JINTANG, China – In a lifetime of herding, Liu Xiangqing had never seen cows so scared.
Normally, at 6 a.m., they would be gathered together, contentedly chewing and grazing in the dawn light. But this June morning, they were scattered through the pine scrub, pacing with agitation, their ears alert. Liu took a quick head count and realized one was missing, a 2-year-old bull.
By the time the remains were located, the tail and thighs were missing, the entrails spilled in the dirt. There was a gash in the neck; claw marks raked down the torso.
It was a sure sign: The Siberian tiger was back.
“In my whole life, I’d never seen a real tiger, but I knew it couldn’t be anything else,” said Liu, 52, who grew up in this remote Chinese village wedged between the Russian and North Korean borders.
Once believed nearly extinct in China, the Siberian tiger, the largest member of the cat family, is making a comeback, the result of a decade-long effort to restore its natural habitat by banning logging, hunting and trapping.
Although they weigh as much as 675 pounds, Siberian tigers are elusive creatures that slink into the forest when humans approach. Villagers learn that a tiger has been on the prowl when they spot paw prints the diameter of melons. Or, as is happening more frequently in China, they discover that livestock is missing or mauled.
In China, the number of Siberian tigers living in the wild (far smaller than those in captivity) has been listed in government statistics at between 18 and 22 for some years, said Li Zhixing, who has worked for decades on tiger protection.
Nobody knows the exact number, because the Chinese don’t have tracking collars on the tigers, but Li believes there could be as many as 40 now and that the population is growing.
“I personally think the number of tigers has doubled in the last decade and that the area populated by tigers has become much larger,” said Li, 60.
Li credits campaigns to restore the degraded forests in China and Russia. The latter began tiger-protection efforts in the 1940s and has the largest population of Siberian tigers, between 400 and 900, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
But in recent years, China has caught up and might even be moving ahead in creating tiger-friendly habitat, Li said.
Although Chinese still buy illegal body parts of tigers – poached in India or killed in captivity – for traditional medicine, the wild tigers have not been hunted in China since the 1950s, Li said. In fact, hunting of all animals except rats is banned in China.
But many people in the down-at-the-heels villages near the Russian border trap other animals, which Li believes also has an effect on tigers. First of all, tigers can easily be snared in traps. More important, trapping sets off a destructive cycle of theft; if humans steal the deer and wild pigs that are the tigers’ natural prey, the tigers in turn are prompted to steal the humans’ livestock.
“Getting rid of the traps is absolutely critical to making a better environment for the tigers,” said Li.
The Chinese government also has sought to improve the public’s attitude toward tigers by compensating farmers for pilfered livestock. Liu, for example, expects to receive about $500 for the young bull killed in June.
Here in Jilin province, the Forestry Ministry has designated a wildlife preserve containing 108,700 acres of spruce, pine and larch forest, the favorite habitat of the tiger. In August, scientists released 37 deer into the preserve to attract tigers as well as leopards, another endangered species native to the region.
“If you want to protect tigers, you have to protect their food supply,” Zhang Changzhi, a scientist with the World Wildlife Fund, which is sponsoring the project, said as he toured a preserve in Wangqing county recently.
Tigers are endangered throughout the world: Their population in the wild has dwindled from an estimated 100,000 in the early 20th century to as few as 3,200 today. Siberian tigers, also known as Amur or Korean tigers, are among six surviving subspecies and are native to the boreal forests, or taiga, of China, Russia and North Korea.
Chinese efforts on behalf of the Siberian tiger have won worldwide praise among environmentalists.
A 2010 report in the journal of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies compared China’s preservation efforts favorably with India’s and ventured that China might even earn the right to claim it “saved the tiger.”