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Caspian Tiger - Panthera tigris virgata
Topic Started: Jan 18 2017, 01:22 PM (1,215 Views)
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Caspian Tiger - Panthera tigris virgata

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Conservation status: Extinct (IUCN 3.1)

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Clade: Synapsida
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Panthera
Species: P. tigris
Subspecies: P. t. virgata

The Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata), also called Hyrcanian tiger and Turan tiger is an extinct tiger subspecies that had been recorded in the wild before the end of the 20th century, and formerly inhabited the sparse forest habitats and riverine corridors west and south of the Caspian Sea, from Turkey, Iran and east through Central Asia into the Takla Makan desert of Xinjiang, China. Their diet probably consisted of mainly wild pigs and deer, and to a lesser extent horses and jungle cats. The Caspian tiger was one of the biggest cats to have ever lived.

It is closely related to the Siberian tiger. It has been described as being intermediate between Siberian and Bengal tigers.


Photographs of skins of Caspian and Amur tigers indicate that the main background colour of the Caspian tiger's pelage varied and was generally brighter and more uniform than that of the Siberian tiger. The stripes were narrower, fuller and more closely set than those of tigers from Manchuria. The colour of its stripes were a mixture of brown or cinnamon shades. Pure black patterns were invariably found only on the head, neck, the middle of the back and at the tip of the tail. Angular patterns at the base of the tail were less developed than those of Far Eastern populations. The contrast between the summer and winter coats was sharp, though not to the same extent as in Far Eastern populations. The winter coat was paler, with less distinct patterns. The summer coat had a similar density and hair length to that of the Bengal tiger, though its stripes were usually narrower, longer and closer set.

The Caspian tiger, together with Siberian and Bengal tigers, and the lion ranked among the largest Felidae that ever existed. The bodies of Caspian tigers were generally less massive than those of Siberian tigers (Ussuri population). Their average body length was around 3 metres (10 ft). Males weighed 170–240 kg (370–530 lb), whereas females weighed 85–135 kg (187–298 lb). The maximum known weight was greater than 240 kg (530 lb). Maximum skull length in males was 297 to 365.8 mm (11.69 to 14.40 in), while that of females was 195.7 to 255.5 mm (7.70 to 10.06 in).

Some individuals attained exceptional sizes or measurements. For example, in January 1954, a tiger was killed near the Sumbar River in Kopet-Dag whose stuffed skin was put on display in a museum in Ashgabat. Its body length was 2.25 m (7.4 ft), its skull had a condylobasal length of about 305 mm (12.0 in), and zygomatic width of 205 mm (8.1 in), its greatest skull length was 385 mm (15.2 in), which is considerably more than the other known maximum of 365.8 mm (14.40 in) for this population, and slightly exceeds those of most Siberian tigers.

In Prishibinskoye, a tiger was killed in February 1899. Measurements after skinning revealed a body length of 270 cm (8.9 ft) plus a 90 cm (3.0 ft) long tail . Males measured up to 2.95 m (9.7 ft) between the pegs. According to Satunin it was "a tiger of immense proportions" and "no smaller than the common Tuzemna horse." It had rather long fur.

Phylogenetic relationship to Siberian tiger
At the start of the 21st century, researchers from the University of Oxford, the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem collected tissue samples from 23 Caspian tiger specimens kept in museums across Eurasia. They sequenced at least one segment of five mitochondrial genes, and observed a low amount of variability of the mitochondrial DNA in P. t. virgata as compared to other tiger subspecies. They re-assessed the phylogenetic relationships of tiger subspecies and observed a remarkable similarity between Caspian and Siberian tiger indicating that the Amur tiger population is the genetically closest living relative of the Caspian tiger, and strongly implying a very recent common ancestry for the two groups. Based on phylogeographic analysis they suggested that the ancestor of Caspian and Amur tigers colonized Central Asia via the Gansu−Silk Road region from eastern China, less than 10,000 years ago, and subsequently traversed Siberia eastward to establish the Amur tiger in the Russian Far East. The actions of industrial age humans may have been the critical factor in the reciprocal isolation of Caspian and Amur tigers from what was likely a single contiguous population. While conducting a geographical variation study in tigers, it was discovered that the Caspian tiger is indistinguishable from other tiger subspecies. Its skull size and shape are similar to those of the Siberian tiger.

