How to save a Russian tiger

Matthew Shaer

An experimental programme in eastern Russia raises hope that one of the most endangered animals on earth may once again thrive

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 four-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 stabilised; after two weeks, she was pacing restlessly. Heartened, Oryol reached out to Dale Miquelle, the director of the Russia’s 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 tranquiliser 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 Centre for the Rehabilitation and Reintroduction of Tigers and other Rare Animals, some 40 miles to the south in Alekseevka.

A male Amur tiger rescued from poachers recovers at Utyos Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Kutuzovka, Russia

Opened months earlier by a coalition that included the Russian Geographical Society and the government-funded group, Inspection Tiger, the Alekseevka Centre spilled over eight acres thick with brush and vegetation. “There were two main goals,” Miquelle recalled. “Don’t let the animal get acclimatised to humans. And teach them 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 Centre, the decision was made to set Zolushka free.

Zolushka after her tail surgery in 2012
 

The Amur tiger—also known as the Siberian—is, along with the Bengal, the largest 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 neighbouring Khabarovsk Province is the tiger’s last fully wild range. Just 2 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 7am 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’s more bear than tiger—broad-shouldered, shambling, with meaty paws and unruly black-and-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.

Dale Miquelle tracks tigers using radio collars and traditional bushcraft methods such as “pugmarks” in the snow (pictured) and scent-marking on trees

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 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 barrelled 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,” Miquelle explained.

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 stabilised the population. A 2015 census found 520 Amur tigers.

But stabilisation 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 flavoured vodka, Miquelle booted up Google Earth on his laptop. Beginning in late 2012, five new orphaned cubs were brought to the Alekseevka Centre: 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 coloured 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 recolonise a 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.

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

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 team was able to use the radio signal from Zolushka’s collar to roughly pin down her location near the Bastak River. That winter of 2013, Miquelle travelled 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 organisations 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 pounds.

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 offence 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 hills. The 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 sudden 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.