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Year of the Tiger: New hope for the "king of the mountains"?

In a remote corner of China the great Siberian Tiger holds on, barely.

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.