SAV­ING SIBERIAN TIGERS

This is our last chance to help them.

Reader's Digest International - - Front Page - BY MATTHEW SHAER FROM SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE

ON A FRIGID AF­TER­NOON in Fe­bru­ary 2012, a pair of hunters stalk­ing sika deer along the Krounovka River in Rus­sia’s re­mote Pri­morsky Prov­ince were halted by an un­usual sight: a 4-month-old Amur tiger cub ly­ing on her side in the snow. Her eyes were glazed and dis­tant, her breath­ing shal­low. The cat clearly had not eaten in days, and the tip of her tail was black with frost­bite. The hunters carted her to the home of An­drey Oryol, a lo­cal wildlife in­spec­tor.

Oryol made an en­clo­sure for the tiger, who was even­tu­ally given the name Zo­lushka, and fed her meat, eggs and warm milk. Af­ter a few days, the tiger cub’s vi­tals had sta­bi­lized; af­ter two weeks, she was pac­ing rest­lessly. Heart­ened, Oryol reached out to Dale Miquelle, the di­rec­tor of the Rus­sia Pro­gram of the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety (WCS), an Amer­i­can non­profit.

Miquelle ar­rived at Oryol’s house with Sasha Ry­bin, a WCS col­league. Im­me­di­ately, Zo­lushka be­gan to snarl. Ado­les­cent tigers, de­spite their rel­a­tively small stature—Zo­lushka was about the size of a golden re­triever— are dan­ger­ous an­i­mals, with sharp claws and teeth. Miquelle used a stick to dis­tract her while Ry­bin jabbed her with a tran­quil­izer dart. Once she had col­lapsed, a pair of lo­cal vet­eri­nar­i­ans am­pu­tated the necrotic tip of her tail. Bandaged and se­dated, Zo­lushka was moved to the Cen­ter for the Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and Rein­tro­duc­tion of Tigers and other Rare An­i­mals, some 40 miles to the south in Alek­seevka.

Opened months ear­lier by a coali­tion that in­cluded the Rus­sian Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety and the gov­ern­ment­funded group In­spec­tion Tiger, the Alek­seevka Cen­ter spilled over eight acres thick with brush and veg­e­ta­tion. “There were two main goals,” Miquelle re­called. “Don’t let the animal get ac­cli­mated to hu­mans. And teach her to hunt.”

If or­phaned cubs could be re­ha­bil­i­tated to the point of mat­ing with wild tigers, they would not only pro­vide a boost in the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion but, in the ag­gre­gate, per­haps re­claim re­gions that hadn’t seen healthy tiger com­mu­ni­ties in decades. Be­yond that, the hope was to es­tab­lish a model that sci­en­tists in other coun­tries could

per­haps one day du­pli­cate.

Zo­lushka was the first tiger to ar­rive at Alek­seevka. In the early months, she was fed pri­mar­ily meat, dumped into the en­clo­sure through one of the slots in the fenc­ing. In the sum­mer of 2012 Zo­lushka was pre­sented with rab­bits—fast, but ul­ti­mately de­fense­less. The next step was wild boar. It seemed at first to con­fuse her. “It was like a kid try­ing to fig­ure out a puz­zle,” says Miquelle.

Three boars in, and Zo­lushka was driv­ing the an­i­mals to the ground with grace and skill. She did the same with much larger sika deer.

In May 2013, a lit­tle more than a year af­ter she ar­rived at the Alek­seevka Cen­ter, the de­ci­sion was made to set Zo­lushka free.

THE AMUR TIGER—also known as the Siberian—is, along with the Ben­gal, the big­gest in the tiger fam­ily. An adult male can mea­sure as long as 11 feet and weigh 450 pounds; the av­er­age fe­male is closer to 260.

In the not-so-dis­tant past, tigers roamed the shore­lines of Bali, the jun­gles of In­done­sia and the low­lands of China. But de­for­esta­tion, poach­ing and the ever-widening foot­print of man have all taken their toll, and to­day there are few wild tigers in China and none in Bali. At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, it was es­ti­mated that there were 100,000 tigers roam­ing the wild. Now, ac­cord­ing to the World Wildlife Fund, the num­ber is prob­a­bly much closer to 3,890.

In a way, the area com­prised of Pri­morsky and neigh­bor­ing Khabarovsk Prov­ince is the tiger’s last fully wild range. Just two mil­lion peo­ple live in Pri­morsky Prov­ince, on a land­mass of nearly 64,000 square miles.

In the au­tumn of 2014, I flew to Vladi­vos­tok to meet with Dale Miquelle, who had agreed to show me around his ward, which ex­tends from the south­ern lip of Pri­morsky to the east­ern­most reaches of Siberia. At 7 on a dark morn­ing in late Oc­to­ber, a for­est green Toy­ota Hilux squealed to a stop in front of my ho­tel, and Miquelle piled out.

