Tigers may roam again in central Asia: Scientists

New York: Caspian tigers who met a grim end in the middle of the 20th century may roam again in Central Asia thanks to a subspecies that is nearly identical, genetically, to the extinct big cats, say researchers.

Some of the largest cats that ever lived — up to 10 feet long and weighing more than 300 pounds — Caspian tigers, until the mid-1960s, ranged from modern-day Turkey through much of Central Asia, including Iran and Iraq, to northwestern China.

“The territory of the Caspian tiger was vast. When they disappeared, the number of nations that hosted tiger populations was reduced by more than half,” said Professor James Gibbs, conservation biologist and Director, Roosevelt Wild Life Station, at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, New York.

The researchers say introducing tigers in a couple of locations in Kazakhstan won’t make a widespread difference immediately but it would be an important first step.

“The idea of tiger reintroduction in Central Asia using the Amur tiger from the Russian Far East as an ‘analog’ species has been discussed for nearly 10 years,” said Mikhail Paltsyn, an ESF doctoral candidate.

The team analysed scientific literature that revealed Caspian tigers once lived in an area about 800,000 to 900,000 square kms in size, mostly within isolated patches of riparian ecosystems (land along rivers or streams).

Generally, two or three tigers occupied an area that covered about 100 square kms.

The team identified about 7,000 square kms of suitable habitat.

Population models for animals that tigers typically prey on — wild boar, Bukhara deer and roe deer — suggest the area could support a population of between 64 and 98 tigers within 50 years if 40 to 55 tigers are introduced.

The Amur tiger is apparently the only subspecies that has significantly increased in number in the last 65 years.

Scientists estimate some 520 to 540 still live in the wild. Moving some of them from the Russian Far East to the Ili river delta could be enough to eventually establish a wild population in 50 years, and would not harm the Russian population, noted the study published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Tiger reintroduction has support from the Kazakhstan government and local communities because of potential economic benefit from wildlife tourism, small-business growth and employment opportunities at Ili-Balkhash Nature Reserve.