The largest of the world’s “big cats”, the Amur tiger, has bounced back from the brink of extinction after the charity WWF disclosed that it had reached its highest population for more than a century.

The Amur is a magnificent beast, its glossy gold and black coat gleaming as it pads its way on huge paws across the snowy wastes of Siberia and northern China. The tiger has been hunted relentlessly by those who covet its gorgeous fur, or want to exploit the fabled healing qualities of its crushed bones for traditional Chinese medicine. Or those who simply want to kill this giant of nature to hang its head as a trophy on the wall.

The prospects for the Amur tiger, also known as the Siberian, Korean or Manchurian tiger, have looked grim for many years. It was poised to join the white-fin dolphin of the Yangtze river as the latest species made extinct by man’s unstoppable encroachment. Everyone thought the tiger was dead as a dodo.

However, a census by the Russians this year showed there were 480 to 520 Amur tigers living on the remote edge of Siberia.

This puts the total world population at about 600, said Alexei Vaisman, head of the Russia WWF’s anti-animal trafficking programme. Mr Vaisman said that at one point, the tigers were close to being extinct. The creature’s main habitats are eastern Russia and north-east China. The tiger can grow up to 3.3 metres long and weigh as much as 300kg (660lb). They are fierce beasts that have been known to attack bears.

To survive the bitterly cold Siberian winter the tiger has fine, long fur and a thick coating of fat. Its coat is lighter than other tigers and its big paws function like snow shoes as it crosses the icy terrain.

A fully grown Amur usually lives in an area with a diameter of 100 to 300 kilometres, and uses its urine to mark the boundary that other tigers cannot breach, according to experts.

The Russians count the tiger population every three or four years and the population has stabilised at the highest level the food chain can sustain.

The Soviet Union banned tiger poaching in the 1950s, rescuing the species, and a joint programme between the WWF and the Russian government in 1994 nearly doubled the population.

While the overall figures are encouraging, the problem still remains that the tiger’s habitat is diminishing in north-east Siberia, where there are only around 40 left, said Mr Vaisman.

“I’m a pessimist on the survival of the Amur,” he said. “I think it could go.”

A major problem remains the use of crushed tiger bones in traditional Chinese medicine to cure impotence. The skeleton of an Amur tiger can fetch £10,000 on the black market.

The Chinese have also banned tiger-hunting and have also been trying to introduce artificially bred Amur tigers into the wild. Chinese scientists claimed last year that 12 of the animals bred in captivity had developed instincts to survive in the wild, four years after being released from a breeding base.

In December last year, a coalition of environmental groups organised a group of volunteers to go to north-east China to clear snares that were a threat to the animal’s survival.