Distribution and habitat
Historical records show that the distribution of Caspian tigers in the region of the Caspian Sea was not continuous but patchy, and associated with watercourses, river basins, and lake edges. In the 19th century, they occurred:

  • in Middle Asia: in southwestern Turkmenia along the Atrek River and its tributaries, Sumbar and Chandyr Rivers; in the western and southwestern parts of Kopet-Dag; in the environs of Ashkabad in the northern foothills; in Afghanistan along the upper reaches of Hari-Rud at Herat, and along the jungles in the lower reaches of the river; around Tedzhen and Murgap and along the Kushka and Kashan rivers; in the Amu-Darya basin as far the Aral Sea; along the Syr-Darya to the Fergana Valley as far as Tashkent and the western spur of Talas Alatau; along the entire coast of the Aral Sea; along the Chu and Ili Rivers; all along the southern shore of Lake Balkhash, northwards into the southern Altai Mountains, and to Southeastern Transbaikal or Western Siberia in the east.
  • in the extreme southeast of the Caucasus such as in hilly and lowland forests of the Talysh Mountains, in the Lenkoran Lowlands, in the lowland forests of Prishib, from where they moved into the eastern plains of the Trans-Caucasus; and in the Zangezur Mountains of northwestern Persia.

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Panthera tigris virgata living space in 1900.

In the Middle Ages, they may have also been present in the North Caucasus, dispersing to north of the Black Sea up to the 12th century. Heptner and Sludskii (1972) suspected that the "lyuti zver" (Old Russian for "fierce animal") that non-fatally injured Vladimir II Monomakh, Velikiy Kniaz of Kievan Rus', was a tiger. Their former distribution can be approximated by examining the distribution of ungulates in the region. Wild pigs were the numerically dominant ungulates occurring in forested habitats, along watercourses, in reed beds and in thickets of the Caspian and Aral seas. Where watercourses penetrated deep into desert areas, suitable wild pig and tiger habitat was often linear, only a few kilometers wide at most. Red and roe deer occurred in forests around the Black Sea to the western side and around the southern end of the Caspian in a narrow belt of forest cover. Roe deer occurred in forested areas south of Lake Balkash. Bactrian deer occurred in the narrow belt of forest habitat on the southern border of the Aral Sea, and southward along the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers.

No data are available for home ranges of Caspian tigers. In search of prey, Caspian tigers were compelled to prowl widely and follow ungulates from one pasture to another. Wild pigs and cervids formed their main prey base. In many regions of Middle Asia, Bactrian deer and roe deer were important prey species apart from wild boar. Occasionally, they also preyed on Caucasian red deer, goitered gazelle in Iran, Eurasian golden jackals, jungle cats, locusts, and other small mammals in the lower Amu-Darya River area, and on saiga, wild horses, Persian onagers in Miankaleh peninsula, Turkmenian kulans, Mongolian wild asses, and mountain sheep in the Zhana-Darya and around the Aral Sea, and on Manchurian wapiti and moose in the area of Lake Baikal. They followed herds of migratory prey species such as reindeer, and caught fish in flooded areas and irrigation channels. In winter, they frequently attacked dogs and livestock straying away from herds. They preferred drinking water from rivers, and drank from lakes in seasons when water was less brackish.

Interaction with other predators
At least some of these regions were also host to other predators. In the north-east, the area of Lake Baikal was reportedly visited by the Amur tiger. In the south-west, places like northern Iraq, northern Persia and South Caucasia had Asiatic lions.

