On June 1, 2010, at approximately 7:45 am, “Galia,” the last study animal of the Siberian Tiger Project, was shot within the village of Terney because of the dangers she posed to local citizens. For the many people who knew of Galia, who had been monitored by the Siberian Tiger Project for the past 10 years, this will come as a shock. This death marks the fourth radio-collared animal to die in the past 10 months either of natural causes, or due to conflict with humans. Presently, we are working under the hypothesis that all deaths may have been disease-related.
This female, or “Galia” as the field team knew her, had been studied literally since her birth in July 2001, as she was born to a radio-collared mother (Lydia). Lydia lived from 1999 through 2006 within the boundaries of Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik in a home range that abutted the Sea of Japan to the east, and was bounded by the village of Terney to the north and the village and surrounding agricultural lands of Plastun to the south. To our knowledge, Lydia lived her entire life without conflicts with humans, despite being bounded by villages and the primary road to Terney that bisected her territory. Despite this, Lydia disappeared in 2006, in all likelihood the result of poaching.
In 2002, instead of dispersing, Galia inherited the southern half of her mother’s home range, and after her mother died, she eventually inherited her mother’s entire home range (but only after Galia’s half-sister from Lydia’s last litter was poached). Galia gave birth in 2004 to her first litter of cubs at the earliest age we have recorded for Amur tigers (3.5 years). Galia gave birth again in 2006, and two males of this litter were captured just prior to dispersal.
On May 1, 2010 Galia localized her movements in one small area for more than a week. When our staff investigated the site during her brief absence they found a litter of three cubs about 1-week old. However, Galia’s behavior with this litter was different than with previous litters, and different from most tigresses with young cubs. While most mothers rarely leave the den site during the first two to three weeks, Galia was frequently absent, leaving for a few days at a time. Finally she left the den site permanently on May 17. By the time we got permission to investigate the site a week later, we found 3 bodies. Those cubs are presently being investigated by a veterinarian team in Russia, who suspect that disease may have played a role in their death.
Galia moved to the northern end of her range, and began lingering around a high elevation observation post maintained by the army about 5 km south of Terney. People at the post observed her at least once, and were afraid to go outside to conduct their usual work. Staff of the Siberian Tiger Project began monitoring her on a 24-hour basis, and had opportunities to observe her for hours at a time. Such opportunities never exist with normal, healthy Amur tigers, who always retreat from humans and will never expose themselves for observation. But now Galia was simply staring back at our staff in a vehicle, and not retreating. It was likely that Galia was hoping to capture a dog at this outpost, but unfortunately for her, no dogs were being kept there. At this point Galia was reported to the Primorski Krai Wildlife Department and officially became a “conflict tiger.”
On May 29 Galia moved further north, coming within 1 km of the edge of Terney. Twenty-four hour observations were continued by our staff. On May 31st, at approximately 1 pm, Galia descended from the hillside she was on to the very edge of town. Our full team assembled and again observed her, now within 50 m of the first houses on that side of Terney. We were able to frighten her off, but she only retreated approximately 30 m, and then simply lay down in full view to observe us. We had initially suspected that she might have canine distemper, which has been diagnosed in other tigers recently here in the Russian Far East. However, her behavior was not consistent withthose animals diagnosed or suspected of distemper, who generally have unusual or no response to external stimuli. Galia was seemingly fully aware and responsive to external stimuli, but simply not afraid. When our team attempted to approach her by vehicle to dart her, she moved off into the forest just far enough so that the vehicle could not follow.
We knew that many years previously, Galia had killed several dogs at a remote cabin in the south of her range, and suspected that she had come first to the army post, and now to the village looking for an easy meal. We therefore set a bait at the site she had approached, using a road-killed dog surrounded by snares.
Her boldness in broad daylight was disconcerting, and local people were not helping. Despite our requests to stay inside and away from this area, Galia had become an attraction, and people lined the fences bordering their homes, kids were arriving on bicycles, and grown-ups were doing drive-bys. Police were completely ineffective in crowd control. The situation was very dangerous.
With snares set, and the streets finally blocked off, Galia again returned to this bait site in the early evening. But people, now on their roofs (despite repeated requests to descend), were clearly visible to her, and consequently she was stealthy in her approach. Crouching low, she passed over one snare - in such a posture there was no way the snare could operate correctly. Galia lay about 10 m from the road, with only one snare between her and her meal. But she refused to cover those final full 2 m fully exposed, and even refused to catch a dog that blindly walked right up the road in front of her. Despite her boldness, it is likely the people on their rooftops and other commotion nearby were too much for her. We decided to attempt to dart her free-range, but before we could get in position, she had moved off.
