By Jonathan Watts
Chinese government, World Bank and NGOs co-operating on multimillion-dollar scheme to protect Amur tiger.
Taking turns to act as human ploughs, Liang Jianmin and his tiger survey team forge through mile after mile of knee-deep snow in the mountain forests near China's frozen mountain border with Siberia.
From dawn to dusk they track, looking for droppings, paw prints, bark scratchings, scraps of fur caught on twigs and fences, any sign that the Amur tiger – the biggest cat species in the world – is still alive in the wilds of China.
Elsewhere in Hunchun, other teams scour the slopes and valleys near the North Korean border, while in Russia, zoologists and conservation groups trudge through the taiga forest with the same goal: measuring the scale of the challenge facing the most ambitious effort yet to save the endangered predator.
Next week, China will start the year of the tiger with fireworks, feasting and, the Guardian has learned, a new drive by the government, the World Bank and conservation groups to halt the perilous decline of Asia's most powerful wildlife symbol.
Since the last tiger year, in 1998, the wild population of the animal worldwide has almost halved to about 3,200 due to habitat loss, economic development and poaching for hides and traditional medicine.
China has been among the worst affected. The South China tiger, which has not been seen for many years, is feared to have followed the Bali, Caspian and Java subspecies into extinction in the wild. In the country's north, the population of the Amur tiger – which can grow to three metres in length and 300 kilograms – is estimated at 18 to 22.
Many of these animals are isolated from one another by roads and railways, making it difficult for them to breed. More....