The demise of the Caspian tiger began with the Russian colonisation of Turkestan during the late 19th century. Their extirpation was caused by several factors:

  • They were killed by large parties of sportsmen and military personnel who hunted wild pigs and tigers.
  • The extensive reedbeds of tiger habitat were increasingly converted to cropland for planting cotton and other crops that grew well in the rich silt along rivers.
  • The range of wild pigs underwent a rapid decline between the middle of the 19th century and the 1930s due to overhunting, natural disasters, and diseases such as swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease, which caused large and rapid die-offs.
  • Tigers were already vulnerable due to the restricted nature of their distribution, having been confined to watercourses in large expanses of desert environment.

Until the early 20th century, the regular Russian army was used to clear predators from forests, around settlements, and potential agricultural lands. Until World War I, about 100 tigers were killed in the forests of Amu-Darya and Piandj Rivers each year. High incentives were paid for tiger skins up to 1929. Wild pigs and deer, the prey base of the tigers, were decimated by deforestation and subsistence hunting by the increasing human population along the rivers, supported by growing agricultural developments. By 1910, cotton plants were estimated to occupy nearly one-fifth of Turkestan's arable land, with about one half located in the Fergana Valley.

Killings or sightings
In Kazakhstan, the last tiger was recorded in 1948 in the environs of the Ili River, their last known stronghold in the region of Lake Balkhash. In Turkmenistan, the last known tiger was killed in January 1954 in the valley of the Sumbar River in the Kopet-Dag Range. The last record from the lower reaches of the Amu-Darya river near the Aral Sea was an unconfirmed observation near Nukus in 1968. By the early 1970s, tigers disappeared from the river’s lower reaches and the Pyzandh Valley in the Turkmen-Uzbek-Afghan border region.

In the Tian Shan range west of Ürümqi in China, tigers reportedly disappeared from the Manasi River basin in the 1960s. They disappeared from the Tarim River basin in Xinjiang in the 1920s.

In Iraq, the only reported Caspian tiger was killed near Mosul in 1887. The last known tiger in the Caucasian region was killed in 1922 near Tbilisi, Georgia, after taking domestic livestock. In Iran's Golestān Province, one of the last known tigers was shot in 1953; one individual was sighted in the area in 1958.

There are claims of a documented killing of a tiger at Uludere, Hakkari in Turkey in 1970. Questionnaire surveys conducted in southeastern Turkey revealed one to eight tigers were killed each year in eastern Turkey until the mid-1980s, and tigers likely had survived in the region until the early 1990s. Due to lack of interest, in addition to security and safety reasons, no further field surveys were carried out in the area.

It was reported that in 1997 a tiger was killed in the northeastern region of Afghanistan.

Conservation efforts
In 1938, the first protected area Tigrovaya Balka, "tiger former river channel", was established in Tajikistan. The name was given to this zapovednik after a tiger had attacked two Russian Army officers riding horseback along a dried-up river channel called balka. Tigrovaya Balka was apparently the last stronghold of Caspian tigers in the Soviet Union, and is situated in the lower reaches of Vakhsh River between the Piandj and Kofarnihon River near the border of Afghanistan. A tiger was seen there in 1958.

After 1947, tigers were legally protected in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

In Iran, Caspian tigers had been protected since 1957, with heavy fines for shooting. In the early 1970s, biologists from the Iran Department of the Environment searched several years for Caspian tigers in the uninhabited areas of Caspian forests, but did not find any evidence of their presence.

Restoration projects
Stimulated by recent findings that the Siberian tiger (Amur population) is the closest relative of the Caspian tiger, albeit slightly smaller, discussions started as to whether the Amur tiger could be an appropriate subspecies for reintroduction into a safe place in Central Asia. The Amu-Darya Delta was suggested as a potential site for such a project. A feasibility study was initiated to investigate if the area is suitable and if such an initiative would receive support from relevant decision makers. A viable tiger population of about 100 animals would require at least 5,000 km2 (1,900 sq mi) of large tracts of contiguous habitat with rich prey populations. Such habitat is not available at this stage and cannot be provided in the short term. The proposed region is therefore unsuitable for the reintroduction, at least at this stage.

