Igor Chestin is the head of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s Russia chapter. He is in Delhi to attend the third Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation. Chestin is heading a radical scheme to introduce the tiger back to Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s biggest country. It was once home to the now-extinct Caspian subspecies of tiger (Panthera Tigris Virgata). With Chestin’s guidance, the Kazakh government is planning to introduce the Caspian’s closest living relative, the Amur or Siberian Tiger (Panthera Tigris Altaica) to the country. Chestin spoke to Down To Earth about the scheme and its prospects. Excerpts:
Talk to me about the Caspian Tiger, which once inhabited Kazakhstan
The Caspian tiger inhabited about 12 countries in Asia and Europe. These include Turkey, western China (today’s Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region), Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This subspecies got entirely extinct about 50 years ago. The last living specimen was shot in the 1970s. Today, there are no Caspian tigers, either in the wild or in captivity.
How does the Caspian feature in historical records of the countries where it was once extant?
Unlike other subspecies of tiger, the Caspian never had a single, consistent range. It was always spread in patches, along the shores of the big lakes. Basically, there were some select 15-20 valleys, where it existed in high numbers. Of course, there were no scientific censuses carried out at that time. But from hunting records, we can deduce that the density was quite high. These tigers did have interactions with people, but it was mostly a harmonious co-existence. Caspian tigers were considered sacred animals by local populations.
What was the main cause of the Caspian’s extinction?
Two major reasons. One was targeted extermination. With the Soviets seizing power in the 20th century, they were very keen to develop agriculture. The tigers were a threat to livestock and also to people doing agriculture, so they were exterminated by the 1940s. Caspian hunting was made totally legal. There were even bonuses paid to kill them in the former Soviet Union. It was only in the 1940s that hunting them was finally made illegal. The second reason was habitat loss. The tigers’ home-the unique riparian forests which consisted of several species of willows were gone as humans took over them and converted them to farmland.
What was the topography of the habitat that the Caspian tiger inhabited?
Mostly, it was forest near rivers. Once you went further from the river, it would become steppe, then turn into semi-desert and then to desert. There were also some tigers living in the mountains in Tajikistan, again along river valleys, but they never lived at height more than 1,000 metres.
Tell me about the reintroduction project- why was it initiated, who initiated it and what are its prospects.
WWF has been working in Central Asia since the late 1990s. We saw that many agricultural activities that were subsidized during the Soviet period, were abandoned by that time. So the natural ecosystems had started to recover. That is why, in the late 2000s, we decided to see whether there was any potential of restoring habitat that once supported the tigers. We did that analysis by satellite imagery and also, some field surveys. We found only one such place. It is the delta of the Ili river, which starts in western China and flows to Kazakhstan, where it ends up in Lake Balkhash. We found that the delta of the Ili could support tigers provided serious efforts were made to restore the prey base like wild boar and the Bukhara deer, a subspecies of red deer and the same genus as the Sambur in India. At the international forum for tiger conservation at the level of prime ministers which was hosted by Valdimir Putin in St. Petersburg in 2010, the Kazakh government got interested in our plan. We then met the prime minister of Kazakhstan, who strongly supported the idea of bringing tigers back to his country. We started developing the programme in 2011 and completed it 2014, when we presented it to the government. But the economy of the country was not good then and hence, our scheme is still pending.
The Caspian subspecies is gone. Which subspecies do you intend to bring in its place?
A genetic study published in 2009 showed that the Caspian tiger is basically identical to the Amur tiger. We plan to bring Amur tigers to Kazakhstan. Recent experiments which were carried out in the Russian Far East show that orphaned tigers if properly kept and rehabilitated, can successfully survive and breed in the wild. So, we plan to use orphaned tigers as the main source for reintroduction.
But can the Amur tiger adjust to Central Asia?
I think there should be no problems since it is a mammal. Amurs are highly organized mammals. If you take a dog from a cold place to a warm place, its pelt changes. The same is the case with tigers. I don’t think there should be any problem.
Do you think Kazakhstan has the necessary political will to carry out such a programme?
Kazakhstan is the most stable of the five Central Asian ‘stans’. It has high living standards. The reason for the recent downturn in the economy is the lower prices for oil because quite a large share of Kazakhstan’s budget was coming from oil and gas.
What is the time-frame for this project?
Once the Kazakh government confirms its political will by establishing a protected area in the future re-introduction site and approves the programme as a governmental document, after that, it will take at least 7 years to build up the prey population and then bring in the first tigers.
So it could be a reality by 2026?
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