The first Russians to describe the Amur tiger were Nikolay Przhevalsky and Vladimir Arsenyev, Russian explorers who observed the tiger during their mid-19th century expedition to the Primorye and Khabarovsk territories. They called the subspecies the "Manchurian tiger". In 1925, the Manchurian Regional Studies Society in Kharbin published an essay by Nikolay Baikov entitled The Manchurian Tiger, which contained hunters' observations, descriptions of tiger hunting methods and the local population's superstitions about the animals.
The history of the Amur tiger began to change as Russians first settled in the Far East. The indigenous populations had respected the tigers, seeing them as the masters of the taiga, and therefore historically avoided hunting them. Accordingly, the tiger population stood at an estimated 1,000 individuals in the mid-19th century. The new settlers brought with them uncontrolled commercial tiger hunting, killing up to 100 animals every year in the southern regions of the Far East. By the end of the 19th century, commercial hunting had become common in Russia, and the tiger was a favourite target for trophy hunters. By 1916, tigers could no longer be found on the eastern slopes of the Sikhote-Alin Mountain Range, and although small groups of tigers could still be occasionally be found near the Kur, Urmi, Khor, Bikin, Bolshaya Ussurka and Ussuri rivers and near the Black Mountains, their population continued to decline. As a result, within 10 to 15 years the Amur tiger population fell to one tenth of their historical numbers, never exceeding 100 animals. The division of the tiger's former range into isolated populations and the decline in numbers continued until the late 1930s, reducing the animals to the brink of extinction.
In the 1930s the new Soviet government issued a decree establishing nature reserves and protected areas, including the Sikhote-Alin and Lazovsky nature reserves and later the Ussuri and Kedrovaya Pad reserves. The first major scientific study of the Amur tiger was conducted by Lev Kaplanov, the first director and founder of the Lazovsky Nature Reserve. He was also the first to count the population of Amur tigers in the winter of 1939 and 1940, surveying an area of 30,000 square kilometres that he determined to be the best habitat for the tigers in the Primorye Territory. Only a few dozen animals were found.
In 1947 the government issued a blanket prohibition on tiger hunting in Russia. Moreover, catching tiger cubs was first restricted and later completely prohibited.
Russian scientists have been studying the tigers in a thorough and comprehensive way ever since. Most research has relied on traditional observation methods, such as tracking the number of tigers through the winter and studying predators' tracks. All in all, Russian scientists such as Yevgeny Matyushkin from the Sikhote-Alin Natural Reserve walked more than 5,000 kilometres following tigers' tracks.
Konstantin Abramov, the first director of the Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve, used the traditional method of regular tiger population counts established by Kaplanov as the basis for his methodology for tiger tracking surveys. Nature reserves began conducting these surveys regularly in 1959, inviting local hunters to help and also surveying areas outside the reserves' boundaries. In addition, all tiger tracks discovered within the nature reserves were regularly recorded, particularly the tracks of female tigers and cubs. Tracks were recorded by experienced field specialists, mostly professional hunters, foresters and rangers working in the areas they managed.
This allowed researchers to collect objective information about the number of tigers. The tiger population of the Primorye Territory began to increase in the 1960s, before which it had ranged between 80 and 100 individuals. Animals began to be spotted in remote areas of the Primorye Territory unaffected by human activity. Surveys conducted in the 1970s showed that the number of tigers had increased mostly along the northern fringes of their former range, where the tigers were moving into new habitats. The results of the annual tiger population surveys were entered into The Chronicle of Nature. Researchers working in nature reserves knew practically every tiger living in their respective reserves by sight. Population surveys from the 1980s and the early 1990s confirmed a further increase in tiger habitat and population, which stabilised at about 400 individuals.