While the restoration of the Caspian tiger has stimulated discussions, the locations for the tigers have yet to become fully involved in the planning. But through preliminary ecological surveys it has been revealed that some small populated areas of Central Asia have preserved natural habitat suitable for tigers.
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Tigers took the silk route

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Siberian tiger

Tigers took the silk route
January 2009. DNA from an extinct sub-species of tiger has revealed that the ancestors of modern tigers migrated through the heart of China - along what would later become known as ‘the Silk Road' - a team of scientists from Oxford University and the NCI Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in the USA have discovered.

In a study published in this PLoS One the team show that the Caspian tiger from Central Asia, which became extinct in 1970, was almost identical to the living Siberian, or Amur, tigers found in the Russian Far East today.

Tigers could be reintroduced into Central Asia
The discovery not only sheds new light on how the animals reached Central Asia and Russia but also opens up the intriguing possibility that conservationists might repopulate tiger-less Central Asia with Siberian tigers from Russia or China.

Professor David Macdonald, Director of the WildCRU at Oxford University and also one of the authors said: ‘The fact that the Caspian tiger was driven extinct in 1970 is an indictment of the modern age and not some long-gone piece of history. Our research indicates that the Caspian tiger's genes still exist, in the form of the Siberian tiger, so they could be restored to Central Asia. This restoration would obviously be a huge undertaking but what a triumph it would be!'

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Caspian tiger.

Caspian tigers never became extinct
‘What these striking results indicate is that extinct Caspian tigers and modern Siberian tigers are molecular nearest neighbours,' said Carlos Driscoll, a doctoral student studying at Oxford University's Wildlife Research Conservation Unit (the WildCRU) who led the study. ‘In a sense it means that Caspian tigers never became extinct, it's just that there never was any such thing as a ‘Siberian' tiger.' The relationship is so close that the mitochondrial DNA of the two sub-species differs by just a single nucleotide.

DNA sampling
Because Caspian tigers were not well studied before they became extinct almost 40 years ago the team had to retrieve DNA from specimens held in the region's museums.

‘We had to travel through Russia and Central Asia taking tiny bone samples from Caspian tiger specimens in natural history collections,' said co-author Dr Nobby Yamaguchi of Oxford's WildCRU. ‘We then compared the mitochondrial DNA from these samples with those taken from living animals, especially Siberian and Indian tigers.'

Tigers followed the Silk Road
The route that Caspian tigers took to get to Central Asia has always been a puzzle because Central Asian tigers seemed isolated from other populations by the massive Tibetan plateau. The new research suggests that rather than skirting around the plateau, via India to the south or Siberia to the north, perhaps about 10,000 years ago ancient tigers went through it along China's narrow Gansu Corridor - which would thousands of years later form part of ‘the Silk Road' trading route.

Tiger family tree - South China tigers are the daddy of them all
This fresh look at the tiger family tree suggests that the South China tiger, a sub-species now extinct in the wild, is unique - possibly the cat most closely resembling the ancestor of all modern tigers - making efforts to save it from extinction all the more important.

‘We came very close to losing the chance to study the South China tiger, even from a molecular standpoint, simply because it is so rare,' commented Carlos Driscoll. ‘Hopefully our findings will encourage the Chinese government to focus conservation efforts on this most endangered of living tigers.'


Journal Reference:
Driscoll CA, Yamaguchi N, Bar-Gal GK, Roca AL, Luo S, Macdonald DW, et al. (2009) Mitochondrial Phylogeography Illuminates the Origin of the Extinct Caspian Tiger and Its Relationship to the Amur Tiger. PLoS ONE 4(1): e4125. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004125

The Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) flourished in Central Asian riverine forest systems in a range disjunct from that of other tigers, but was driven to extinction in 1970 prior to a modern molecular evaluation. For over a century naturalists puzzled over the taxonomic validity, placement, and biogeographic origin of this enigmatic animal. Using ancient-DNA (aDNA) methodology, we generated composite mtDNA haplotypes from twenty wild Caspian tigers from throughout their historic range sampled from museum collections. We found that Caspian tigers carry a major mtDNA haplotype differing by only a single nucleotide from the monomorphic haplotype found across all contemporary Amur tigers (P. t. altaica). Phylogeographic analysis with extant tiger subspecies suggests that less than 10,000 years ago the Caspian/Amur tiger ancestor colonized Central Asia via the Gansu Corridor (Silk Road) from eastern China then subsequently traversed Siberia eastward to establish the Amur tiger in the Russian Far East. The conservation implications of these findings are far reaching, as the observed genetic depletion characteristic of modern Amur tigers likely reflects these founder migrations and therefore predates human influence. Also, due to their evolutionary propinquity, living Amur tigers offer an appropriate genetic source should reintroductions to the former range of the Caspian tiger be implemented.

