Tracked cross-country vehicle with tiger's
cage on it during release in JAO, RFE
©Photo by A.Dotsenko, WCS
Just as the three young tigers named Ilona, Boris, and Kuzma were realizing
new-found freedom in Amurskaya Oblast, a second convoy with two more cubs was preparing to leave the Alekseevka facility in Primorskii Krai. Ustin and Svetlana, a male and female found separately as abandoned cubs in Primorskii Krai in the 2012-2013 winter, were now well prepared for their release in the Zhuravlinii (“Crane”) Wildlife Refuge in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO). As with all other cubs at the Inspection Tiger Rehab Center in Alekseevka, these cubs were kept isolated from humans to avoid habituation and provided the opportunity to learn how to hunt live prey. With that successful experience behind them, they traveled west and were released back into the wild on June 5th, coinciding with the World Environment Day. Thus, the organizations involved in the release - Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Special Inspection Tiger, Phoenix Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the JAO Wildlife Department – had much to celebrate that day.
Prior to release, these tigers were provided above average amounts of food in recognition that the trip to the release site will be stressful, and that the first week or two after release are likely to be the most difficult. We did not want hunger to be a compounding factor. Zhuravlinii Wildlife Refuge was selected as the release site for two reasons. First, it is an extremely remote site, thus providing a safe haven from potential poachers. Secondly, preferred prey of tigers - red deer and wild boar, as well as other ungulates such as roe deer and moose – are common there.
Moose at the release site in JAO, RFE
©Photo by A.Reebin, WCS
Although moose are an uncommon prey item for tigers (their ranges rarely overlap, with most moose in the Russian Far East are found north of tiger range) but there are certainly records of tigers taking moose in places where they do live sympatrically.
Following a medical examination on June 4th, the young, sedated tigers were placed each in own cages and placed in the back of a truck with temperature control. Temperature was kept at a constant 200 C for the nearly day-long drive to the village Bidzhan in the JAO, about 1,000 kilometers. While we don’t normally worry about temperature when transporting tigers in winter, in summer overheating is a concern, eased by this specialized compartment. When we finally arrived in the JAO, each cage was transferred to the back of waiting all-terrain trucks for transport into the wildlife refuge itself.
This final leg was the most arduous of the entire journey. It was brutally hot and we were accosted by hordes of mosquitoes, black flies, and other biting insects. Finally, after five hours slogging across bogs and churning through near-impassible swamp, both vehicles reached the release site in the center of Zhuravlinii wildlife refuge. We were 40 kilometers west of the village of Bidzhan, with extensive peatlands behind us and edge of an extensive tract of forested hills to the east. Ustin and Svetlaya were released at the same location (earlier media reports had erroneously stated the releases were spatially distinct) at the same time – 11 pm – so the darkness prohibited us from photographically documenting the release. Similar to the recent Amurskaya Oblast release (see Episode Two), Ustin and Svetlana reacted differently to their sudden opportunity for freedom. Svetlana’s cage was opened first, but she lingered inside, wary and apprehensive. Ustin, on the other hand, abandoned the cage with a deafening roar the moment the door was cracked open. Svetlana found the necessary courage about 10 minutes later, leaping from her enclosure and disappearing into the darkness following the footsteps of Ustin.
Based on the GPS data we received from their collars, Ustin and Svetlana spent the night in separate locations. Ustin kept moving for about four hours after release before stopping to rest, but the more-cautious Svetlana continued to move for about 12 hours after release, although she walked only about three kilometers from the release site in that time. The next day, both tigers put more distance between themselves and the release site as they began to exploring their new home, each heading in different directions.
Svetlana and Ustin will be monitored for the first few months post-release by staff of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Special Inspection Tiger, and the JAO Wildlife Department. Our next update will detail the results of our first month of tracking.
These actions to return the Amur tiger to its historical habitat are an important step towards increasing its population in Russia, and are conducted within the framework of the Reintroduction Plan put forth by the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, with the active participation of Inspection Tiger and the Wildlife Conservation Society, and with support from Phoenix Fund and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.