Far East transnational park for endangered tigers and leopards

China and Russia collaborate on huge Far East transnational park for endangered tigers and leopards

Wild leopards and tigers are roaming in the far eastern wilderness again thanks to an historic China–Russia collaboration for a transnational park covering more than 1.7 million hectares.

The China-Russia border region, where China’s Heilongjiang and Jilin provices, border Russia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is home to the largest wild Siberian tiger and Amur leopard populations in the world.

A major success in protecting these large cat species is the functioning wildlife corridor securing the main route for tigers moving across the Russia-China border.

Connectivity is critical to enable tigers to move between China’s Northeast China Amur Tiger and Russia’s Land of the Leopard National Park. This significantly enhances the ability of the animals to move to new territories to access food and a mate, and in the long term this helps to increase the tiger population on both sides of the border.

Endangered speciesSiberian tiger

The Siberian tiger is a Panthera tigris tigris subspecies that mainly lives in Russia’s far eastern regions and Northeast China. As the largest predatory cat species, a male tiger’s body can reach about two meters in length with an additional tail length of about one meter. The average weight of an adult male tiger is 250 kilograms, and some can reach a hefty 350 kilograms.

The color of wild Siberian tigers range from brown in summer and light yellow in winter. Their backs and sides bear many rows of narrow black stripes, while their heads are large and round with several black horizontal stripes on their foreheads. These forehead stripes often come together in the middle, causing them to appear very similar to the Chinese character wang, which translates to “king” in English, which is why the Siberian tiger has the nickname “King of the forest” in China. 

Siberian tigers usually live in regions with thick forests, shrubbery and wild grasslands, and can range more than 100 square kilometers in search of food. They mainly prey on large and medium-sized mammals such as deer, sheep and wild boar, as well as small mammals and birds. This is usually accomplished through a sneak attack.

Due to the destruction of their habitat and poaching, their number has dropped significantly. In 2010, the Siberian tiger was listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 

Siberian tigers, also known as Amur or Manchurian tigers, were once very rare and elusive in the China-Russia border region, but this year they have been sighted multiple times in China’s Heilongjiang and Jilin provices.

About 500 Siberian tigers, one of the world’s most endangered species, are believed to be living in the wild. In 1988, some experts predicted the wild Siberian tigers, pushed to the brink of extinction due to lumbering and hunting, would disappear from China in four decades.

In recent years, Chinese government initiatives including afforestation, bans on commercial logging and detrapping operations have helped restore the felines’ natural habitats.

Satellite data showed in 2019, the vegetation quality in Heilongjiang was 27 percent higher than that in 2000, and the best in the past two decades. Between 2016 and 2020, the province completed afforestation on 388,000 hectares of land to raise its forest coverage rate to 47.3 percent.

Endangered species – Amur leopard or Far East leopard

The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), also known as the Far East leopard, the Manchurian leopard or the Korean leopard is a rare subspecies of the leopard, which has adapted to living in the temperate forests and harsh winters of the Russian Far East, China’s Heilongjiang and Jilin provices, and Korea.

The species is IUCN’s 2000 Red List of Threatened Species classifies the subspecies as Critically Endangered, and the CITES has listed it on Appendix I.

The Amur leopard has some very distinguishing features. The hairs of its summer pelt are 2.5 cm long but in winter they are replaced by 7 cm long ones. Apart from its long winter coat, which is a light colour in the winter, and more reddish-yellow in the summer, the Amur leopard is easily told apart from other leopard subspecies by its widely spaced rosettes with thick borders. It also has longer legs, probably an adaptation for walking through snow.

Adult males weight around 32-48 kg, and exceptionally large males weigh up to 75 kg. Females typically weigh 25-43 kg. The Amur leopard is habitually nocturnal and solitary. Nimble-footed and strong, it carries and hides unfinished kills so that they are not taken by other predators. The main prey species are roe deer and sika deers, small wild boars, along with hares, badgers and raccoon dogs.

Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis)

In 2017 China began a pilot program for the Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park as a sanctuary for Siberian tigers and Amur leopards. Spanning 1.46 million hectares in Jilin and Heilongjiang, and was officially launched in October 2021 to coincide with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, hosted by China.

China – Russia Ecological Cooperation on Protecting the Species

The protection of the Siberian tiger has benefited from China’s enhanced international cooperation, particularly with Russia, to build wildlife migration channels.

In June 2019, China and Russia signed a joint statement on developing a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era that includes joint construction of an ecological corridor to ensure the free migration of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards on the Sino-Russian border.

In 2020, a wild Siberian tiger and cub from Russia roamed into a nature reserve in Heilongjiang, where she stayed for about a month before returning to Russia. Around 100 Chinese and Russian tiger protection staff joined the tracking, research and protection of the family.

Protection of wild Siberian tigers is a complex issue that demands transnational cooperation, said Jiang Guangshun, executive deputy director of the feline research center of the State Forestry and Grassland Administration. While maintaining the good momentum, China and Russia should expand the cooperation depth and scope, and gradually form standardized and institutionalized cooperation and exchange channels, Jiang said.

Tiger numbers are tripling in the Russian National Park

The rugged landscape of Land of the Leopard National Park lies in one of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world. Located at the southernmost point of the Russian Far East, temperatures here can drop to as low as -40°C and it is home to the biggest of the big cats, the Amur tiger.

Conservation efforts in the Land of the Leopard National Park have generated incredible results and have surpassed the global goal to double wild tiger numbers, known as TX2, by tripling their tiger population. We asked Alexey Kostyria, WWF-Russia’s Senior Biodiversity Project Officer, to explain how this incredible progress was achieved.

The Land of the Leopard National Park was first established in 2012 and is the only place left in the world that has Amur leopards, in 2012 there were estimated to only be 40-50 individuals left. The Amur tiger population here was also concerningly low and estimated at 9-10 individuals. With strong commitment from the Russian government and support from partners such as WWF-Russia the tide has turned for Amur tigers and leopards in the National Park.

Previously, the poaching of ungulates as well as forest fires in the National Park seriously threatened the future of Amur tigers and other wildlife here. Over the last decade the Russian government has funded conservation efforts to address these threats. 

More rangers are patrolling the area which discourages illegal activity such as poaching and deforestation. These efforts are proving to be successful and tiger prey species such as ungulates are now increasing in the National Park, meaning there’s more food to support a larger population of tigers. 

WWF-Russia supports the government with a camera trapping programme that monitors tigers in the National Park all year round. The most recent results estimate the Amur tiger population at 30 individuals while there are thought to be more than 90 Amur leopards. Conservation efforts are clearly working here.

WWF-Russia’s Alexey Kostyria checks camera trap

One final success of Land of the Leopard National Park is it’s a functioning wildlife corridor, securing the main route for tigers moving across the border to China’s Northeast China Amur Tiger and Leopard National Park. Connectivity is critical to enable tigers to move to new territories to access food and a mate and in the long term this helps to increase the tiger population on both sides of the border.

The success of conservation in the Land of the Leopard National Park is clear: tripling the number of wild tigers is an incredible achievement. 

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Alexey Kostyria, WWF-Russia’s Senior Biodiversity Project Officer said, “I’ve worked for decades studying tigers and in my opinion the tiger is one of the most charismatic carnivores. They’re a critical part of the food chain as well as being a key indicator of a healthy ecosystem and this is why we must protect the tiger and its home here in the Russian Far East”.