Can the Siberian Tiger Make a Comeback?

In Russia’s Far East, an orphaned female tiger is the test case in an experimental effort to save one of the most endangered animals on earth

(Toshiji Fukuda)
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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. Logging trucks and military convoys shuddered past us, their loads lashed down with heavy black cord. 

We reached Roshchino around 5, in the midst of what was shaping up to be a full-blown storm. The streets were dark and silent, the trees stooped with snow. The Udege Legend chief inspector was waiting for us at his office. Miquelle, who speaks Russian fluently, if unadroitly, with a heavy American accent, announced plans to proceed immediately to the park. Impossible, the inspector said: The weather was too bad. But if we wanted, we could stay with the local accountant, who had two spare beds in his office. 

“Turn-down service is at 6,” Miquelle deadpanned, in English. “And I hear the tapas restaurant upstairs is superb.”

That night, over a bottle of flavored vodka, Miquelle booted up Google Earth on his laptop and traced his finger across the screen. Beginning in late 2012, five new orphaned cubs were brought to the Alekseevka Center for rehabilitation: three males and two females. Last spring, they were outfitted with GPS collars and reintroduced into the wild. One of the tigers, Kuzya—known as “Putin’s tiger,” because the Russian president was said to have personally sprung the cat from his enclosure—has become famous for swimming across the Amur River into China, where, according to Chinese state media, he gobbled five chickens out of a rural henhouse. The colored lines on the Google Earth display represented the tracks of the five orphans. 

Two of the male cats proved to be wanderers, ranging 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 within the taiga to hunt for prey. Miquelle brought up a second map, which displayed data from the collar worn by Zolushka. 

In the weeks leading up to her release, the team at the center had considered a range of options for the reintroduction site, but settled on Bastak Zapovednik, in Russia’s remote Jewish Autonomous Region, some 300 miles to the north. “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.”

Removing Zolushka from the Alekseevka Center turned out to be much more difficult than getting her in. As a cub, she’d been drugged and carried through the gates; now, as an adult, she had grown comfortable with her surroundings, and at the sound of humans approaching, she’d wade toward the middle of the pen and flatten herself in the undergrowth. It would have been suicidal for the WCS staff to chase after her on foot, so Sasha Rybin, the same fieldworker who had tranquilized Zolushka a year earlier, climbed up into an observation tower and shot her with a Zoletil dart. 

Zoletil sedates an animal and slows its breathing without halting it altogether, and one of the uncomfortable realities of tranquilizing big predators is that their eyes remain mostly open. Zolushka, now weighing more than 200 pounds, was rolled onto a stretcher and carried to a nearby truck. 

Fourteen hours later, the vehicle arrived at the release site. The door on Zolushka’s crate was lifted remotely. She sniffed around uneasily and then, her truncated tail extended, she leapt down and waded into the brush. From his home in Terney, Miquelle watched the GPS data for evidence that Zolushka had passed a vital test: her first kill in the wild. At the Alekseevka Center, her prey had been fenced in as certainly as Zolushka herself; here, it could run for miles, and tigers tire easily. Zolushka would have to be patient and cunning. Otherwise, she’d die. 

Five days after her release, Zolushka’s GPS signal went stationary—often an indication that a tiger has brought down prey and is feasting on the carcass. Rangers waited until Zolushka had moved on, and then trekked to the site, where they found the remains of a sizable badger. In the ensuing months Zolushka killed deer and boar; initially, she was disinclined to wander, but soon she was making regular forays far afield, at one point walking a few dozen miles north, to the adjoining province of Khabarovsk. 

Then, in August, utter calamity: Zolushka’s GPS collar malfunctioned, leaving no surefire way for scientists to track her remotely. “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, now a “conflict tiger,” is often killed. 

I looked at the screen. The last bit of data from Zolushka’s GPS unit had been registered more than 12 months earlier. After that, there was nothing.

***

In the morning it was still snowing. The fire that heated the accountant’s office had gone out in the night, and we got ready in the cold, pulling waterproof gaiters over our boots. Miquelle favors camouflage in the field, and today he dressed head to toe in olive greens and earthy browns, pulling a black and white wool cap low over his wide forehead. Three miles out on the ferry road and we started to see cars in the undergrowth, the drivers standing helplessly alongside them, staring back at us without emotion. They were stuck, but in Primorsky, help is rarely given to strangers and even more rarely asked for. 

Alex, the inspector who had been recruited to get us to Udege Legend, accelerated past them. He tut-tutted under his breath, as if to say, How could you be so stupid to get stuck out here, in the middle of nowhere? The desolation was complete. You saw a hill in the far distance, and you thought to yourself that over that hill, there would be some sign of civilization, something to indicate that human beings inhabit this land, but you crested the hill only to find more emptiness, more of the same trees, more of the same snow. 

