Lonely Planet Writer

Caspian tigers may return to roam the woodlands of Kazakhstan

The famous Caspian tiger – all ten foot and 300 pounds of them – could once again roam the woodlands of Central Asia if an ambitious reintroduction plan goes ahead.

Forest in the mountains near Almaty
Forest in the mountains in Kazakhstan Image by Lonely Planet

A research team have found two areas in Kazakhstan that they believe could support a healthy population of the famous big cat. The Caspian tiger was hunted to extinction in the 1960s despite once having roamed an enormous area of land stretching tens of thousands of miles from Turkey to Iraq, and from Iran to the northwest of China. Until the 1930s, bounties were paid in the former Soviet Union for poisoning or trapping the tigers and their woodland habitat was steadily destroyed by irrigation projects.

Now, researchers believe the tigers, among the largest cats to ever have lived, could be successfully brought back to their old habitat. They think that an almost identical subspecies of the animal, the Amur Tiger from Russia’s Far East, could thrive and help build a sustainable population of nearly 100 within five decades. Professor James Gibbs of the State University of New York explained: “the territory of the Caspian tiger was vast. When they disappeared, the number of nations that hosted tiger populations was reduced by more than half.”

The project is supported by the government of Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth largest country and helpfully for a tiger population one of the most sparsely populated. Two areas, the Ili River delta and the southern coast of the giant Balkhash Lake are considered potentially ideal habitats. The Amur Tigers that would be introduced are what’s known as an “analog” species to the Caspian tiger, because they are so closely related. Luckily, Amur tigers are thriving with a growing population of over 500 in their home further east. Moving some of them to Kazakhstan would do no harm to the native population.

Before the plan can go ahead however, the woodland habitat will have to be protected from the damage of uncontrolled fires, while populations of prey like deer and wild boar will also have to be restored. A way for human and tiger populations to safely coexist will also have to be figured out. Local government and communities want the plan to go ahead because of its potential for wildlife tourism in the Ili-Balkhash Nature Reserve.
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