BEIJING -- A wild Siberian tiger was photographed in northeastern China last week for the first time, a conservation group said -- an indication the increasingly rare beasts are returning to areas they once roamed years ago.
The image of the elegant animal, also known as an Amur tiger, was captured on film in the Hunchun Nature reserve in Jilin province by an automatic "camera trap," the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society said Thursday.
It said the photograph provided "strong evidence that tigers are crossing from the Russian Far East to repopulate previous tiger strongholds."
The photo represents good news for conservationists in China, where the poaching of tigers is a long-standing practice fueled by folk beliefs that parts of the animal can be used for everything from curing rheumatism to enhancing sexual performance.
The dramatic photograph, taken at night, reveals a lithe adult tiger, its eyes aglow and its orange fur offset by black stripes. It is gnawing at the innards of a mule it had apparently killed.
Staff members at the Hunchun reserve, which the society helped establish in 2001, set up the camera trap after a farmer reported a predator had killed a mule. Retrieving the film the following day, they discovered the image of the tiger feeding on the carcass.
The wild Siberian tiger, largely indigenous to the Russian Far East, northeastern China and the Korean Peninsula, is listed as one of the world's most endangered wildlife species. No more than 400 are believed alive in the wild.
Fewer than 20 are believed to be in China -- mainly in the mountains of Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, China Daily says. The Chinese government's Forestry Administration placed all breeds of tigers under "key state protection" in 2001.
The Hunchun reserve sits on the western edge of the Russia-China border. The Wildlife Conservation Society says it offers a "corridor of habitat" so tigers from Russia can repopulate areas of China where they once lived.
It appears to be working: Siberian tracks have appeared in the area frequently since the beginning of the year, the official China Daily newspaper says.
The conservation society says it is confident that, as long as the enforcement of hunting laws keeps apace, Siberian tigers will keep returning to China. Endi Zang, a research society based in China, said the photograph represents "a bright beginning for Amur tiger conservation in the future."
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