Love for Living Animals: Can the Extinct Caspian Tiger be Brought Back to Life?

06.06.2021 - Manila, Philippines - Mona Gonzalez

Love for Living Animals: Can the Extinct Caspian Tiger be Brought Back to Life?
Caspian tiger killed in Northern Iran, early 1940s. Wikimedia Commons.

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In 2003, the IUCN ranked the Caspian Tiger as extinct, the very same tiger that, 10,000 years before, paved the way for the famous Silk Road. The Silk Road is where different kingdoms meshed cultures, ideas, inventions and products while engaging in trade and commerce.

The Caspian Tiger played that major role in the history of man, and we’ve played a major role in its extinction.

When they were still alive, Caspian tigers traveled through Central Asia, southern Siberia, northern Iran, Iraq, eastern Turkey, southern Caucasus, the forests in Afghanistan, and the northwestern forests of China, among others.

However, in just 200 years humans began to encroach on areas that were once the realm of the Caspian tigers such as river basins, the edges of lakes, and seashores, where human population was at its highest.

As humans competed with these tigers for food such as the red deer and roe deer, among others, the population of the prey of the Caspian tiger declined. The Caspian tiger then fed on wild boar, as a temporary food source, and in winter, fed on dogs and cattle, again pitting them against humans. Soon the land that once supplied all the necessary prey for the Caspian tigers was used instead to grow crops and produce to meet the needs of humans.

Tiger hunting

The Caspian tiger was a formidable foe, as the second biggest tiger in the world (it’s slightly smaller than the Siberian tiger). Its paw is the size of a plate. These qualities may have made tiger hunting a popular sport.

It is a profitable sport, too. Poachers could sell one tiger at a price per kilogram of its weight. Even the tiger cubs were sold through the illegal poaching trade. Plus, there is an extra fee to process its skin (some $20,000.00), and a delivery fee.

The bones are used to make medicinal rice wine, which is both a delicacy and a cure-all. Or, they are used to make a paste which is also believed to have healing properties.

For the same reasons as mentioned above, two other tiger species are also extinct, namely, the Bali tiger (which became extinct in 1960) and the Javan tiger, (which became extinct in 1979).

DNA tests and the Caspian tiger

 In 2004, scientists changed the then existing classification of tigers to just five subspecies, based on DNA tests. These same tests, the scientists noted, could prove that it’s possible to restore the Caspian tiger.

Carlos Driscoll, Chair, Conservation Genetics at the Wildlife Institute of India, and a member of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), noted that the DNA of Siberian tigers are far too similar to Caspian tigers to be a different species.

In a study by Driscoll and peers, he wrote, “Using ancient-DNA (aDNA) methodology, we generated composite mtDNA haplotypes. (Note: A haplotype is a group of genes that originate from a single parent. The term “haplotype” stems from the word “haploid,” which describes cells with only one set of chromosomes.

 Bringing the Caspian tiger back

Twenty wild Caspian tigers from throughout their historic range were sampled from museum collections. These samples revealed that the Caspian tigers carry a major mtDNA haplotype, differing by only a single nucleotide from the monomorphic haplotype, which is found across all contemporary Siberian tigers. Driscoll concluded that the Siberian tiger and the Caspian tiger share the same DNA.

Driscoll observed specimens of Caspian tigers from museums in Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. He then compared the preserved Caspian tigers’ DNA with that of living Siberian tigers.  Driscoll said, “The tigers are too closely related to be separate subspecies.”

Historically, both tigers shared the same territories over the south shore of the Caspian sea, and roamed the forests of China, Korea, and the northern forests of Siberia. It was only when humans came that the territory of both tigers were separated, which over time led others to consider the Caspian and the Siberian tigers to be two different species. The Siberian tiger was bigger, because it had more access to prey.

Initial attempts to bring back the Caspian tigers into the wild

 In Iran, there was an attempt to restore Caspian tigers to the wild from March 2009-March 2010. They did this by accepting two Siberian tigers (one male and one female) from Russia. In exchange, they gave Russia two Persian leopards.

The effort failed. The male tiger died from glanders (an infectious disease caused by eating contaminated food or water). The female tiger was quarantined for five years because she was also infected. However, wildlife enthusiasts and the Department of Environment (DOE) subjected the female tiger to several tests, and determined that the animal could be moved to the Tehran Zoo.

Reintroducing the Caspian tigers to the wild

 Kaveh Feizollahi, a zoologist and tiger expert, told IRNA that reintroduction of tigers into the wild is possible because:

  • Tigers are flexible and adaptable to a variety of climates and habitats.
  • They have a high reproductive and multiplication rate.
  • They can adapt their hunting strategies in accordance with the food source that is available, and the terrain that they live on.

To return the Caspian tiger to the wild, a feasibility study was done in December 2010, prepared by the DOE. This study was presented at the International Tiger Conservation Forum in Saint Petersburg that year. The study said:

