Russia Builds a Tunnel to Save Endangered Leopards, Tigers

The Narvinskii Pass tunnel allows the endangered big cats to avoid a deadly road as they move between Russia and China.
(Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)
May 6, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Maybe it’s a little perverse of me, but today I’m going to celebrate a piece of good news about leopards and tigers: Russia has just opened its first roadway improvement designed to protect big cats, on its Siberian border with China.

The Narvinskii Pass tunnel runs for about a third of a mile underneath a major migratory route for Amur leopards and tigers. They’re two of the most endangered big cats in the world, and just to give you a sense of the hazard they face from increased highway traffic in the region, check out this dash-cam video (skip to about 30 seconds in).

Until recently, there wasn’t all that much traffic from Vladivostok down to the border, and there was just a gravel road across the Narvinskii Pass. But over the past 15 years, according to Dale Miquelle, a tiger specialist in the region for the Wildlife Conservation Society, a major city has sprung up on the Chinese side of the border, and a busy four-lane highway now crosses through critical leopard and tiger habitat, with the usual highway barriers on the sides. Miquelle credited Sergey Ivanov, chief of staff to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with taking the initiative to protect the leopards.

So what’s so perverse about celebrating that? Well, pretty much all the recent news for tigers and leopards alike has looked grim. A few weeks ago, I reported that recent claims of a sharp increase in tiger numbers were just wishful thinking—and that tigers have lost 93 percent of their historic range, with a 40 percent decline since 2010. This week, Panthera, the cat conservation group, piled on with a study demonstrating that leopards have lost 75 percent of their historic range. Make that 95 percent in West Africa and up to 87 percent in Asia, where several leopard subspecies totter on the brink of extinction. The study recommends uplisting those subspecies to critically endangered and endangered and reclassifying the entire species as vulnerable—meaning in urgent need of conservation—on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Amur leopard is considered critically endangered, and while estimates of the total population of the subspecies have more than doubled from just 30 or so individuals earlier in this decade, that’s misleading. As with those wishful tiger estimates, the increase doesn’t mean there are more big cats out there. It’s mainly a product of better methods of counting highly elusive animals. Back then, said Miquelle, researchers tried to estimate population based on tracks the leopards left in the snow. Camera traps dramatically improved those estimates, but only in the past couple of years have these cameras become available with the battery life and price to make them practical across the Amur leopard’s entire habitat.

Now Russian researchers believe about 50 of these leopards live on their side of the border, and their Chinese counterparts report somewhere between 33 and 42 leopards on their side. But the leopards go back and forth across the border, so researchers on both sides have recently agreed to share their data to produce a combined population estimate. For now, the best guess is that the total population is around 80 leopards.

The importance of the Narvinskii Pass to these travels came to light more than a decade ago. The Wildlife Conservation Society was funding research then by Linda Kerley and the late Mikhail Borisenko of the Zoological Society of London. They were “actually out trying to track and collect scat for DNA analysis and noticed animals moving repeatedly across this ridge,” said Miquelle. “It’s a really good example of how basic scientific research can help define necessary conservation actions. The work was being done for other purposes, but the tunnel was by far the most valuable outcome of that research.”

According to Miquelle, Ivanov heard about the pass and the threat from the proposed highway. He started to focus on the plight of Amur leopards at about the same time that Putin was adopting the Amur tiger as a favorite cause. Plenty of politicians talk, but Ivanov made things happen, designating Land of the Leopard National Park to protect 1,100 square miles of leopard and tiger habitat in the region in 2011. At the time, the possibility of a tunnel running under the park to separate the big cats from highway traffic was just a topic of discussion. Today it’s an accomplished fact, the price tag (not made public so far) be damned.

That’s an example Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could take to heart—for instance, in the Western Ghats, prime tiger and leopard habitat where bumper-to-bumper car and truck traffic on winding mountain-pass roads interferes with animal movements around the clock.

The United States could also profit from Ivanov’s example. It might be tempting to mock Moscow’s political strongmen for the macho character of their interest in the natural world. But would it be so terrible if President Obama—or really, any American political leader of the past half-century—demonstrated that level of passionate and patriotic attention to our native species, starting with wolves and grizzly bears?