This article was contributed by the Korea Forest Service. ― Ed.
During its colonial occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, the Japanese government initiated a large-scale hunt of Siberian tigers on the Korean Peninsula to destroy our national spirit. The tiger is an animal closely associated with Korean people and culture. As a result of the hunt, the number of tigers was severely reduced and it is presumed that by 1922 tigers became officially extinct in South Korea.
The global population of wild tigers was nearly 100,000 in the 1900s, but now only about 3,200-3,500 of them remain. Reasons include illegal trading of wild animals, poaching of both tigers and their prey and the destruction of habitats for forest development. Of the remaining tigers, only about 450-500 are Siberian tigers, which live in China and Far East Russia.
A Siberian tiger and her cub, which was born in Korea last year (KFS)
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora eventually designated a status of EN (Endangered) for tigers to mean they are considered to be facing a very high risk of extinction and thus demanded an immediate stop to international trading.
Moreover, Tiger Range Countries, where tigers are still found in the wild, and major NGOs that promote the preservation of tigers have together formed the Global Tiger Initiative, funded by the World Bank. GTI-affiliated organizations, by sharing data and information, have systematically pursued a collaborative effort to protect tigers.
In November 2010, ministers of tiger-inhabited countries and NGO heads met in St. Petersburg, Russia, to discuss fostering stricter provisions and policies to increase the tiger population.
Their Global Tiger Recovery Program’s main objectives include efficient supervision and protection of tiger habitats, eradication of illegal poaching, smuggling and trading of tiger-related merchandise, landscape management and cooperation in preventing international illegal trading, cooperation of the local communities, improvement of tiger and tiger habitat management methods and restoration of tiger populations.
When summits between South Korea and China took place in Beijing in 1994 and 2005, the Chinese government donated a Siberian tiger and tigress to commemorate bilateral diplomatic ties.
The tigers have been cared for by the state-run national arboretum in efforts to preserve them within Korea. During the 2011 Korea-China Conference on Forestry Cooperation, the two nations once again agreed upon consistent mutual cooperation in the preservation of Siberian tigers and for that Korea was given an additional pair.
Despite such efforts, the tigers Korea accepted from China failed to mate until 2011, when a Korean expert on tigers personally visited the site in China to pick out a robust-looking pair which then finally succeeded in delivering cubs.
This success displays promising hopes of preservation and restoration and hence holds a cheerful meaning for Korea.
As such, the Korea Forest Service is planning to create, develop and maintain a forest habitat for tigers ― as similar as possible to that of their natural habitat ― within the soon-to-be completed National Baekdu-Daegan Arboretum in Bonghwa, North Gyeongsang Province.
Baekdu-Daegan, a former migration route of Siberian tigers, is regarded as the most ideal for creating a “Tiger Forest.” The mountain range is South Korea’s core ecological axis, with numerous and various types of life and species.
Baekdu-Daegan provides a passageway through North Korea and eventually to tiger habitats in Russia and China, allowing tigers to potentially migrate to South Korea and contribute to the recovery process.
Currently, however, due to the division of South and North Korea, it is realistically unreasonable for the tigers to migrate along this path all the way through to the Demilitarized Zone.
As such, experts voice their opinion that although natural restoration is favorable, it may be wiser to produce results through off-site conservation by continuing to support preservation institutions and agencies.
Bae Joon-kyu, an expert at the Baekdu-Daegan Arboretum, said that organizations affiliated with “off-site conservation” must make efforts to secure the number of tigers by artificial reproduction and to maintain tigers’ genetic diversity. He further stated that the Bonghwa region is a fitting and optimal choice in terms of forestry type and climate.