As an­i­mals go, he is more bear than tiger—broad-shoul­dered, sham­bling, with meaty paws and un­ruly blackand-white hair. Now 63, Miquelle was raised out­side of Bos­ton and stud­ied at Yale. He re­ceived his doc­tor­ate in bi­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Idaho. In 1992, he was part of a small del­e­ga­tion of Amer­i­cans dis­patched to the Far East to work with Rus­sian sci­en­tists to study the habi­tats of the dwin­dling Amur pop­u­la­tion. He has never left.

Miquelle over­sees what is gen­er­ally agreed to be the long­est-run­ning field re­search project on the Amur in his­tory. Us­ing GPS col­lars and other track­ing tech­niques, he has es­tab­lished an un­ri­valed li­brary of data, from the size of the ter­ri­tory a male Amur might mark for his own (av­er­ag­ing nearly 500 square miles) to its pre­ferred prey (red deer and wild boar). That in­for­ma­tion has al­lowed

Miquelle to ad­vise the gov­ern­ment on what ar­eas need to be bet­ter pro­tected, and to help es­tab­lish new re­serves in Rus­sia and China.

That morn­ing he had an itin­er­ary ready for me: a ten-hour drive north to an old min­ing vil­lage called Roshchino, where we would catch a ferry across the Iman River and drive an­other hour to Udege Leg­end Na­tional Park. There we would set up cam­era traps: the com­bined in­frared and pho­to­graphic lenses stir to life at the first sign of mo­tion or heat and pro­vide im­agery and data that might oth­er­wise take months of back­break­ing work to ob­tain. A few cats had been seen in Udege Leg­end, Miquelle told me, and he wanted to get a grip on their num­bers.

As we bar­reled across a great, gray plain, Miquelle ex­plained that in the 1940s it was be­lieved that there were as few as 20 Amur tigers left in the Far East. Dur­ing the Soviet era, the bor­ders were tight­ened, and it be­came dif­fi­cult for poach­ers to get the an­i­mals into China, the pri­mary mar­ket for tiger pelts and parts. Af­ter the Soviet Union col­lapsed, the bor­ders opened again. “There was a mas­sive spike in tiger poach­ing,” said Miquelle.

A 2005 cen­sus of the Far East’s Amur pop­u­la­tion led by Miquelle and his team con­cluded that there were between 331 and 393 adults in the re­gion and 97 to 109 cubs. Miquelle be­lieves that height­ened con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, a more en­er­getic de­fense of pro­tected lands and im­proved law en­force­ment have sta­bi­lized the pop­u­la­tion. A 2015 cen­sus found 520 Amur tigers.

But sta­bi­liza­tion is dif­fer­ent from growth, which is what makes the Zo­lushka ex­per­i­ment so in­trigu­ing.

NEAR VLADI­VOS­TOK, the air had been clear and mild, but as we made our way north the tem­per­a­tures

dropped and the skies filled with snow. We spent the night in Roshchino. Over a bot­tle of fla­vored vodka, Miquelle booted up Google Earth on his lap­top. Be­gin­ning in late 2012, five new or­phaned cubs were brought to the Alek­seevka Cen­ter: three males and two fe­males. In spring 2013, they were out­fit­ted with GPS col­lars and rein­tro­duced into the wild at two dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions in the Rus­sian Pri-Amur re­gion. The col­ored lines on the Google Earth dis­play rep­re­sented their tracks.

Two of the male cats ranged hun­dreds of miles from their drop site across moun­tain ridges and soggy marsh­land. The third male and the fe­males staked out an area and re­mained near it, mak­ing shorter trips to hunt for prey. Miquelle brought up a sec­ond map, which dis­played data from Zo­lushka’s col­lar.

Zo­lushka was re­leased in May 2013 in Bas­tak Zapoved­nik, some 300 miles north of Alek­seevka. “The think­ing was that Bas­tak had plenty of boar and red deer,” Miquelle told me. “But most im­por­tantly, this was an area where there were once tigers, and now there weren’t. It was an op­por­tu­nity to ac­tu­ally re­col­o­nize tiger habi­tat. That’s to­tally un­heard of.”

From his home, Miquelle watched the GPS data for ev­i­dence of Zo­lushka’s first kill in the wild. Five days af­ter her re­lease, her GPS sig­nal went sta­tion­ary—of­ten an in­di­ca­tion that a tiger has brought down prey and is feast­ing on the car­cass. Af­ter Zo­lushka had moved on, rangers found the re­mains of a siz­able badger at the site. In the en­su­ing months Zo­lushka killed deer and boar.

Then, in Au­gust, Zo­lushka’s GPS col­lar mal­func­tioned. “I was re­ally freaked out,” Miquelle told me. “She’d sur­vived the sum­mer, but win­ter is crit­i­cal. A cat has to be able to eat and stay warm.” If it can’t, it will of­ten ap­proach vil­lages to search for eas­ier pick­ings, like cat­tle or do­mes­tic dogs. Hu­mans are put in dan­ger, and the cat is of­ten killed.

