The Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), also commonly known as the Siberian Tiger, is the largest living cat on our planet. It got its name like other tigers by the places it used to roam, which 100 years ago, was an expansive range across Siberia, the Russian Far East, Northeast China and Korea. Today, 95% of the world’s last Siberian tigers are found in far-eastern Russia where the Amur river forms a border with China. Thus, they are now more commonly known as the Amur tiger. A small resident population of Amur tigers, estimated at over 20 individuals, clings to survival today in North-east China.
Like their close relative the now extinct Caspian tiger, the Amur tiger was relentlessly persecuted in the first half of the 1900s. By the 1940s after ‘pest eradication’ by the Russian army, they were truly at the edge of extinction. It was a Russian scientist who rang the alarm after conducting the first tiger survey in the 1940s, finding only 20-30 individuals remaining in Russia’s far east.
This shocking report led to their legal protection in 1947, including a ban on hunting and a reduction in the number of cubs allowed to be captured for Zoos around the world. With these new protections, their populations recovered steadily until 1985.
However, the Amur tiger faced a new challenge with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Economic collapse and spiraling inflation meant people in rural parts of Russia were forced to turn to the forest for subsistence. Forests were harvested for wood, berries, and meat – including the prey of the tiger, competing for the same food. Hunters were more easily able to cross the porous border with China, and a lucrative illegal trade in tiger bones and skins emerged.
It was a major disaster for the Amur tiger: between 1992 and 1994, approximately one hundred tigers — roughly one quarter of the wild population — were killed. Most of them ended up in China. Since 2010, the Russian government has cracked down heavily on poaching and boosted conservation efforts, with much success. Russian authorities believe that the tiger population will grow to over 700 tigers in the next three to four years.
The “Korean tiger” as the Amur tiger was known on the Peninsula, is sadly now locally extinct. It is hard to understand this loss, given the importance of the tiger in Korean mythology, art and culture and even in the nation’s founding myth. Tigers were believed to provide protection and peace for villagers, and were a favorite subject of Korean folk painting and sculpture. Tiger skins were sought after by the nobility to show off their wealth.
Their cheeks and whiskers were sewn into hats and worn by the royal bodyguards of the Yi dynasty. Tiger claws were given to wives as a token of their courage, or worn on necklaces as lucky charms. Yet the Korean state, like Russia, organized extermination campaigns, with up to a hundred tigers killed in a single day.
It was Japanese soldiers who sounded the final death knell for the Korean tiger, hunting them to eradication during their occupation. The last Amur tiger was reported to have been killed in 1922 in South Korea. Today a heavily fortified wall of barbed wire separates North and South Korea and blocks the passage of wild animals. The status of tigers in North Korea remains unknown, but is considered to most likely be extinct in the wild other than occasional border-crossers.
Overall, the Amur tiger is considered to be a conservation success story, with its population recovering enough for its status to be downlisted on IUCN’s Red List from Critically Endangered to Endangered. Today, their population in Russia at last count numbered 580 individuals (up from around 393 in 2005).
Together with the Caspian and Bengal tiger subspecies, the Amur tiger is one of the largest living cats that has ever existed. A male Amur tiger can reach a total length of more than 3.5m (11.5ft) and weight of 306kg (675 lbs.) with the heaviest weighing up to 660 pounds! The Amur tiger is considerably larger than the smallest living tiger subspecies, the Sumatran tiger which weighs between 75 to 140kg (165 to 310 lbs.).
The endangered Amur Tiger is a cold climate apex predator. At home in deep white snow, its primary habitat is covered twelve to twenty inches deep for four months of the year. Temperatures can fall as low as-40°F (-40°C). To survive these cold winters, Amur tigers have a thicker coat than the tiger subspecies of the south, especially around their paws and neck where they have a small mane. Their fur color can vary from orange to brown and changes with the seasons.
Their thick fur turns pale in the winter (to blend in with the snow), and grows almost double the length, to help them better disguise themselves in the snow and keep warm. In the summer, their fur gets thinner and darker to prepare them for excellent ambushes in dense woods. Amur tigers are not only good at traversing deep snow, but are also excellent swimmers. They prefer to make their territory close to water (called riverine habitat). Their range is larger than other tiger subspecies due to the relative low density of prey in their cold habitats and they will travel vast distances in search of prey.
Unlike the island dwelling smaller Sunda tigers (the now extinct Bali and Javan tiger and the Sumatran Tiger), the Amur tiger has quite a unique diet due to its different habitat in the colder forests of the northern hemisphere. The Amur tiger’s preferred prey is the larger ungulate (hoofed) species including the red deer, Siberian musk deer, Siberian roe deer, long-tailed goral, Manchurian sika deer, Manchurian wapiti and even moose. If they are hungry or their larger prey has been depleted, they will feed on smaller animals including brown bear cubs and Asian bears, rabbits, pikas, badgers and even salmon. Wild boars are abundant and so these are a common prey species of the Amur tiger today.
The Amur tiger, like all tigers around the world, are threatened by habitat loss, depletion of their prey populations, and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade.
Amur tigers are poached for their body parts and skins, with their bones used for “tiger wine” and as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This demand is almost exclusively coming from China, directly next door. Local Russian poachers kill the tigers, sell them to middlemen, and export the body parts out of Russia. Poaching pressure has declined recently due to intensive anti-poaching activities by Russian authorities but is still a very significant threat to Amur tigers, particularly if they cross out of protected parks and across international borders.
Only 20% of the Amur tiger’s current range lies in protected areas i.e. national parks. The remaining 80% roam in places where hunters also stalk their prey, and where the tigers come into conflict with humans, their livestock and their pets.
