In the wake of the Cold War, Siberia conjures images of desolation and desertion, a frigid and forsaken land where opponents to Soviet communism were exiled and forgotten. Siberia was synonymous with the Gulag, the series of punishing and dehumanizing labor camps that hosted nearly 25 million prisoners during the Soviet era - most of whom never escaped. Entire families, villages, and ethnic groups were effectively exterminated in this barren region. Those that survived were the lucky ones.
In the far eastern regions of this expansive territory, where dense deciduous forests cover the Sikhote-Alin mountain range east of the Amur River, one group of survivors has earned international infamy. Confined to the Amur and Ussuri regions of Primorsky Krai and Khabarovsk Krai, these individuals never endured the tortures of Gulag life, yet still suffered the wrath of Soviet turmoil. These are not political advocates or insubordinate citizens. These are not even men. They are the Siberian Tigers - the largest extant felid, and one of the world's most critically endangered mammals.
There are no more than four hundred Siberian Tigers remaining in the wild, but few other creatures have attracted such immense international attention and adoration. Like all other subspecies of Panthera tigris, it bears a distinctive coat of thick, orange hair, decorated with black stripes from head to tail. During the summer months, this coat becomes coarse to accommodate the escalating temperatures; in winter, softer and silkier hair grows to shaggy proportions, providing the big cat with an essential layer of warmth in its snowy mountain terrain.
No matter the season, the Siberian Tiger is a formidable beast, with males measuring an average of 4 meters (13 feet) from head to tail tip and weighing 250 kilograms (550 pounds); females measure a few feet shorter in length and weight about half as much as their counterparts. While its whiskered face earned it the nicknames "grandfather" and "old man" among the early Tungusic peoples, the feline generally wields a much fiercer reputation. During the Manchu dynasty, which reigned over China from 1644 through 1912, the elite unit of the Chinese Imperial Army was known as Hu Shen Yin: the Tiger God Army.
Unto itself, the Siberian Tiger is an expert killer. Smaller pickings - such as hares, pikas, and fish - may prove easier prey, but their insufficient amounts of meat make them mere holdover snacks rather than dietary staples. For a full meal, the big cat seeks out bigger prey, mainly wild boar and red deer, which comprise up to 90% of its annual diet. To take down these beasts, the Siberian Tiger must start with the high ground. Waiting patiently on large rocks or fallen timber, the hunter leverages its position to pounce on top of its prey, using powerful legs to launching itself onto the back of an unsuspecting passerby. Wrapping its sharply clawed forepaws around the struggling animal's neck, the predator sinks its teeth into the jugular to finish the kill.
Since topography plays an integral role in its hunting, the Siberian Tiger tends to inhabit regions with specific characteristics. In the mountain river valleys of the far east Russia, tracts of thickly vegetated pine and birch forests provide essential cover for the elusive and stealthy creature, while rocky embankments serve as perfect hunting posts. Yet, as paramount as natural surroundings may be to selecting a territory in which to settle, the carnivorous cat is first and foremost dependent on regions where food is plentiful. When wild boar and red deer become scarce, the search for food drives Siberian Tigers to unnatural habitats - oftentimes to the outskirts of villages and farms where grazing livestock supplant the usual food favorites.
Historically, resorting to domesticated prey yielded a dangerous scenario, where the Siberian Tiger was forced to live in dangerous proximity to humans. For centuries, man ventured deep into local forests to seek out the creatures, not necessarily as a source of food, but for their beautifully patterned coats. At one point, the species thrived throughout central Asia and as far west as the Black Sea's shores, but reckless hunting and habitat destruction led to local extinctions.
At the onset of the twentieth century, man's wars nearly led to the Siberian Tiger's complete extinction. During the Russian Civil War, the Red and White armies battling in Vladivostok nearly exterminated the entire local population. Nearly two decades later, as the Manchurian Chinese were driven north into Siberia, those tigers that had not already retreated far enough into the Amur-Ussuri territory were killed, too.
Even in the isolated and remote ranges of the Sikhote-Alin mountains, the species was not safe. Legal hunting extended well into the twentieth century until Soviet lawmakers finally instituted conservational measures. Initially, these laws managed only to deter hunters; the killing could not be stopped completely. By 1980, the total population wavered on the precipice of extinction, with an estimated 250 animals remaining. When the Soviet Union collapsed almost a decade later, whatever conservational measures existed were treated as null and void, and illegal deforestation and poaching resumed with a renewed vigor.
Only through the Siberian Tiger Project, founded in 1992, has the species been given the chance to survive and recover. Since the program's inception, conservationists have finally gained a powerful platform from which to influence Russian officials and local populations. By combating poachers and loggers through education and law, they have salvaged the wild population. Meanwhile, in-depth studies and testing on captured specimens have given scientists invaluable insights into how to execute rebreeding and rearing plans. Thanks to these efforts, the creature has proved fortunately easy to breed in captivity, and countless litters of cubs have been raised successfully, giving their species hope for the future.
An adult male Siberian Tiger walks through a temperate forest dominated by Mongolian Oaks (Quercus mongolica) in the Assuri River Drainage area of the Russian Far East. It is early fall and the foliage, much like that of portions of North America, is striking in its color intensity.
Rocky regions of low mountain with deciduous forests
East of Amur River in the Sikhote-Alin mountain range in far east Siberia
Wild boar, red deer, and other mammals
The Siberian Tiger is not necessarily the apex predator in its region; Asian black bears and Ussuri brown bears are competitive killers - but are also potential prey. Between 5% and 8% of the tiger's annual intake is bear.
Siberian Tigers are born blind, in litters of three or four cubs.
Female cubs remain with their mothers longer than male offspring, and will generally settle closer to their original home territory. Males are solitary creatures and often venture father away.
During breeding season, the female alerts potential suitors by urinating and leaving scratch marks on trees.
The Siberian Tiger is closely related and almost identical in appearance to the Caspian Tiger, which once covered a similar territory before being hunted to extinction.