In Septem­ber, the mon­i­tor­ing team was able to use the ra­dio sig­nal from

Zo­lushka col­lar’s to roughly pin down her lo­ca­tion near the Bas­tak River. That win­ter of 2013, Miquelle trav­eled to Bas­tak. He and a pair of Rus­sian sci­en­tists found a set of re­cent tracks, which met at sev­eral points with boar prints. Cu­ri­ously, there was a set of larger prints, too: an­other tiger. Cam­era trap im­ages soon proved what Miquelle and others had pre­vi­ously dared only to hope: The sec­ond tiger was a healthy male.

IN THE MORN­ING it was still snow­ing. Three miles out on the ferry road and we started to see cars in the un­der­growth, stuck. The deso­la­tion was com­plete.

Bat­tling poach­ing in the Far East has al­ways been a dif­fi­cult propo­si­tion: Peo­ple are poor and of­ten des­per­ate, and the sheer size of the area makes law en­force­ment dif­fi­cult. WCS has teamed up with other or­ga­ni­za­tions to ed­u­cate lo­cals about the im­por­tance and fragility of the Amur pop­u­la­tion. But Miquelle re­mains un­der no il­lu­sions that he will get through to ev­ery­one. “Some­times, poach­ers are poach­ing be­cause they’re starv­ing, and they need food for their fam­i­lies.” In the Far East, a dead tiger can go for thou­sands of dol­lars.

Yet there has been progress. In 2010 Vladimir Putin presided over an in­ter­na­tional tiger sum­mit, in St. Petersburg, where 13 coun­tries pledged to dou­ble the world’s tiger pop­u­la­tion by 2022. And in 2013, the Rus­sian pres­i­dent spear­headed the en­act­ment of a strict anti-poach­ing law that made pos­ses­sion of tiger parts a crim­i­nal of­fense pun­ish­able by a lengthy spell in prison. In ad­di­tion, at the end of 2015, the Bikin Na­tional Park was cre­ated by

the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion. Cov­er­ing more than a mil­lion hectares, it will be the largest pro­tected area for Amur tigers in the world.

But as old threats are ad­dressed, new ones arise. Miquelle is par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about the ar­rival of ca­nine dis­tem­per dis­ease in tigers. “With con­ser­va­tion, you win bat­tles, but not the war. You’re in it for life, and all you can do is do your best, and hand it over to the next gen­er­a­tion.”

At the Udege Leg­end ranger sta­tion, we were joined by a squad of in­spec­tors and two WCS team mem­bers: David Cock­er­ill, an Amer­i­can vol­un­teer, and Kolya Ry­bin, Sasha’s older brother. We piled into two trucks and made our way into the sur­round­ing hills. The Udege Leg­end staff es­ti­mated that there were close to ten tigers in the area, so Miquelle had ar­ranged to lend them 20 cam­era traps.

We drew to a halt in the shadow of a high ridge. Tigers of­ten fre­quent the bot­tom of cliff faces, where there is shel­ter from the driv­ing winds. It was a good place for a trap, Miquelle said.

Ry­bin strapped up two cam­eras about ten feet apart. To test the first lens, a ranger crouched down and passed in front of the cam­era. A red light blinked; mo­tion had been de­tected. The rangers cheered.

ONE EVENING, Miquelle in­vited me to his home to look at pic­tures cap­tured on cam­era traps in Bas­tak. Zo­lushka was strong, self-as­sured, com­pletely at home in the wilder­ness. Fi­nally, we came to the other tiger: a thick­set male who had been given the name Zavetny.

Zavetny and Zo­lushka seemed to be shar­ing a range. Miquelle was hope­ful that one day he would see a photo show­ing Zo­lushka, who was then of breed­ing age, with cubs. Two years af­ter her re­lease, the team re­ceived a pho­to­graph from a cam­era trap show­ing two cubs trail­ing be­hind Zo­lushka. “Zo­lushka has made his­tory and made us all feel like god­par­ents,” says Miquelle, with a smile.

Pho­to­graphs have doc­u­mented the growth of her two cubs, who will soon be dis­pers­ing into the wilds of Bas­tak Re­serve to find a home of their own, con­tin­u­ing the re­cov­ery process that be­gan with Zo­lushka’s ar­rival some five years ago.

Zo­lushka af­ter her tail

surgery in 2012

Dale Miquelle tracks tigers us­ing ra­dio col­lars and tra­di­tional

bushcraft meth­ods such as “pug­marks” in the snow (pic­tured).

Sea of Ja­pan Sci­en­tists hope that rein­tro­duc­ing or­phaned tigers will help re­store the en­dan­gered preda­tor’s formerly vast range. Range Of The Amur Tiger in the Late 19th Cen­tury

Sea of Ja­pan

Mod­ern Range

Zo­lushka was pho­tographed by cam­era traps af­ter she was re­turned to the wild.

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