New Delhi: Caspian tigers, some of the largest cats that ever lived – up to 10 feet long and weighing more than 300 pounds – met a grim end in the middle of the 20th century. Until the mid-1960s when they were designated as extinct, they ranged from modern-day Turkey through much of Central Asia, including Iran and Iraq, to north-western China.
The reasons for their extermination are many: poisoning and trapping were promoted by bounties paid in the former Soviet Union until the 1930s; irrigation projects during the Soviet era destroyed the tugay woodlands (a riparian and coastal ecosystem of trees, shrubs and wetlands) and reed thickets that were critical tiger habitat; and the cats’ prey disappeared as the riparian habitat vanished.
But there is a chance that tigers – using a subspecies that is nearly identical, genetically, to the extinct Caspian – could be restored to Central Asia. A study published online in the journal Biological Conservation lays out the options for restoring tigers to Central Asia and identifies a promising site in Kazakhstan that could support a population of nearly 100 tigers within 50 years.
“The territory of the Caspian tiger was vast,” said Professor James Gibbs, a member of the research team and a conservation biologist who is director of the Roosevelt Wild Life Station at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, New York. “When they disappeared, the number of nations that hosted tiger populations was reduced by more than half.”
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. It met with considerable support from the government of Kazakhstan in 2010 during the Global Tiger Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia,” said Mikhail Paltsyn, an ESF doctoral candidate who oversaw analytical aspects of the study.