HUNCHUN, China — The residents of tiny Caomao village have always had a difficult relationship with the local predators, the massive tigers they call “king of the mountains.”
Every spring, the villagers traipse into the hills to make offerings to the tiger god, asking protection for their families and livestock. They respect, fear and often hate the tigers — the beasts that feast on their cattle and have killed more than a few people through the decades.
“We used to be very angry with them and despised the tigers,” said village leader Sha Mingguo. “But it was our local custom to respect them as the god of the mountains. We never killed them intentionally.”
Whether it was intentional or not, villagers in places like Caomao and all around the Hunchun area did kill the tigers. For decades, villagers have competed with tigers for food and land. Until recently, it seemed the humans would win the battle. There are fewer than 20 wild tigers left in this remote northern corner of China bordering Siberia, a few miles from North Korea. The remaining wild Siberian, or Amur, tigers — less than 400 in all — live across a vast protected and unpopulated section of Russia.
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The Amur tigers all but disappeared during the last century, in large part due to hunting in Russia and trapping in China, mostly for tiger parts feeding the Chinese medicine industry. Through local protection efforts in the past decade, the beasts — the largest living breed of tiger, averaging 650 pounds — have begun making a tentative comeback. But for the tigers to thrive, experts and conservationists say, major changes, like moving the entire Caomao village off the national tiger preserve, are necessary.
The village is one of a few areas on China’s 1,000-square-kilometer Amur tiger reserve where humans and tigers attempt to coexist. Even though there are only 700 people in this village, history has proven that tigers don’t do well when humans live nearby.
As China welcomes the Year of the Tiger, renewed protection efforts are underway that just may give the wild Siberian tiger the boost it needs to go from a barely surviving species to again being the king of the mountains. Local wildlife protection groups are working with international agencies and potential funding to develop a new cross-border strategy to save the tigers.
“We’re trying to build an international protection system,” said Lang Jianmin, a Hunchun city official in charge of tiger preservation efforts.
That’s good news to those working to save the tigers, an animal nearly absent in the wild in China. While the country ostensibly celebrates and reveres the animals, it has also driven them to the brink of extinction through an insatiable demand for tiger parts and pelts used for medicine and decoration. New efforts to legalize some tiger trade with farmed animals could further threaten those few tigers that remain in the wild. But local conservation efforts, if handled and funded correctly, could pay off.
“If the Hunchun protection area situation is improved, you would almost immediately see an increase in wildlife in the area,” said Amsterdam-based Michiel Hotte of the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance.
A small group in Hunchun has tried to shield the tigers and made some forward strides over the past decade. Still, it is clear from one visit that the local efforts are woefully underfunded and struggling. Hunchun is beginning to see stirrings of the same economic development that has powered other parts of China with dire environmental consequences.
Among the steps forward in tiger conservation is a compensation plan for farmers who lose cattle to the tigers — something that’s happened more than 100 times in the past three years. Even that is somewhat underwhelming to villagers. Zhou Huijin, who lost a cow in 2008 to a tiger attack, received 3,000 yuan ($440) from the local government.
The compensation was okay, said Zhou, but he could have sold the live cow for twice that.
“We can get some compensation now, which is good,” said Sha, the village leader. “We can support the idea of protecting tigers.”
Since 2001, local volunteers have removed more than 10,000 traps from the mountains outside Hunchun, in the tigers’ habitat. The traps, placed by villagers like those in Caomao to snare deer and pigs, killed at least one tiger this decade and Sha acknowledged that villagers still lay traps in the hills. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of tiger sightings in the area as traps have dwindled. In 1998, the WCS said there were fewer than 10 tiger sightings, rising to nearly 90 sightings less than 10 years later.
Li Zhixing came in at the beginning of China’s fledgling Amur tiger protection efforts in 2001, when he was assigned to work in the Hunchun tiger protection bureau. A former police worker, Li had no interest in saving wild animals, but after a few months on the job, he found his life’s calling in teaching local villagers about the importance of protecting a critically endangered species.
“For every person, there’s one moment in your life when you find something you know is right,” Li recalled. “I knew this was what I was supposed to do.”
The government job didn’t last long, and Li was forced by mandatory age limits to retire a few years ago. Undeterred, he founded his own non-profit organization, one that works directly with his former government bureau on conservation and education. In 2010, the year of the tiger, he’s trying to raise about $2,000 to publish a book to educate schoolchildren about the need to save wild tigers in China. Li takes on one small project a year and continues to hope that China’s central government and international agencies will band together behind larger efforts to save the local wild tigers. After all, he noted, the central government was able to save wild pandas.
“I have hope,” said Li. “If we can try our hardest and really work at it, we still have time to save the tigers.”