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Tigers could roam again in Central Asia, scientists say

Date: January 17, 2017
Source: SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
Caspian tigers, some of the largest cats that ever lived, roamed through much of Central Asia before they were designated as extinct in the middle of the 20th century. But there is a chance that tigers — using a subspecies that is nearly identical, genetically, to the Caspian — could be restored to Central Asia, say experts.Share:

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Study co-author Mikhail Paltsyn, a Ph.D. candidate at ESF, poses with the taxidermied specimen of what is believed to be an Amur tiger. The specimen was recently donated to the Roosevelt Wild Life Collections at ESF.
Credit: Wendy P. Osborne, ESF

Caspian tigers, some of the largest cats that ever lived -- up to 10 feet long and weighing more than 300 pounds -- met a grim end in the middle of the 20th century.

Until the mid-1960s when they were designated as extinct, they ranged from modern-day Turkey through much of Central Asia, including Iran and Iraq, to northwestern China. The reasons for their extermination are many: poisoning and trapping were promoted by bounties paid in the former Soviet Union until the 1930s; irrigation projects during the Soviet era destroyed the tugay woodlands (a riparian and coastal ecosystem of trees, shrubs and wetlands) and reed thickets that were critical tiger habitat; and the cats' prey disappeared as the riparian habitat vanished.

But there is a chance that tigers -- using a subspecies that is nearly identical, genetically, to the extinct Caspian -- could be restored to Central Asia.

A study published online in the journal Biological Conservation lays out the options for restoring tigers to Central Asia and identifies a promising site in Kazakhstan that could support a population of nearly 100 tigers within 50 years.

"The territory of the Caspian tiger was vast," said Professor James Gibbs, a member of the research team and a conservation biologist who is director of the Roosevelt Wild Life Station at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, New York. "When they disappeared, the number of nations that hosted tiger populations was reduced by more than half."

The researchers say introducing tigers in a couple of locations in Kazakhstan won't make a widespread difference immediately but it would be an important first step.

"The idea of tiger reintroduction in Central Asia using the Amur tiger from the Russian Far East as an 'analog' species has been discussed for nearly 10 years. It met with considerable support from the government of Kazakhstan in 2010 during the Global Tiger Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia," said Mikhail Paltsyn, an ESF doctoral candidate who oversaw analytical aspects of the study.

"But the program needed a strong scientific foundation to evaluate the full habitat potential for tigers and to better explore different possible outcomes of the reintroduction in different scenarios," Paltsyn said.

In addition to Paltsyn and Gibbs, the research team includes ESF scientists Liza Yegorova, a recent master's graduate; Dr. Igor Chestin, director of WWF-Russia; and Dr. Olga Pereladova, director of WWF Central Asia Program. Paltsyn is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Cat Specialist Group and has served as a consultant with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and United Nations Development Programme.

The scientists say two factors have combined to raise the possibility of restoring tigers to the Ili-Balkhash region of western Kazakhstan:
• The breakup of the Soviet Union and introduction of market economies in newly established states has led to the recovery of tiger habitats in some areas as state-sponsored agricultural programs along rivers were abandoned.
• Recent work in phylogenetics (the study of evolutionary history) indicates Caspian tigers were closely related to Amur tigers that still exist, making Amur tigers a likely "analog" species for restoration of tigers to the region.

But Paltsyn laid out the challenges that would need to be addressed before tigers start roaming the landscape again.

