Moscow: After a century in which its numbers have dwindled to the point of extinction, the Amur tiger, the largest cat in the world, has made an improbable recovery. According to WWF, the tiger's population is at its highest level for 100 years.
The latest census of the tiger, which hides in an isolated region near the Chinese border, shows there are between 480 and 520 animals surviving in the wild.
In the 1940s the sub-species had nearly died out, with around 40 tigers left. Most experts put its chances of survival as little higher than the dodo's.
Yuri Darman, head of WWF Russia's far-east office, said the tiger's comeback was good news. But he warned that the species remained critically endangered and was at imminent risk if China succeeded in lifting the global ban on tiger products at the Global Tiger Forum in Kathmandu.
``The success of the tiger population is mostly the result of the tiger ban in China and the support of the Chinese Government,'' said Mr. Darman.
The animals live in the Sihote-Alinn mountains, a remote and frozen 1200-km strip of territory in Russia's Primorski and Khabarovski provinces. The forested region is home to wild boar and red and sika deer, the tiger's food.
But the tigers are prey for impoverished locals and poachers who sell their hides on the black market across the porous border with north-eastern China.
The Soviet Union banned tiger poaching in the 1950s, rescuing the species, and a joint project between WWF and the Russian Government from 1994 nearly doubled the population.
Alexei Vaisman, head of Russia WWF's anti-animal trafficking programme, called it a constant battle. ``An Amur tiger skeleton from Russia will sell for around $5,000 in China.''
The tiger may have made a comeback but the Amur leopard is struggling to survive in north-east Siberia near North Korea. There are only around 40 remaining, Mr. Vaisman said.
- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007