Thursday, January 12, 2006

Save the Amur Tiger!

Save the Amur Tiger!

Xu Wei

2006-01-10 Beijing Time

It has been a special and arduous winter for college student Liu Tong. He has just finished an adventurous journey through the wilderness of the Hunchun Nature Reserve in Northeast China's Jilin Province.

For the first time, Liu not only found himself living in snow-covered virgin forests surrounded by a remarkably beautiful landscape, but he also was part of a wildlife protection campaign. His job was to help find and remove illegal snares and traps set by poachers hunting the rare Amur Tiger and other endangered animals.

"For illegal hunters, winter is the ideal season," says Liu, 20, an art design student at Shanghai's Donghua University. "With food scarce in the forests, hungry Amur Tigers face a big threat from poachers and their traps."

Together with five other volunteers from around the country, Liu signed up to work with the Wildlife Conservation Society, a non-profit international organization dedicated to saving wildlife and their habitat. He made the decision to volunteer immediately upon reading a recruitment notice on the Internet.

The director of a student group at his university committed to environmental protection, Liu has had a strong interest in wildlife preservation since childhood. However, he did not think that a metropolis was the right arena to fight.

"I was yearning for a more intimate touch with nature and wildlife," Liu says with a smile. "But living in a big city doesn't give us many opportunities for that. Usually the regular tasks of our student group revolve around collecting waste paper and recycling batteries or teaching at primary schools."

The occupations of his fellow volunteers ranged from reporters and teachers to a retired worker and a tour guide. All paid their own traveling expenses. The trip cost Liu 1,243 yuan (US$153), not a small amount for a student. Fortunately, he received sponsorship from Root & Shoots, an environmental education and humanitarian program for youth.

Experts estimate that there are fewer than 20 Amur Tigers living in the wild around China and about 400 more in Russia's Far East. The number continues to shrink because of ruthless hunting and the degradation of the tigers' natural habitat — vanishing forests, frequent human trespassing and declining numbers of natural prey.

"In the early 20th century, there were 100,000 wild tigers across the world but today only about 5,000 survive," says Li Zirong, an official with Wildlife Conservation Society's Shanghai Office. "Three sub-species — the Bali, Java and Caspian tigers — have become extinct in the past 70 years."

Perhaps the Amur Tiger has been just a little luckier than the South China Tiger which has been pushed to the brink of extinction. Though footprints and other evidence of the tiger's continued existence have been found, no single wild individual of the sub-species has been seen in recent years.

And the captive South China Tigers in zoos face severe inbreeding and genetic problems.

Since 1998, the Wildlife Conservation Society has been monitoring the Amur Tiger and Far Eastern Leopard, devoting more than US$300,000 to protection and research programs. Its data and findings helped create the Hunchun Nature Reserve in 2001, and the organization continues to support the reserve with more research work, staff training and public education classes.

Liu's mission this winter was the first time that a large-scale snare-removal campaign had been conducted in the reserve. The volunteers, under the guidance of expert staff, found and removed 308 traps while trekking for nearly 1,075 kilometers through the reserve.

"The springs on the traps do not pose any threat to human beings," Liu says. "But for animals, the harder they struggle in the traps, the more tightly they become caught. Finally, they die of exhaustion or hunger."

People still remember a tragedy that occurred as a result of trapping in 2002.

An Amur Tiger whose throat had been badly cut by the wire on a trap attacked people living nearby causing one death and severely injuring another person. The tiger was caught and taken to a veterinarian but later died.

"Some snares are targeted at herbivorous animals such as deer or goats, and their shrinking numbers — the tiger's major source of food — are also pushing tigers to the edge of extinction," Liu says.

For most of the volunteers who are city dwellers, the challenges and difficulties of living in the wild contained some unforeseen hardships. The rugged terrain and extremely low temperatures (down to minus 20 degrees Celsius) were only part of the story.

They ate only two meals a day to save time and walked an average of 20 kilometers a day through the forests while searching for traps. The water they took with them immediately turned into ice and some of the thirsty volunteers had to eat snow from time to time.

However, for the six amateur conservationists, finding the illegal traps was the biggest challenge.

"They are camouflaged to resemble tree branches and canes," Liu says. "With the help of the more experienced staff, we learned to identify and follow the footprints left by hunters and animals. It was not an easy job."

Liu, on his own, found two snares. Another volunteer, Zhang Ke, a reporter with the China Business News, personally donated 10,000 yuan to the reserve.

"The journey was so rewarding and impressive," Zhang recalls. "Tigers, at the top of the food chain, require a big number of animals lower down if they are to survive. So protecting all the animals is also a way to conserve our whole ecosystem."

Zhang, who has traveled all over China and the United States, Germany and England, adds that the conservation work in China still lags behind the Western countries, particularly in policy, laws and a healthy protection mechanism.

The Wildlife Conservation Society and the reserve have future plans to strengthen their monitoring and research work on endangered species, to expand their conservation campaign to more areas and to get more volunteers involved.

Though the lack of funding is a big problem, Dr Li Bing from the East China Normal University and a program manager with the Wildlife Conservation Society is optimistic about the future of the Amur Tiger.

"The point is to raise the general public's awareness of the urgency of this undertaking," Dr Li says. "It is not a task for conservationists alone. As with any species, if people miss the best opportunity to act, the work of protection becomes extremely difficult. The South China Tiger is one such case."

And everyone has a role to play in animal conservation. A single deal involving animal fur or animal bones, teeth and guts can lead directly to the death of a tiger, a leopard, a bear or a Tibetan antelope, experts say.

Perhaps the words of Baba Dioum, a well-known Senegalese conservationist, provide a good guideline for the future work of volunteers — and the rest of us: "In the end we will conserve what we love. We will love what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."

For more information, please log onto or contact Wildlife Conservation Society's Shanghai Office at 6223-2361.

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