MOSCOW, July 31 (RIA Novosti) – At least 19 endangered Siberian tigers, some of the rarest animals on earth, have been killed by poachers in Russia since 2012, the World Wildlife Fund said Wednesday.
In 2012-2013, Russian investigators launched seven criminal cases against tiger poachers and traders and confiscated the skeletons and body parts from at least 19 dead tigers, Pavel Fomenko, coordinator of the WWF’s branch in Russia's far eastern Amur province, said in a statement.
Siberian tigers – also known as Amur, Ussuri or Manchurian tigers –weigh up to 384 kilograms (850 pounds) and prey on wild boars and deer in the taiga forests of Russia’s Far East and China’s Manchuria. Because of their mythical powers, they have for centuries been used in traditional Chinese folk medicine.
Despite massive efforts to protect the species, there are only about an estimated 450 Siberian tigers left in the wild, most of them in Russia's Far East, according to the World Conservation Union. In 2009, the New-York based Wildlife Conservation Society said the total number of Siberian tigers remaining in the wild is about 300.
Fomenko praised the Russian authorities for stepping up efforts to toughen the penalties for poachers who kill and smuggle tigers to neighboring China, where their bones and pelts are sold on the black market for tens of thousands of dollars.
“I hope that new additions to the Russian Criminal Code … will finally suppress those who want to kill tigers and trade them,” Fomenko said in a statement.
The WWF said earlier this month that the body parts of a Siberian tiger may fetch up to $500,000 in China. Illegal deforestation in Russia’s Far East is also another major threat to the species, as it contributes to the loss of the tigers’ habitat, the group said.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who is known to have a weak spot for animals, has a particular fondness for tigers.
On Monday, the Kremlin said Putin had initiated the establishment of the Amur Tiger Center, a non-governmental organization that will preserve and boost the Siberian tiger population.
In early July, Putin signed a law punishing poaching and trading of endangered species, including Siberian tigers, with up to seven years in jail.
In August 2008, Putin attached a tracking collar to a Siberian tigress during a visit to the Ussurisky reserve. He was also given a two-month-old Amur tiger cub as a present on his 56th birthday in October 2008. The tigress was named Mashenka and later sent to a zoo in southern Russia.