For the First Time Ever, a Rehabilitated Tiger Has Birthed Cubs in the Wild

In an update from our February cover story, Zolushka found a mate in Siberia and now has two baby tiger cubs

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Found as a cub, starving and frostbitten in Russia's Far East by a pair of local hunters, the Siberian tiger Zolushka—Russian for Cinderella—is a conservation success story. As covered by Matt Shaer in a February 2015 cover story for Smithsonian, she was brought to Dale Miquelle, the director of the Russia Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, an American nonprofit. He, in turn, brought Zolushka to a newly opened rehabilitation and reintroduction center, where scientists were developing a new approach to caring for captured tigers, so that they might release them to reclaim their ever-dwindling territory. Zolushka became the first tiger to arrive at the center—“the test case,” Shaer wrote. 

And now, she's the first rehabilitated tiger in history to mate and give birth in the wild. Camera traps in the region have spied two young cubs at Zolushka's side.

Within a year after arriving in Miquelle's care, Zolushka was hunting prey--inserted surreptitiously into her pen--with the skill of wild tigers her age, and conservationists decided that she was ready for reintroduction into the wild. They outfitted her with a GPS collar (which soon malfunctioned) and planned to keep tabs on her via camera traps they’d installed throughout her range. It was a risky move, but, Shaer wrote, “the upsides were enormous: If left-for-dead 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.” 

The winter after her release, having adapted well to life in the wild, footage confirmed that Zolushka was sharing a range, and even food, with a healthy male tiger the scientists named Zavetny. Tracks left in the snow indicated that the two might be mating, raising the possibility of what would eventually happen.

“Miquelle is hopeful that one day very soon,” Shaer wrote in February, “he’ll receive a photo from a camera trap showing Zolushka with a line of cubs trailing behind.”

Last week, a little over two years after her release, Miquelle received what he was looking for. Zolushka’s maternity has made history, and has made the team that worked to rehabilitate her feel “like godparents,” says Miquelle, when I spoke to him this week about the milestone. 

If all goes well, he explains, Zolushka will care for her young until they’re about a year-and-a-half, at which point they’ll leave their mother to stake out their own ranges. While Zavetny may drop in the family from time to time (as male tigers are known to do), it’s the females that do the heavy lifting when it comes to raising their cubs, hunting to feed them for a year or more. Miquelle is particularly curious to see how Zolushka will handle the responsibility given that she didn’t have the chance to spend her full “childhood” with her own mother. And he warns that there are always dangers. “If the cubs don’t survive,” he cautioned, “it doesn’t mean she’s a bad mother. Lots of things could happen.” 

But he was quick to strike a celebratory note. In a video, the cubs can be seen huddling near Zolushka and playfully tussling with her. They also scratch and sniff a “scent-marking tree” where Zolushka and Zavetny may have marked territory before. “It’s interesting that the cubs were also interested in the scent marking tree,” said Miquelle. Other than that behavior, there isn’t much in the video that’s surprising or unusual—which is a welcome sign.

“They’re showing typical young cub behavior,” Miquelle said. “The good news is that Zolushka’s acted well enough as a mother to get her cubs to this stage, a couple months old. That’s a very good sign.” 

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