Massive Tigers Could Once Again Roam Central Asia

Scientists pinpoint two spots in Kazakhstan that could support the extinct Caspian tiger's reintroduction, with a little help from a nearly identical subspecies.

With help from a subspecies that's a near dead-ringer genetically, the extinct Caspian tiger could once again inhabit Central Asia.

In a study published in the journal Biological Conservation, researchers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and State University of New York (SUNY) say they have found two spots in Kazakhstan to reintroduce the extinct enormous cat.

Well, sort of. The scientists' approach hinges not on some sort of cloning scheme but on using Amur tigers (also known as Siberian tigers) to accomplish the feat. The animals, thanks to information gleaned from DNA analysis in recent years, are genetically almost identical to the Caspian cats and under the plan would function as a kind of stand-in.

Caspian tigers, extinct for close to 50 years, once roamed Central Asia, from the Caspian Sea to northwestern China, before struggles that included loss of habitat during Soviet-era land development robbed them of their prey and their survival. They were truly big big cats - about 10 feet long and weighing up to 500 pounds.

If the WWF and SUNY plan one day comes to fruition, big cats could again stalk the Caspian's old haunts.

"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," explained study co-author Mikhail Paltsyn, of SUNY, in a statement. "It met with considerable support from the government of Kazakhstan in 2010 during the Global Tiger Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia."

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However, Paltsyn said, before any reintroducing could be achieved, the best habitats for reintroduction needed to be found, and he and his study colleagues say they have now identified two sites in Kazakhstan that could support between 64 and 98 tigers within 50 years.

They looked at previous research on Caspian tigers and found the cats occupied isolated patches of land along rivers or streams stretching over 300,000 to 350,000 square miles.

Spatial analysis of modern land use and human populations left the team with limited options for future homes for the newly reintroduced tigers. But the scientists found two suitable places – the Ili river delta and the adjacent southern coast of Balkhash Lake – that prey-population models said would offer the animals an ample supply of food such as deer and wild boar.

The scientists stressed that such a project has some major hurdles, though, before it could ever be undertaken. Among them, according to Paltsyn, would be to preserve the prospective lands from degradation and also to restore hooved animal populations before the transplanted tigers arrived. "That, alone, could take 15 years," he said of the latter.

Human-tiger safety and co-existence issues, too, would need to be sorted out, and water use of the Ili River would need to be regulated in Kazakhstan and China to support the tigers' new habitat, the team said. The introduced Amur tigers would, of course, also need to be able to adapt to a new landscape unfamiliar to them.

"WWF and the government of Kazakhstan seem to be ready to deal with all these difficult issues to bring tigers back to Central Asia," Paltsyn said.

Top Photo: The Amur tiger is a near genetic dead-ringer for the extinct Caspian tiger.

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