"First, it is necessary to stop riparian zone degradation caused by uncontrolled fires. Second, it is vital to restore wild ungulate (broadly defined as a hoofed mammal) populations in the area. That, alone, could take five to 15 years," Paltsyn said. "Third, human safety and socio-economic benefits for local populations need to be addressed to provide a sustainable future for both tigers and people. And, finally, water consumption from the Ili River needs to be regulated in both Kazakhstan and China to support sufficient water level in Balkash Lake for tugay and reed ecosystems -- the main tiger habitat. However, WWF and the government of Kazakhstan seem to be ready to deal with all these difficult issues to bring tigers back to Central Asia."

Tiger reintroduction has support from the Kazakhstan government and local communities because of potential economic benefit from wildlife tourism, small-business growth and employment opportunities at Ili-Balkhash Nature Reserve.

In the study, the researchers analyzed scientific literature that revealed Caspian tigers once lived in an area about 800,000 to 900,000 square kilometers in size (between 300,000 and 350,000 square miles), mostly within isolated patches of riparian ecosystems (land along rivers or streams). Generally, two or three tigers occupied an area that covered about 100 square kilometers (about 40 square miles).

Spatial analyses based on remote sensing data indicated that options for Amur tiger introduction are limited in Central Asia. But at least two habitat patches are potentially suitable for tiger re-establishment, both in Kazakhstan. When the researchers considered current land use and the low density of the local human population, they found the most promising site is the Ili River delta and adjacent southern coast of Balkhash Lake. The river flows from northwestern China into southeastern Kazakhstan; it drains into Balkhash Lake, the 15th largest lake in the world.

The team identified about 7,000 square kilometers (about 2,700 square miles) of suitable habitat. Population models for animals that tigers typically prey on -- wild boar, Bukhara deer and roe deer -- suggest the area could support a population of between 64 and 98 tigers within 50 years if 40 to 55 tigers are introduced.

The Amur tiger is apparently the only subspecies that has significantly increased in number in the last 65 years. Scientists estimate some 520 to 540 still live in the wild. Moving some of them from the Russian Far East to the Ili River delta could be enough to eventually establish a wild population in 50 years, and would not harm the Russian population, the study says.

Around the world, similar relocation programs have worked for cat populations. The study says: "… case studies suggest high adaptive potential of big cats to novel environments. We know of no large cat translocation programs that failed strictly due to maladaptation of source population to environment of release."

Story Source: SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. "Tigers could roam again in Central Asia, scientists say." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170117083826.htm (accessed January 17, 2017).

Journal Reference:
Igor E. Chestin, Mikhail Yu. Paltsyn, Olga B. Pereladova, Liza V. Iegorova, James P. Gibbs. Tiger re-establishment potential to former Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) range in Central Asia. Biological Conservation, 2017; 205: 42 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.11.014

Caspian tigers (Panthera tigris virgata), a now extinct subspecies genetically similar to the Amur tiger (P. t. altaica), occurred until the mid-1900s from modern day Turkey and Iran east through Central Asia into northwest China. A literature analysis we conducted revealed that Caspian tigers occupied ca. 800,000–900,000 km2 historically, mostly within isolated patches of tugay- and reed-dominated riparian ecosystems at densities up to 2–3 tigers/100 km2. Herein we explored options to restore tigers to Central Asia using Amur tiger as an “analog” form. Spatial analyses based on remote sensing data indicated that options for Amur tiger introduction are limited in Central Asia but at least two habitat patches remain potentially suitable for tiger re-establishment, both in Kazakhstan, with a total area of < 20,000 km2. The most promising site—the Ili river delta and adjacent southern coast of Balkhash Lake—hosts ca. 7000 km2 of suitable habitat that our tiger-prey population models suggest could support a population of 64–98 tigers within 50 years if 40–55 tigers are translocated and current Ili river flow regimes are maintained. Re-establishment of tigers in Central Asia may yet be tenable if concerns of local communities in the Ili-Balkhash region are carefully addressed, prey population restoration precedes tiger introduction, Ili river water supplies remain stable, and the Amur tiger's phenotype proves adaptable to the arid conditions of the introduction site.

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