  • A natural habitat must be prepared beforehand with suitable vegetation, bait, and clean water, to keep the population stable.
  • There must be sufficient suitable prey like the wild boar, Bukhara deer, and roe deer. For example, 20 tigers may need some 10,000 large mammals.
  • It may take 10-15 years to increase this food for the tigers to an appropriate level for them to thrive.
  • The habitat must also be big enough to accommodate these large Caspian tigers in a protected wild environment.
  • Environmentalists are targeting the Ili River delta and the adjacent southern coast of Balkhash Lake in Kazakhstan, which is 7,000 square kilometers large.
  • Igor Chestin, CEO, WWF-Russia and his team noted that the Ili-Balkhash region is large and undeveloped and of good suze to sustain these tigers. In September 2017, the WWF and Kazakhstan announced that they would take the first steps to reintroduce the Caspian tiger reintroduction into the wild. However, Chestin said it will call for a lot of work.
  • When Caspian tigers thrived they lived in forests and the watery thickets of reeds that emptied into Lake Balkhash, the 15th largest lake globally. They enjoyed a repast of the Bukhara and other deer species, kulans (a type of wild donkey), and wild boar. decades of poaching and habitat destruction made these prey animals scarce. If the tigers are to return, the species that they eat should come ahead of them.
  • As of 2017 Chestin et. al. arranged to reintroduce Bukhara deer. Next, a group of rangers was trained to preserve the protected area. Education programs helped local ranchers to adjust to being around these wild animals and tigers again. For example:
    • There will be grazing restrictions to protect camels, cattle, goats, horses, and sheep, from tigers.
    • These restrictions will ensure that livestock don’t eat all the grass and shrubs so that the donkeys and deer can be fed and in this way, can bolster their populations.
    • Farmers must limit the burning of fields after harvest.

Future projections

 If plans work out, by 2022-2025, some 400 square miles of land should be sufficiently inhabited by enough prey to sustain the release of some tigers into the wild.

  • The tigers will possibly be orphaned Siberian tigers from Russia. They may also be zoo animals. However, if they were captive, they would have to learn how to live in the wild, which will be both challenging and expensive.
  • While creating a landscape for these animals poses many challenges, the maintenance of the area is equally difficult.
  • Biologist John Goodrich, senior director of Panthera, a worldwide conservation organization for tigers and other wild cats, admits the habitat is large enough, but raises questions as to whether the Kazakh government will do all it can to protect the tigers from poaching.
  • Goodrich also cites ecological threats. For example, tigers often follow the river banks and streams, and it’s likely they will do this too at Lake Balkhash. They become familiar with water flow and flooding patterns. The threats to their need for water are:
    • Excess interruption from irrigation, which could very quickly break the habitat into pieces, resulting in the isolation of wildlife groups and other animal species.
    • Lake Balkhash’s water originates from China. According to Goodrich, plans are afoot for agriculture across that border. Should this happen, it will affect the natural flow of water into Lake Balkhash. Goodrich said, “If that happens and the natural flooding regime is lost or impeded, they’ll lose a lot of habitat and then there will be no hope for tigers”.
  • As of this writing, negotiations between Kazakhstan and China are ongoing. Chestin believes that even without China’s cooperation, the area can support 80 tigers or more.
  • If no wild tigers can be moved when the habitat in Kazakhstan is ready, they will use tigers in captivity and gradually acclimatize them to the environment so that they can live in the wild and thrive.
  • Female tigers in captivity can parent their cubs even as they introduce them to the wild.
  • This entire process will be difficult and expensive. The yearly budget to protect tigers in the world is $40 million.
  • As of 2010, the cost of protecting one wild tiger was estimated at US$10,000 annually. Compare that to the price of smuggling tiger skin, which at US$20,000 is double in value.
  • As of early 2020, there is still no Caspian tiger in Kazakhstan. But in November of that year, The Astana Times reported that the Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources Ministry had finalized a project to reintroduce the Caspian (also called Turanian tiger) to Lake Balkhash and the Ili River delta.
  • Although the Caspian tiger is extinct, it is genetically similar to the Siberian tiger which still prevails in the wild of Russia, China and Korea.
  • The plan is to raise some 200 Siberian tigers (which are essentially Caspian tigers) in a 10,000 square kilometer habitat, or twice the size of Rhode Island.

All tigers are endangered

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, all tigers are considered “Endangered” and two subspecies, namely the Malayan and Sumatran tigers, are “Critically Endangered.”

Globally, some 3,900 tigers still live in the wild. In parts of Southeast Asia, tigers in the wild are in crisis and their numbers are declining. But in Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Russia, the populations are stable or increasing in numbers. So why are they still considered Endangered?

The illegal tiger trade

There are double the number of tigers (8,000) in captivity in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, China, Great Britain, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong,  compared to the number of tigers in the wild. These captive tigers are either kept in the backrooms of family homes, displayed in conservation centers, in public or private zoos, or as entertainment displays for tourists. Many of them are fronts for the illegal tiger trade.

Tigers are worth more dead than alive. A pair of eyes can command $170. Tiger bone paste is sold by the pound, anywhere between $64 – $168. A paw can go for $1,000, and tiger wine can sell for $30,000/case. This is why the WWF views these captive breeding sites as detrimental to its efforts to care for, and restore tigers in the wild.

The nature of tigers in the wild

Tigers are solitary animals, unless it’s a mother and her offspring. Each tiger requires a large territory of its own in order to prevail in the wild. The size of land that a tiger requires will depend on how available prey are in an area.

Individual tigers mark their territory with feces, the scratching of rake-like marks (horizontal scratches on trees), scrapes (vertical scratches on trees), urine, and vocalizing.

Why is the Caspian tiger’s conservation important?

 Tigers are vital to biodiversity. The Caspian tiger, in particular, plays a key role with regard to the health of forests, largely because it prefers to feed on prey that only eats plants. The balance in the forest is upended with the extinction of the Caspian tiger. Their absence played a major role in forest destruction. In its lifetime it controlled animal populations, but it was not powerful enough to survive people.

Because Caspian tigers usually gathered around important watering holes, the water supply of a region was kept safe. The ecosystem was kept balanced with the Caspian tiger. In fact, the presence of any tigers in the wild is usually an indication that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse.

Categories: Asia, Ecology and Environment
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