Vladivostok — September 25, 2013 — In late August, the WCS Russia Tiger Conflict Team worked with a variety of partners to translocate orphaned tiger cubs to a rehabilitation facility. What follows is a description of that event, and includes a cameo by Vladimir Vladimirovich himself. Scroll to the bottom for more photos.
On August 21st, 2013, the WCS Russia office in Vladivostok received a request from Inspection Tiger regarding two young tigresses orphaned in the wild this past winter, and currently housed at the Utyos Rehabilitation Center in Khabarovskii Krai. We were asked to capture these cubs and transport them to the Alekseevka Rehabilitation Center in Primorskii Krai, not far from the regional capital of Vladivostok.
Joining WCS Russia capture specialists Aleksandr and Nikolai Rybin were Viktor Kuzmenko , Sergei Ivanov, and Alexander Lazurenko of Inspection Tiger, Andrei Aryol and Valerii Yashmetov of the Provincial Wildlife Department, and Yekaterina Sonin of the Severtsov Institute.
Although the cubs were in an enclosure at Utyos, that did not mean they were easy to catch. They were very cautious and the undergrowth there was quite dense, making the tigers very hard to see and just about impossible to catch. On August 24th it was decided that food would be placed in a cage attached to the enclosure, and camera traps would be set up to get a sense of when they were coming to feed. These cameras showed that the incredibly secretive animals fed in the dead of night, between 11pm -3am, so the capture window was defined.
The following night, after 5 hours of waiting, the cubsapproached the cage, but did not enter. The Rybin brothers waited in a nearby blind, ready to remotely close the cage door should one of the cubs enter, but neither did. The same happened the next night as well.
By the fourth day it was understood that a tactic shift was in order. Aleksandr Rybin, Nikolai Rybin, and Sergei Ivanov each took up different positions around the perimeter of the enclosure, hiding along the trail used by the tigers as they patrol the enclosure, while the remainder of the team make noise trying to drive the tigers out of hiding. The Rybin brothers and Mr.Ivanov were armed with dart guns that would administer a tranquilizer. As one of the tigers approached, Aleksandr Rybin got off a shot and the tiger roared then disappeared into the depths of the enclosure. Yes, the initial goal had been reached, but the team was not about to enter the enclosure with another agitated tiger still on the loose.
Luckily, Nikolai Rybin soon spotted the darted tiger—she had run all the way across the enclosure and had lain down against the fence on the far side. The drugs were clearly setting in. Without hesitation Aleksandr and Nikolai entered the enclosure and brought the tranquilized tiger out and into the vehicle for transport to Alekseevka. While there, they collected a variety of morphological data, took samples, and monitored her respiration.
While some team members stayed with the first tiger, the remainder returned to the task of capturing the second, which was far more cautious than the first. Despite attempts by team members to create a disturbance and flush the tigress towards the waiting dart guns, she did not appear. After two hours of waiting, Aleksandr Rybin got a glimpse of the animal, but his shot was blocked by brush so he did not pull the trigger. Another two hours passed before he got a second chance, and this time he took it. Unfortunately the gun misfired, and the dart fell at the tiger’s feet as she ran back into the understory. By then it was getting dark, so the capture attempt was called off for the night.
The next morning,Aleskandr only had to wait an hour before the tiger appeared, and he got a clean shot. They watched her run off, then when the drug took effect they entered the enclosure and, like her sister the day before, she was loaded into the transport vehicle and processed. Once all measurements were taken, and she was given a clean bill of health, the caravan headed south for Alekseevka.
Many hours and 700 kilometers later, they arrived. Waiting for them there were V. Rozhnov , V. Lukarevskii , and S. Naidenko of the Severtsov Institute, and V. Timchenko, the head of Inspection Tiger. As the cubs were unloaded they received some unexpected news: Russian President Vladimir Putin was on his way to the Alekseevka Rehabilitation Center. S. Donskoi , the Minister of Natural Resources, soon arrived with other officials in tow.
The drone of approaching helicopters soon filled the air, which meant that Vladimir Putin had arrived at the nearby hunting base. His motorcade reached the rehabilitation center twenty minutes later.
Putin and his delegation were told about the important role this rehabilitation center plays in giving orphaned cubs a second chance at life in the wild, and were then taken over to the enclosure as the two young animals from Utyos were released into their new enclosure. Everyone stood frozen and quiet, but the tigers were reluctant to move into their new home. They had a very strong fear of humans, which is an excellent attribute for any tiger who hope to be released back into the wild one day. Eventually, they bolted into the enclosure and out of view.
These young tigers will live here at Alekseevka for a few months, getting stronger and learning to hunt wild prey. Then they will be assessed for release back into the forests of the Russian Far East.
While the capture team was discussing logistics, Vladimir Putin appeared unexpectedly. V. Rozhnov introduced the team, saying "this are the very people who do this important work," after which the president shook hands and thanked everyone for their efforts.
This experience was an excellent example of how experts from different organizations-- Inspection Tiger, the Provincial Wildlife Department,the Severtsov Institute, and the Wildlife Conservation Society—can work together towards a common goal of Amur tiger conservation.
Photo 1. The first cub is given a check up by the Rybin brothers of WCS prior to being sent to the Alekseevka Rehabilitation Center. Photo (c) WCS Russia.
Photo 2. The transport vehicle gets ready to roll. Photo courtesy V. Rozhnov.
Photo 3. One of the tiger cubs bolts into her new enclosure at the Alekseevka Rehabilitation Center, as the presidential delegation (including Vladimir Putin, in white) look on. Photograph courtesy V. Kuzmenko.
Photo 4. Sasha Rybin (at immediate right of Russian President Vladimir Putin) of the WCS Russia program met the presidential delegation (including the Minister of Natural Resources S. Donskoi, far left) during the release of two cubs at the Inspection Tiger Rehabilitation Center in Primorskii Krai, August 2013. Photograph courtesy Presidential Press Release.