The patch of forest that held Galia was bordered to the north by the main road into Terney. The complex of houses from which she seemed to be aiming to find a dog was on the south side of the road, surrounding by forests and cover for Galia, but the other side of the road was densely packed with houses and garden plots. If Galia crossed that road (and she had already been within 50 m of its multiple times during this day), the result would likely be disastrous – there was no cover for her there, and it was full of people working in their garden plots. We were therefore constantly patrolling that road to monitor her movements, and hopefully push her back if she attempted a crossing. Around 10:30 pm I looked down at the main road from our car near the houses up on the hill to see a vehicle driving down the center of the road chasing Galia – just a silhouette in the darkness. Fortunately, she dashed into the forest patch right below us, and not to the other side, filled with houses and people.
Despite our requests, the permit we had received from Moscow was only for capture and transport to a rehabilitation center. It did not include permission to kill if necessary. However, this situation was out of control, with local people actually going out of their way to put themselves in harm’s way. Galia had apparently attempted to cross the road, and in the process, had crossed the line. Our attempts at capture had failed, and we decided it was necessary to kill Galia if the opportunity presented itself. At 12:30 midnight, Galia returned to the bait side she had lingered at earlier, again not being caught by our snares. Two policemen shot multiple times in her direction, and she disappeared. Despite efforts to find her in headlights of cars, we could not launch an effective search, even with a radio collar on her, until morning. Another all night vigil was maintained, this time not knowing if we were dealing with a wounded tiger that could be even more dangerous. The next morning, we were able to drive a vehicle through the trees to get close to her – not 50 m from the bait site – where a wildlife inspector fired twice to kill her. One of the multiple shots from the night before hit its mark, breaking Galia’s left rear leg bone, which kept her from escaping yet again.
Galia was thin. Whereas she weighed 104 kg at only 15 months, and an estimated 140 kg when recaptured at 4 years old (based on the relationship of total weight and chest circumference), she weighed only 91 kg at death. But while this weight loss likely explains her hunger, and hence her drive to find easy prey, it does not explain what changed that compromised Galia’s ability to capture wild prey, which she had lived upon exclusively for so many years. This question is particularly puzzling because spring brings an abundance of small, easy prey in the form of badgers and raccoon dogs (becoming active again after winter) and the flush of neonatal ungulates. No obvious physical ailments were found, although a necropsy is being conducted.
Galia’s boldness and movement towards human settlements are partially reminiscent of the tiger Ivan, who in January killed a fisherman from Terney not far from a group of houses just 10 km west of Terney. Ivan had, like Galia, lived his life avoiding conflicts with humans up until this moment. Like Galia, he had lost his fear of humans, lying alongside the road for a photograph after killing a person, where he was subsequently killed. The abnormal behavior of both Ivan and Galia suggests disease (possibly neurologic) as a contributing factor, but not necessarily the distemper we have witnessed in other tiger. In both cases, it was clear that both of these animals would have eventually died had they not come into conflict with humans.
From 1992 to 2004 the Siberian Tiger Project recorded only 4 (of 24) “natural” deaths, and no radiocollared tigers captured within our study area ever became “conflict tigers.” Over the past 10 months we have had two radio-collared tigers become problem animals and exhibit abnormal behavior, only to be killed by humans, and two other tigers die in the wild. For a variety of reasons (logistics and access) we were neither able to monitor those other two deaths, nor collect samples immediately afterwards, so cause of death is unknown for the other two. But all animals had sufficient contact for disease transmission: Ivan had visited the home ranges of all three females who died, and we know that Ivan was in association with Galia in December, and in all likelihood was the father of the cubs she abandoned. Therefore, we are extremely concerned about the possibility of an disease that could be sweeping through this region. The necropsy of Galia was conducted the day after her death, and we are working on getting samples to the appropriate labs. But the preliminary gross analysis apparently showed nothing extremely abnormal, except a completely empty digestive tract.
With the exception of one “problem tiger” that the staff of the Siberian Tiger Project is monitoring, Galia was the last of 4 radio-collared tigers to die this year, and the last animal to have a radio collar. With commitments to both colleagues, students, and ourselves, the Siberian Tiger Project will continue – now, perhaps most importantly, with a focus on disease.
But an era has ended. Lydia’s lineage, which we had monitored for 11 years, is no more. Animals we have studied extensively, and “known” well, have demonstrated radically changed behavior, which is extremely disconcerting. But we also recognize that we may be looking at a new threat to the Amur tiger population. The only slight consolation in this grisly process is that for once, it appears that a serious threat is not originating from human actions, although even that, for now, is open to debate.