BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
Jurassic Park was a landmark moment for modern culture and science. Not only was it one of the first movies to highlight what superb computer animation could really do, but it also brought themes such as extinction and conservation back into the forefront. The central conceit of the movie – that scientists were able to revive an extinct species – quickly ingrained itself into the pop cultural consciousness. The idea of bringing extinct animals back to life, as if to make up for our mistakes, soon became a popular trope in future works of science fiction. Scientists were quick to point out that it was unlikely that we’d ever really get to bring ecosystems back to life… until now, that is.
We’ve not seen hair, hide, nor whisker of Caspian tigers – also known as Hyrcanian tigers or Turan tigers – since their demise in the middle of the 20th century. Roaming the sparsely forested corridors of Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia, these gigantic cats regularly preyed on deer, pigs, and other heavyset ungulates. Scientists believe that the Caspian tigers, ten feet long and weighing in at 500 pounds, were some of the biggest and heaviest felines ever to exist, beefier than even prehistoric heavyweights like the sabretooths. Caspian tigers lived peacefully until the Russian colonization of the region; the forests they required gave way to farms and plantations, sportsmen hunted them for their pelts, and pig overhunting starved them out of their natural prey. Tiger populations swiftly collapsed. The last verified tiger was shot in 1922, and although undocumented sightings continued into the 1970s, the World Wildlife Organization concluded that the Caspian Tiger was functionally extinct.
So how do we bring them back? We’re not quite at the stage where we can just mix up a bouncing baby tiger cub in a test tube from a hair sample. Instead, a study published in the journal Biological Conservation lays out a plan to reintroduce tigers back into the lands where the Caspians roamed. Rather than try and clone the old species, biologists hope to use “analog species:” animals that are closely related to extinct animals and will fill the same ecological niches.
There’s a lot of work before we can set the tigers free, however. The first step is trying to find a suitable habitat for the cats within the region. The changing geopolitical landscape, not least due to the collapse of the once tightly fortified Soviet Union, has opened up a host of new opportunities that weren’t available when the Caspians died off. Currently, biologists have narrowed down several potential habitats that could be used as a “beachhead” to re-establish and rebuild tiger populations. Usually, two or three tigers share overlapping territories of roughly 40 square miles, usually based around rivers and streams. Biologists are keen on using Kazakhstan, more specifically the rich Ili River, which feeds into Balkash Lake, the 15th largest lake on Earth. The region boasts a low population and densely forested patches of land, making it an ideal testing bed. Deer, pigs, and other tiger staples live in abundance here, a perfect place to set up a tiger repopulation effort.
Currently, scientists are split between importing Siberian tigers to Kazakhstan: the biggest living tigers, comparable to the old Capsians. Other scientists hope to use Amur tigers, which are more closely related to the extinct Caspians – they would require less time to adapt to the warmer climates than Siberians. More than 500 Amur tigers still exist in the wild, and pro-Amur biologists hope that within fifty years – if all goes well – Central Asia could see a metaphorical, if not literal, return of the Caspian tigers.