But the headline grabbing figure that the big cat’s effective population is just 15 is less of a threat than loss of habitat, environmentalists say.
There are about 500 Amur tigers living in the wild – but genetic researchers have found that they are descended from just 15 animals.
And that, they claim, raises the spectre of genetic disorders and other illnesses in the population.
“The worryingly low effective population size challenges the optimism for the recovery of the huge Siberian cat,” the researchers from Russia, Germany and Spain wrote in the paper published in the magazine Mammalian Biology.
Russia has invested heavily in protecting its tiger population, with Vladimir Putin personally endorsing the campaign at an international forum in St. Petersburg last year.
The research, and its gloomy conclusion, may not take into account the different effects of genetic diversity on different species, ecologists say.
“For example cats are less sensitive to it than dogs,” Vladimir Krever, biological diversity programme co-ordinator at WWF’s Moscow office, told the Moscow News.
And he pointed to the successful reintroduction of European bison into the wild to prove that the genetic pool might not be the main criteria for saving threatened creatures.
Since 1951 the European bison has returned to the wild, despite the fact that in the early 20th century there were fewer than 50 surviving animals, all living in captivity.
Tigers need trees
Today’s tigers are threatened by illegal woodcutting just as much as their ancestors were devastated by poaching.
“Currently the most burning issue is conservation of the habitat area,” Vladimir Krever said.
Poachers haven’t disappeared today, but luckily they don’t make any serious impact on the number of feline predators, Krever said, while stripping away their natural habitat clearly does.
Preserving the forests would help maintain stocks of hoofed mammals – tigers’ natural prey – and ensure that the big cats have enough to eat.
“And if we are aiming to increase their number further, it’s definitely forests restoration to start with,” Krever concluded.