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.

“We talk about tragedy in terms of tigers, but you’ve got to think about tragedy in terms of people. 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. “You’re never going to be able to beat out poaching unless the economy drastically changes,” Miquelle says. “There will always be that temptation.” 

Yet there has been progress on cracking down on poaching, including the widespread adoption by parks across the Far East of the SMART-based protocol—a computer program, now in use in dozens of countries, that collects and collates data from patrols and poaching busts and allows managers to better evaluate the effectiveness of their teams. It has helped that the Russian government, under Vladimir Putin, has turned its attention to the plight of the Amur. In 2010 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 raised the penalty for possession of tiger parts from a minor administrative fine to a criminal offense punishable by a lengthy spell in prison. 

But as old threats are addressed, new ones arise. Miquelle is particularly concerned about the arrival of canine distemper disease in tigers, a development that scientists still do not fully understand. “With conservation, you win battles, but not the war,” Miquelle told me. “You don’t get to say, ‘I’ve succeeded, time to go home.’ 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 from Maryland, who was spending the winter in Primorsky; 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 somewhere close to ten tigers in the area, but they’d never had access to the camera traps that would help confirm their suspicions, so Miquelle had arranged to lend them 20 units and designed a program for the cameras’ use. As we climbed, the road narrowed, and the snow grew deeper, until we were 500 feet over the valley floor. Pressing my hand to the window glass, I found that I could barely make out the Iman River, a shard of metal in the fields below. 

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, and where an animal can leave a scent mark that will hold for weeks. Later, the same cat will circle back to see if another tiger has marked it. It was a good place for a trap, Miquelle said. 

A pair of cameras would be set about ten feet apart, the idea being that one would catch the left side of the tiger, and the other the right, to collect as much visual data as possible. With Miquelle directing, the rangers sliced away the undergrowth and Rybin strapped up the cameras. To test the first lens, a ranger named Sasha crouched down and passed in front of the camera. A red light blinked; motion had been detected. The rangers cheered. 

We installed two more sets of traps and turned around to head home. The sunset was the most beautiful I have ever seen: purple and indigo and resinous red. The adjacent ridges seemed to be on fire. I’d initially been surprised that the Amur tiger, with its orange pelt, could adequately camouflage itself in the snows of the Far East. Now it didn’t seem so hard to believe. I thought of something that Miquelle had said about the first time he encountered a wild Amur. “I was just struck by this feeling that this animal truly belonged, if that’s the right word. It was perfectly in sync with its surroundings.”

***

In September 2013, a month after Zolushka’s collar had stopped transmitting GPS data, the monitoring team was able to use the collar’s radio signal to roughly pin down her location: She was still within the reserve, somewhere near the Bastak River. 

Last winter, Miquelle traveled to Bastak to find out what had happened to her. Working off the radio signal data, he and a pair of Russian scientists were able to find a set of recent tracks, which met at several points with boar prints. Curiously, there was a set of larger prints, too, with distinctive digital pads: another tiger.

Camera trap images soon proved what Miquelle and others had previously dared only to hope: The second tiger was a healthy male. One evening, Miquelle invited me to his house in Terney to look at some of the images. When he first moved into the village, Miquelle’s neighbor was a woman named Marina. A cantankerous goat that Miquelle had been saving to serve as tiger bait ate Marina’s rose garden. Marina and Miquelle fell in love, and knocked down the wall that separated their apartments. Today their house is a sanctuary for broken animals: a honey buzzard with damaged wings who sleeps on a perch in the coat room; a three-legged dog that Marina ran over with her truck and subsequently nursed back to health. 

Miquelle and I sat in the living room, in front of his laptop, and he opened a folder labeled “Zolushka.” Inside were dozens of photographs—Zolushka in the banya; Zolushka on the operating table, her tail a bloody stump; Zolushka hopping out of her crate and into the Bastak Reserve. In later pictures, captured on the camera traps, she was strong, self-assured, completely at home in the wilderness. Finally, we came to the male: a thickset cat who had been given the name Zavetny.

Zavetny and Zolushka now seemed to be sharing a range, at one point apparently feasting together on the same kill. And on several occasions rangers have found “hump tracks”—evidence that Zavetny and Zolushka, who is now of breeding age, have mated. 

Whether or not they have produced cubs isn’t yet known. But Miquelle is hopeful that one day very soon, he’ll receive a photo from a camera trap showing Zolushka with a line of cubs trailing behind. 

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