Dispersal plays a key role in spatial structuring of populations and has implications for managing top predators, especially those that are elusive and live at naturally low densities. The Amur tiger Panthera tigris altaica occurs in two populations. The Sikhote-Alin population in Russia lies north-east of a highway and train corridor running north and north-west of Vladivostok. The second population, Hunchun–Southwest Primorsky, is south-west of this corridor, in the c. 3,500 km2 Land of the Leopard National Park, Russia, and the 1,500 km2 Hunchun Reserve, China. Given the low density of tigers in the region (one breeding female per 250 km2) this second population is at a viability threshold. To address the threat of small population size the Chinese government has proposed a multi-stage expansion of habitat for this population to create a North-east China/Russian Tiger Landscape. This landscape comprises a complex of intact, healthy forests and forests with intensive livestock grazing and timber harvest, interspersed with rural villages, agricultural lands and medium and large urban centres.
The extent to which this patchwork of land uses can support a viable population of tigers is unknown. Can more intensive regional management create a tiger-permeable landscape that will increase population size, genetic connectivity and viability? Nine years of data from a grid of > 500 camera-traps covering c. 6,000 km2 in Hunchun, Wangqing and Huangnihe, China, provide insights into the natural history of tigers that suggest potential exists for creating a second viable population of tigers in North-east China and neighbouring habitat in Russia. This camera-trap monitoring network has produced a photo/video database of >1,000 images of 30+ distinct individual tigers. Here we report a long-distance natal dispersal event that indicates the current land-use matrix may serve as the basis for the long-term recovery of tigers in North-east China if management is improved to favour a tiger-permeable landscape.
Male T16 was first camera-trapped as a subadult (>18 months old) on 10 July 2014 in Laoyeling Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang Province, China, 10 km from the Russian border. On 1 September 2014 he travelled east to Tianqiaoling village, Jilin Province, 120 km from Laoyeling, where he was photographed and video-captured at several sites. Over a period of c. 15 days he killed four cattle. By 30 September 2014 he had dispersed 135 km further west. From October 2014 to June 2015 he killed 10 livestock in this new area 255 km from Laoyeling Nature Reserve. His dispersal route required moving through narrow habitat corridors and areas of intensely used forest. He has remained in the same area for the past 9 months and may be attempting to establish a breeding territory or a temporary home range in Huannihe Reserve.
Telemetry and camera trap studies have shown that young tigers have the ability to disperse long distances from their natal areas at 19–28 months old as they search for vacant territories (Behaviour, 124, 165–195). Male T16 moved through a series of large forest patches and habitat corridors to c. 270 km from where he was first trapped. The quality of habitat in this landscape could be improved by reducing livestock grazing and other forest practices such as forest frog farming. Further studies are needed to understand the nature and extent of the forest corridors required for dispersal of tigers at a landscape scale, but this example of a tiger dispersing and settling far from its natal area on the Russian border provides support for the current plan to establish a North-east China/Russian Tiger Landscape.