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Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010

Key facts about the big cats


By PATRICK EVANS

The Siberian tiger is variously known as the Amur, the Ussuri, the North China and the Woolly-haired tiger.

Commonly confused with white tigers — whose pale coloring derives from a recessive gene, and which are selectively bred for exhibition in zoos to wow visitors — the Siberian looks like the Bengal tiger.

In perfect harmony with their taiga forest habitat, Siberian tigers have an orange coloring with black stripes on the body and white marks on the back of their ears that look like eyes — evolution's way of deterring anything from sneaking up on them.

It is one of five subspecies of tiger still existing in the wild, the other four being the Bengal, Indochinese, Malaysian and Sumatran. Genetically, its closest relative is the Caspian tiger, which ranged across Central Asia until the mid 1800s before finally being shot into extinction in the late 1950s.

The Siberian tiger's current home on the shores of the Sea of Japan lies on the very edge of what was once a massive domain, ranging right across Asia as far as Lake Baikal.

Siberian tigers, officially classed as "endangered," are today thought to number around 350 individuals, though that may be an overestimate. An October 2009 count by WCS Russia suggested a 40 percent decline in their numbers across the Sikhote Alin since the last main census in 2005. WCS puts the decline down to the combined factors of logging (legal and illegal), poaching (between 30 and 50 adult Siberian tigers are poached each year), inadequate hunting regulations and unusually heavy winter snows.

Tiger-tracking tours (typically not involving captures) are run by various tour companies operating out of Vladivostok. Direct flights to the Russian Far East are available on Vladivostok Air (www.vladivostokavia.ru/en/passengers/) from Tokyo, Fukuoka, Nagoya and Toyama. Indirect flights are available via South Korea, China, Thailand and Sakhalin. Best time to visit: September/October.

To find out more about Siberian tigers, and/or to donate to the cause of their conservation, visit www.wcsrussia.org/

Related links

Tiger of the snows

By PATRICK EVANS


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