The tigers of the Russian Far East have become the focus of two major international initiatives, writes Vera Rich.
Fifteen joint Russian-United States teams - comprising game-wardens and ecologists - are carrying out a census of the tiger population. And negotiations are under way to set up an international tiger reserve straddling the Sino-Russian frontier.
The habitat of the tigers (variously known as Amur or Ussuri tigers) is the Maritime and Khabarovsk territories of Russia and the Chinese province of Heilongjiang. Their numbers have declined considerably during the past century, although there has been some recovery in recent years. It is thought there are some 1,000 in existence, of which more than half are in zoos and circuses.
The census, funded by the World Wildlife Foundation, will be based on the traditional method of counting tiger-tracks in the snow.
On the Russian side of the frontier, the tigers are (theoretically) well-protected, and a conviction for killing a tiger entails heavy fines and prison sentence. Unfortunately, the international frontier in the area is in places merely notional, and the tigers cross over into Heilongjiang. Despite penalties being even more severe (up to possible execution) in China, poachers are prepared to take the risk. The tiger skins are worth tens of thousands of dollars on the international black market and the bones, meat and offal are valuable ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine, enhancing, it is believed, strength and male potency.
The Russians are urging that an international reserve be established spanning the frontier, within which penalties for poachers would be "stiffer", though how a death sentence is to be increased has not been explained. Within this reserve, not only tigers would be protected; the hunting of "hoofed animals" that form their natural prey would also be prohibited.
So far, neither the Russian nor the Chinese government has given its approval to the plan; though the Russians have taken a first step by creating a "protected zone" for tigers on the Borisovskoye plateau of the Maritime Territory.