Mountains — the first time a tiger had been spotted there since 1976. In April 2020, four Siberian tigers, including a mother and cub, were spotted in the Taipinggou National Nature Reserve in the northeastern part of the Lesser Khingan Mountains near the Russian border.
In April 2021, a male Siberian tiger appeared in an abandoned house in Linhu Village, in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. Worried it could not find its way back home, experts captured the tiger and named it Wandashan-1, before eventually releasing it safely back into the wild, making it the first Siberian tiger in China to be successfully rescued and released in this fashion.
China’s approach to tiger conservation is heavily reliant on new and emerging technologies. Part of an integrated “space, ground, and sky” monitoring platform, nearly 20,000 infrared cameras have been installed across the mountains and forests of the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park, covering an area of 14,000 square kilometers. Whenever an animal passes by one of the infrared cameras, photos and videos of the encounter are uploaded to the cloud, and the image data is automatically classified and archived using artificial intelligence-powered smart recognition software.
This is the first real-time biodiversity monitoring system in the world to cover such a large area, and it represents a major technological leap from traditional methods that involved maintaining large networks of human observers and patrolling conservation areas based on lines on a map. By September 2021, the system had already transmitted and identified more than 20,000 images of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards, as well as more than 8 million images of other wildlife.
Networks of camera traps have also proved effective in the monitoring of China’s tiny and elusive Bengal and Indochinese tiger populations. In August 2019, scientists from the Kunming Institute of Zoology used infrared cameras to capture the first images of Bengal tigers in Medog County, on the border with India, thereby proving the existence of a small population there.
These advances show that, although threats remains serious for China’s tigers, the big cats are managing to survive.
Of course, the return of tiger populations has brought with it new problems, such as increased conflict between humans and tigers, which includes the killing of livestock and accidental injuries to human beings. The above-mentioned Wandashan-1 tackled and bit a female villager when it was first discovered, then smashed a car window, landing its paw on the shoulder of a passenger and leaving a large dent in the car door.
Human-tiger conflict is only likely to increase in the future, but it shouldn’t distract us from the benefits of a thriving wild tiger population. Healthy ecosystems are composed of producers at the bottom level (such as green plants), primary consumers which feed on plants (such as rodents), secondary consumers which prey on small- and medium-sized primary consumers (such as small felines), and top-level consumers which feed on medium- and large-primary and secondary consumers. If we only see the threat posed to humans by apex predators such as tigers and leopards — and therefore work to bring about their extinction — the ecosystem will become unbalanced, leading to its decline and even collapse.
Still, steps can and should be taken to minimize the potential for conflict, including improving ecological compensation and insurance, publicizing the importance of tiger and leopard protection measures, and relocating people out of areas with a high possibility of human-tiger conflict when possible.
Even just within the past 24 years, the prospects of China’s tigers have improved immeasurably. Although wild tiger populations are still very much in danger, there’s reason to hope that future years of the tiger will see these furry felines once again on the prowl.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A Siberian tiger in Yantai, Shandong province, Nov. 27, 2015. People Visual)