Kazakhstan has announced plans to open its arms to a group of oversized, furry immigrants from neighboring Russia — endangered Amur tigers.
A vast land of sprawling steppes (the flat and open land that covers huge swathes of central Asia), Kazakhstan was once home to Caspian tigers, one of the nine tiger subspecies, but the big cats disappeared from the central Asian country — at the time a Soviet republic — in the late 1970s, driven to extinction by poaching and loss of habitat.
Kazakhstan government officials expressed interest in reintroducing tigers to their country in March, to representatives of the conservation organization WWF, and representatives from the group's Russia branch say a plan is in the works.
"We have agreed that WWF and the Ministry of Environment in Kazakhstan will draw up a comprehensive program to reintroduce the tiger in the area around Lake Balkhash," said WWF-Russia director Igor Chestin in a statement. "With a strong plan and proper protections in place, tigers can again roam the forests and landscapes of Central Asia."
Researchers believe Amur tigers are well-suited to thrive in the region, which possesses roughly 1 million acres of suitable tiger habitat, according to recent investigations.
Recent genetic research, conducted by sequencing DNA collected from museum specimens of extinct Caspian tigers, revealed the central Asian subspecies was extremely closely related to its Far Eastern cousin. In fact, although Caspian tigers were typically slightly smaller, their DNA differs from Amur tigers (sometimes known as Siberian tigers) by only a single letter of genetic code.
The tiger relocation plan aims to set up new tiger territory near the Ili River's delta, in Kazakhstan's southeast.
The world's wild tiger population is teetering on the brink of extinction, and, according to some estimates, only 3,200 big cats remain across 13 countries in eastern and southern Asia. Should Kazakhstan's plan prove successful, tigers would call 14 different countries home, up from the current 13.
At the world's first ever tiger summit, hosted by Russia in 2010, all 13 tiger range countries signed on to a long-range plan to save tigers and double their population by 2022, the next year of the tiger according to the Chinese zodiac.
Barney Long, head of Asian species conservation for WWF, applauded the Kazakh move to reintroduce tigers, and said the plan was good news for wild tigers in general.
"Efforts to grow the global tiger population will certainly benefit from expanding the tiger’s existing range," Long said.