by Xinhua writer Li Kun
BEIJING, May 23 (Xinhua) -- While the growth of the Siberian tiger population has provided some comfort to animal protection experts, increasing human-tiger conflicts in northeast China have created new challenges.
Lang Jianmin, an expert and official from the Hunchun National Siberian Tiger Nature Reserve in northeast China's Jilin Province, said the tigers have been frequently spotted in residential areas and have also preyed on livestock.
"Eating livestock may cause the tigers to become more domesticated and ruin their relationship with local residents. If one of them eats sickened livestock, the entire species could be harmed," Lang said.
Lang said that while expanding the species' population has been no easy task, the challenges ahead will be equally daunting.
The State Forestry Administration announced on Tuesday that the number of wild Siberian tigers had increased to 18 to 22. The government has a goal of bringing the number to 40 by 2022.
According to data from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, only 12 to 16 tigers lived in the wild in 2000.
In the county-level city of Hunchun, the tigers' recovering population has brought mixed reactions from locals.
Wang Zenxiang, a resident of the nearby village of Xigou, said he saw a tiger in his yard on the morning of March 23.
"After hearing some noise, I thought it was my cattle coming back home. However, when I opened the door to my backyard and turned on a flashlight, I felt my breath disappear -- it was a tiger!" Wang said.
Although the tiger left without incident, some of his cattle were attacked by tigers in April, as the fence he erected in his backyard to keep them out failed to do so.
No humans have been injured or killed by tigers in Hunchun, although two villagers narrowly escaped a tiger while looking for their missing cattle on May 18.
Under a compensation program enacted by the Jilin provincial government in 2006, individuals can get compensation from provincial and county governments if their livestock or poultry are killed by wild animals.
From 2006 to 2011, the provincial government doled out 38 million yuan (6.1 million U.S. dollars) in compensation for 13,811 wild animal attacks.
To minimize local residents' losses and prevent public backlash, Hunchun border police started a campaign on Monday to educate locals about first aid and emergency response methods in the event of a wild tiger attack.
On Monday, farmers found two sets of footprints which experts say belong to two wild Siberian tigers -- a mother and her cub -- in a ginseng plantation in Hunchun.
"A tigress bringing her cub around is not common and indicates the species is reproducing properly," Lang said. "It is good news for all those who are engaged in Siberian tiger protection."
Siberian tigers, one of the world's rarest animal species, mainly live in far eastern Russia, northeast China and northern areas of the Korean Peninsula. Less than 500 Siberian tigers currently live in the wild.
The wild Siberian tiger population began to decline after humans began developing the local forestry industry in recent decades. Poachers have also been blamed for the dwindling population.
In 2002, Yang Chunyan, an employee of a local forestry plant, was attacked and killed by a wild tiger.
A subsequent investigation showed that the tiger's neck was wrapped in an iron wire. Ambushed by local hunters and angered by the pain it suffered, the tiger was prone to attack people until its death, said Li Zhixing, secretary of the Hunchun Siberian Tiger Conservation Association.
"After that, people started to rethink the relationship between humans and wild tigers," Li said.
"It is men who have seized the habitat that used to be dominated by tigers," said Zhu Jiang, director of the Northeast Program Office of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Lang said Siberian tigers do not attack livestock by accident.
"We've found that some villagers purposely drive their livestock into the mountains for free grazing. That is an intrusion into the tigers' habitat," he added.
"The best way to protect tigers is to leave them alone," Zhu said.
Zhu said his organization is looking for ways to sustain the rare species. In July 2012, he and his colleagues introduced several deer at the Wangqing Natural Reserve in Jilin. Four months later, the domesticated deer had become wild.
"In the second phase of our experiment, we hope the wild tigers will prey on the deer," Zhu said.
Zhu said multiple dead deer have been discovered in the area, apparently killed by tigers or leopards.
"This indicates that we can sustain the species by increasing the population of their quarry," he said.
Tigers need large habitats in order to live comfortably, Zhu said.
"The way to end human-tiger conflicts is to respect the tigers' habitat and find a way to coexist with them," he said.