Research provided Russian scientists with a huge amount of information about tiger ecology, including migration patterns (Matyushkin, 1997), seasonal differences in feeding patterns (Yudakov and Nikolayev, 1970; Matyushkin, 1992) and breeding patterns and tiger cubs' chances of survival (Smirnov, 1986; Yudin, 2006). The most complete bibliography of scholarly works on the Amur tiger is contained in Yevgeny Matyushkin's study entitled The Amur Tiger in Russia. The Bibliographic Guide 1925-1997 (Moscow, 1998).
After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., government funding for zoological research disappeared and Russia underwent an enormous social and economic transformation. Illegal poaching increased and a black market emerged to meet the Chinese demand for tiger skins, claws, whiskers, fangs and other organs for that country's non-traditional medicine. Economic development, road construction and significant growth in the oil and gas sector in the Far East left the tigers with less and less habitat. Nevertheless, during the difficult 1990s, Amur tiger conservation attracted the attention of international environmental foundations. The American Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) provided support for research and tiger population surveys. The WCS is currently working with the Far East with the Biology and Soil Science Institute and the Pacific Institute of Geography, both associated with the Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, to carry out annual surveys of Amur tiger populations in 16 locations. Findings from this research in recent years (since 1994) have been compiled by Dale Miquelle, a Wildlife Conservation Society scientist working in the town of Terney in the Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve, which until recently was the centre of tiger research. This compilation is entitled Tigers in the Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve: Ecology and Conservation (Vladivostok, PSP, 2005, 224 pages). Moreover, the so-called Siberian Tiger Project is the world's longest running project to monitor natural tiger populations. Estimates based on the latest data from 2005 put the number of Amur tigers between 400 and 450.
However, in the last decade the condition of Amur tiger populations has deteriorated as compared with the 1990s. Intensive farming in the area has destroyed the tiger habitat in sparsely forested flatlands, and the tiger populations in the Sikhote-Alin Mountain Range and the East Manchurian Mountains have become increasingly disassociated. Scientists worry that they may become completely isolated in the next decade. There has been an overall downward trend in tiger numbers. Today, the Amur tiger population is seriously threatened by both a lack of suitable habitat and adequate quality of prey, including ungulates such as Manchurian deer, as well as wild boar. Tigers are at greater risk in unprotected areas, where they often roam in close proximity to roads or wander into human settlements or logging areas. Finally, a lack of scientific knowledge of tiger biology leads to imperfect approaches to managing the Amur tiger population in Russia.
The Programme for the Research of the Amur Tiger in the Russian Far East was launched in 2008. The programme, which was developed by the Russian Academy of Sciences and enjoys the support of Vladimir Putin, is intended to develop a scientific basis for Amur tiger conservation. This has involved cutting-edge research methods, including the use of satellite tracking tags to monitor tiger migration and photo traps to identify tigers, as well as non-invasive molecular, genetic and hormone research, the zoological and veterinary examination of tigers, etc. The first scientific works from this new wave of organised research have already been published.
One of the programme's objectives is to formulate a new strategy for the protection of the Amur tiger in Russia. The first such strategy was published in 1996 and was intended to summarise the half century of Russian experience in protecting and researching the Amur tiger, as well as outline a long-term, comprehensive system of conservation measures.
A working group set up on the instructions of the Russian Natural Resources Ministry was able to draft a new strategy to protect the Amur tiger in six months. Russia's leading experts on the Amur tiger were invited to take part in the work. The new strategy for the protection of the Amur tiger in Russia and Actions Plan are expected to be considered during the International Tiger Summit to be held in St Petersburg in September 2010 and attended by heads of state and heads of government.
On November 21-24, 2010, St Petersburg hosted the International Tiger Conservation Forum which featured representatives of 13 countries that have wild tigers. The forum participants approved a global programme for the restoration of the tiger population and a declaration of tiger conservation. Russia will enact a national Amur Tiger Conservation Strategy.
Last summer, as instructed by President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Geographical Society established the Siberian Tiger Centre. Experts developed recommendations to improve the legal framework for conserving the flora and fauna. Re-equipping hunting oversight services is in progress. Support is provided to specially protected areas and individual hunting. Projects are developed to inform and educate the public on environmental issues.