Wild tigers are to be reintroduced to Kazakhstan 70 years after they became extinct in the country.
The Republic of Kazakhstan announced plans to bring the iconic cats back to their historical range in the Ili-Balkhash region and signed a memorandum with WWF to implement a joint tiger reintroduction plan.
Kazakhstan’s tiger programme will contribute to Tx2 – the global goal to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, a commitment made by tiger-range governments at the St Petersburg Tiger Summit in 2010.
If successful, Kazakhstan will be the first country in the world to bring wild tigers back to an entire region where they have been extinct for nearly half a century. Previous relocation projects have only been considered in existing tiger habitats, such as in reserves in India. Kazakhstan’s tiger reintroduction program is unique and unprecedented and it requires the restoration of a vast riparian forest that is part of the wild tiger’s historical range.
In the last 100 years, global wild tiger populations have declined by 96%, from 100,000 to as few as 3,890 in 2016. Wild tigers had completely disappeared from Central Asia by the 1960s due to habitat loss and uncontrolled hunting and poaching.
The project is likely to take many years. The landscape has to be prepared and the wildlife they feed on reintroduced before the first tigers are brought in 2025 at the earliest.
To prepare for the return of wild tigers, the government of Kazakhstan will designate a new nature reserve in the southwestern Ili-Balkhash, in order to restore the unique riparian forest habitat that is adjacent to Lake Balkhash. This will include the protection of existing wildlife, and reintroducing important prey species, such as the endangered kulan (wild donkey) and Bactrian deer that are native to Central Asia, but now extinct in Kazakhstan due to poaching and habitat loss.
Restoring tigers will also help protect Lake Balkhash – one of Asia’s largest lakes and an important source of water in the Ili River basin – and prevent it from repeating the fate of the Aral Sea, formerly the world’s fourth largest lake and now 10 percent of its original size.
Askar Myrzakhmetov, the minister of agriculture, said: “Kazakhstan is moving along the path of green development. We are honoured to be the first country in central Asia to implement such an important and large-scale project, that not only will bring wild tigers back to their ancestral home but also protect the unique ecosystem of the Ili-Balkhash region.”
Ekaterina Vorobyeva, the director of WWF-Russia’s Central Asia programme, said there was hard work ahead to make the area ready. “That means tackling poaching and illegal activities, having well-trained and equipped rangers, thriving prey populations and engaged local communities.”