Like all remaining wild tiger subspecies, the Amur tiger is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation. Its forested habitat continues to be selectively logged (legally and illegally) for economically valuable Korean pine and other plants. This converts the forest to mostly oak and birch which does not support as many herbivores – the deer and wild boar that form the main part of the tiger’s diet. This means that the same size of forested area cannot support as many tigers (the carrying capacity).
Climate change is projected to have a similar impact on the Amur tiger’s preferred habitat, the Korean pine forest, with a warmer climate transforming it to spruce and fir trees, resulting in lower prey densities and a reduced carrying capacity.
Even without these pressures, the growth of the Amur tiger population in a now limited range means that the forests of Russia’s far-East are already reaching carrying capacity, creating pressure for young tigers to disperse and take their chances further afield. This sadly leads to conflict or poaching in areas not yet formally protected as was the tragic case of Pavlik, a rehabilitated tiger found poached (shot to death) across the border in China in September 2020.
Another long-term threat to Amur tigers is their lack of genetic diversity given the entire population is descended from only 20-30 individuals. No physical deformities have been observed yet, but inbreeding over time leads to greater susceptibility to disease and physical and genetic defects.
To tackle the largest threat to the Amur tiger’s survival – poaching and illegal killings – the Russian government launched the Tiger Response team as a tiger anti-poaching initiative. Today more than 14 Russian conservation teams, made up of more than 100 full-time members, actively patrol key tiger habitats on the lookout for poachers. Together with enhanced wildlife crime laws which made not only the killing of tigers, but also the possession of their body parts a crime, they are now strongly protected within Russia’s borders.
However, the Amur tiger needs expanded habitat and wildlife corridors that connect protected areas together to be able to continue its population recovery. A new transboundary protected area was created in 2019 in the south-eastern corner of Russia called the Komissarovsky Wildlife Refuge. This new area forms an important wildlife corridor for tiger migrations between Russia and China and between Chinese protected areas. This is important new habitat not only for the Amur tiger but also the critically endangered Amur leopard and dozens of globally endangered species.
Another exciting plan under way is to reintroduce the Amur tiger to the former range of the extinct Caspian tiger. The Caspian and Amur tiger subspecies are very similar genetically- almost indistinguishable- differing only a single nucleotide in their mtDNA. With this knowledge, conservationists are preparing to ‘rewild’ Central Asia, with the reintroduction of wild tigers in Kazakhstan.
The brand new Ili-Balkash Nature Reserve is being restored, and restocked with the tiger’s favorite prey with the first Amur tigers planned to arrive in 2024. This new global tiger site could support up to nearly 100 Amur tigers within 50 years.
To help with the lack of genetic diversity, scientists are planning to tap the genetic reservoir of the captive population. The Amur tiger has the largest captive management program of all the tiger subspecies, with at least 420 individuals managed in captivity and contributing to the species’ survival. These captive Amur tigers can help to genetically supplement the wild tigers and help recover their populations.
Tiger conservation in Russia is supported at the highest political level: President Vladimir Putin personally visits tiger reserves and is committed to their protection. This bodes well for their future with strong political-will and a good dose of national pride on the side of the world’s endangered Amur tigers.
Tigers are elusive and hard to spot. They do their best to avoid their top predator – humans. The best place to see an Amur tiger is in one of the many Zoos around the world that are part of the Amur tiger species survival, supporting their conservation in the wild. This includes the Oregon Zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Denver Zoo, Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, the St Louis Zoo and more. Check your local Zoo’s website to make sure they participate in Species Survival Plan for tigers and other endangered species to ensure you are supporting their survival in the wild with your visit.
Bikin National Park, Russia. Bikin National Park was newly established in 2015 and is one of the key habitats for the critically endangered Amur tiger, protecting 10% of their global population. Not only does it protect tigers, it also protects the home and culture of the indigenous Udeghes and Nanai people. A recent camera trap survey identified 26 tiger individuals in the park – 10 males, 10 females and 6 cubs in two litters.
One female was documented with 4 cubs, an unusual occurrence and one that testifies to the wellbeing of the tiger population in the national park. This indicates a stable and hopefully growing Amur tiger population in Bikin.
Durminskoye Reserve, Siberia Russia. This 50,000-acre wildlife sanctuary lies three hours from Khabarovsk in south eastern Russia, and is prime habitat for the last remaining endangered tigers. Tiger tracking guests sign up to help set camera traps and review data, look for tiger tracks in the snow, and by their visit help contribute to the protection of the tigers. Winter months are the best chance of spotting a tiger in Siberia, with its orange coat and black stripes making a striking contrast against the white thick snow. Learn more at www.russiatigertracking.com.
What is another common name for the Amur Tiger?
The Amur Tiger is also known as the Siberian Tiger, the Manchurian Tiger and the Ussuri Tiger.
Where does the Amur Tiger live?
Today the Amur tiger lives in the forests of far-eastern Russia where its population is increasing thanks to conservation efforts.
How big is the Amur tiger?
The Amur tiger is one of the largest living cats that has ever existed. A male Amur tiger can reach a total length of more than 3.5m (11.5ft) and weight of 306kg (675 lbs.).
What now extinct tiger is closely related to the Amur tiger?
The Caspian and Amur tiger subspecies are very similar, differing by only a single nucleotide in their mtDNA. This means that the Amur tigers could be reintroduced to the Caspian tigers’ former range in Central Asia, with plans underway for their return in a newly created wildlife reserve in Kazakhstan.
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