The Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve is the largest protected area inside the range of the Amur (Siberian) tiger. Therefore it’s not surprising that this particular protected area was chosen in 1992 for a joint tiger research and conservation program, which is run by the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve (SABZ) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The goal of the Siberian Tiger Project is to collect the best scientific data about tiger ecology, and to use these data to inform development of conservation strategies.
In our work we employ the most recent research techniques – radio and GPS tracking of collared tigers, identification of individuals using camera traps, and others. The Siberian Tiger Project is a joint program between Russian and foreign scientists. A distinctive feature is that experienced professionals who have already made a name for themselves internationally work here alongside younger scientists who are just starting out – students and graduate students from different countries. This allows for exchange of information and experience, and furthers our scientific and conservation efforts. Over the course of the Project’s existence we have gathered unique data on the spatial and social structure of the Siberian tiger population, feeding habits, reproduction, and other aspects of the tiger ecology. The information gathered has been used to develop programs and strategies to conserve Siberian tigers in the Russian Far East.
The Year of the Tiger – 2010 – was far from the most fortunate for Siberian tigers, at least for some. Within the first 5 months of the year, the Siberian Tiger Project lost 3 of our collared individuals, and then at the end of May, we tragically lost the last one – the tigress Galya. This death shocked the Project’s entire team – all these events were too sudden and unexpected. We had followed Galya for 9 years, practically from birth. (Her mother, the tigress Lidiya, also had a radio-collar, and therefore we knew relatively precisely when Galya appeared in the world.) Collecting information about Galya’s life bit by bit, we monitored how she carved out her own home range and raised her first litter of cubs. Over many years, she had been a vital member of our team. And now she was gone...
Among other things, Galya’s death meant that for the first time in 18 years, Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve had no radio-collared tigers. Therefore it was imperative that we capture and outfit new individuals with collars in the fall of 2010. According to our estimates, our study area in the southeastern portion of the reserve had 3 more individuals besides Galya, whom we had regularly captured on film with camera traps. To better prepare for the fall capture season, we decided to turn to our camera traps for help in determining where to focus our capture efforts. After the cameras have been set, we waited and waited for new pictures. But weeks passed, and the rolls of film didn’t yield a single image of a tiger.
This had never happened before! Moreover, over the entire summer, neither the Reserve employees nor the Siberian Tiger Project staff noted any evidence of tiger sign in our study area. This caused us serious concern, and more and more we became certain that something strange was happening in the local tiger population. Was a disease was causing their deaths? We didn’t know.
Fall came. In spite of the fact that we still hadn’t collected any information whatsoever on the presence of tigers in our study area, we began the capture season. We probably haven’t hoped for success so hard at any other time over the 18-year span of our work, perhaps with the exception of the very first capture effort, in February 1992. This time, as back then, we hoped and waited.
And then it was already October. Once again, time to travel to Dalnegorsk to develop the film from camera traps. My heart beating rapidly, I scan the negatives… and sigh with disappointment – there’s nothing there, once more. As I leave the photo center, I hear one of the girls who work there calling me to come back – they have forgotten one roll of film in the developing machine. Not hoping for anything, I scan the remaining negatives standing on the sidewalk – and spot a tiger! I can’t believe my eyes! As if by fate, the printer is broken at the photo center, and all the way from Dalnegorsk to Terney I wonder – which tiger is it? Is it one that we photographed before, or a new one? At home, we scanned the film into the computer. There he is, and a beauty! A large tiger, clearly a male, whom we had never photographed before. It was disappointing that he was photographed in a place completely different from where we had set our trap lines for captures. But what’s important is that there is a tiger, and a reason to hope that we’ll capture him anyway.
Sill more weeks of waiting followed. Our coworkers had been in the forest for more than a month and a half. This meant that every morning they go out with backpacks and check the trails where our capture snares are set. Regardless of rain, snow or heat, they have to be on the trail. But according to them, the hardest thing was not the daily 14km trek with heavy packs. The hardest part was losing a bit of hope every evening. Each morning, getting on the trail, they had hope that maybe the next trap had a tiger, or the next one. Then the final kilometer came, and the last trap, once again empty… This was psychologically trying for them. All of us knew that in a bit more time the capture effort will have to end – temperatures dropped with each day, and we never capture tigers at low temperatures, to avoid potential frostbite in the limb that gets caught in the trap. On November 5th our capture specialists once again left their backcountry cabin with their packs and went out onto the trail. As one song goes, “all things pass…” and so our reserve of hope was indeed passing – it was running almost empty. So our staff walked only because they had to. But suddenly, very close to the cabin, right on the trail, they saw a fresh tiger track! And with it came a new surge of energy and adrenaline! But they walked for one kilometer, and another, and the snares were empty. The tiger must have walked off the path and left. But then, when they had already stopped expecting it, they heard a low growling as they approached the next snare at the sixth kilometer. After that, it was a matter of technique. Our specialists are true professionals! A shot of anesthesia, and the tiger fell asleep.
It turned out to be a large male, nearly 200 kilograms in weight, about 4 years old, in good physical condition, with perfect teeth. Our staff quickly took all the measurements, snapped a few pictures from both sides (so we could later compare this tiger to images from camera traps and determine whom we had caught), and most importantly, put a collar around his striped neck – a GPS collar, which would give us information on the tiger’s location every 1.5 hours. Trying to make as little noise as possible, they left the tiger to wake up on his own.
From the data from the GPS collar, we knew that our new charge was already 5 kilometers away from the capture site one day later, and over the course of the following 3 days, he walked more than 30 kilometers and crossed over a watershed more than 1000m above sea level. This meant that the tiger had completely recovered from the capture. By comparing his pictures to those that we had from camera traps, we determined that we captured the very same tiger whose photograph we received in October. And now, we’ve been monitoring him for 3.5 months already, regularly receiving information on his movements, checking places where he remained for a few days, and finding the remains of his successful hunts. Our work keeps going!
- Svetlana Soutyrina, Siberian Tiger Project