Scientists are calling the latest count of Siberian tigers a wake-up call that the world could do better to protect these persecuted cats. A recent report by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) revealed that the last remaining population of Siberian tigers has likely declined significantly due to the rising tide of poaching and habitat loss.

The report documented a 40 percent drop in tiger numbers at key monitoring sites, taken from a 12-year average. The study’s authors say the decline is due primarily to increased poaching of both tigers and their prey in the region, coupled with a series of reforms in Russia that reduced the number of enforcement personnel in key tiger areas. The report was released by the Siberian Tiger Monitoring Program, which WCS coordinates in association with Russian governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Annual tiger surveys are conducted at 16 monitoring sites scattered across tiger range, and serve as an early warning system to detect changes in the population. The monitoring area, which covers 9,000 square miles, represents 15–18 percent of existing tiger habitat in Russia. Only 56 tigers were counted at these monitoring sites. Deep snows this past winter may have forced tigers to reduce the amount they traveled, making them harder to detect, but the report notes a 4-year downward trend in their population figures.

The total number of Siberian tigers across their entire range was estimated at 500 individuals in 2005. That count was hailed as a significant recovery for the population, since a count in the late 1940s tallied fewer than 30 animals.

Dr. Dale Miquelle of the WCS Russian Far East Program called the results of the surveys “sobering,” but remained hopeful. “The good news is that we believe this trend can be reversed if immediate action is taken,” he said.

Russian scientists and non-government organizations are recommending changes in law enforcement regulations, improvements in habitat protection, and a strengthening of the protected areas network to reverse the downward trend.

“While the results are indeed bad news in the short term, we believe the overall picture for Siberian tigers remains positive,” said Colin Poole, director of WCS-Asia. “There is an enormous amount of good will for saving Siberian tigers. We just need to translate this into action.”

WCS’s conservation work in this region has been generously supported by: 21st Century Tiger, E. Lisk Wyckoff, Jr. and the Homeland Foundation; Save The Tiger Fund – a partnership of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the ExxonMobil Foundation; US Fish and Wildife Foundation; Robertson Foundation; Panthera; and the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation.