The Amur tiger, the world's biggest wild cat, has pounced back from the brink of extinction to hit its highest population level for at least 100 years, the WWF said on Thursday.
For generations hunters have tracked down and killed the tigers as trophies, for their brilliant gold and black fur or for the perceived healing qualities its crushed bones bring to traditional Chinese medicines.
By the 1940s the sub-species had nearly died out and there were only around 40 surviving Amur tigers in its natural habitat in the frozen wilds of the Russian Far East.
Environmentalists had placed the beast, which can weigh eight times more than a human, on the danger list to follow the likes of the dodo — a flightless Indian Ocean bird — and other species into extinction.
But a Russian census this year showed there were 480 to 520 Amur tigers living on the remote edge of Siberia, meaning the total world population was about 600, said Alexei Vaisman, head of the Russia WWF's anti-animal trafficking program.
"Maybe in the mid 19th Century there were more Amur tigers but nobody can say for sure," he told Reuters by telephone. "At one time the tigers were very close to being extinct."
The Soviet Union banned tiger poaching in the 1950s, rescuing the species, and a joint program between the WWF and the Russian government from 1994 nearly doubled the population.
The WWF worked with the government to protect the tigers' natural habitat in mountain forests from loggers, sought to conserve its food supply of wild boar and deer and tried to persuade hunters not to kill the tigers, Vaisman said.
But he said it was a constant battle.
"There is still demand from China for the bones of the Amur tiger," Vaisman said. "An Amur tiger skeleton from Russia will sell for around $5,000 in China."
The tigers, which survive in small numbers in northern China and North Korea, have been known to attack and kill brown bears.
The Russians count the tiger population every three or four years and the population has stabilized at the highest level the food chain can sustain, Vaisman said.
The tiger may have made a comeback but the Amur leopard is struggling to survive in a diminished habitat in northeast Siberia near the border with North Korea. There are only around 40 left, Vaisman said.
"I'm a pessimist on the survival of the Amur leopard," he said. "I think it could go."