Tiger collars transmit signals that we can receive
remotely and monitor their movements.
Amur region, RFE
The process of immobilization and the trauma of the long trip to the Primamur (as described in Episodes 2
) was really the easy part for our five young tigers just released into Amurskaya Oblast and the Jewish Autonomous Region. The real challenge for these tigers would come after release, and the questions were many. Will they acclimate to their new surroundings? Will they successfully learn to hunt in the wild? Where will they decide is “home” and how will they demark their home ranges? Will males and females stay together, or find separate non-overlapping home ranges? Therefore, in many ways, the first month of live in the wild represents the most critical period for these young, inexperienced tigers. Unfamiliar with their new surroundings, with their only knowledge of wilderness coming during the first few months of their lives when their mother’s took care of them, these tigers were now faced many challenges. If they did not figure out how to hunt successfully in their new home, they might easily starve. And if they do not learn to respect the brown bears and wolves who share their new homes, the consequences could be deadly. Our task was to closely monitor the tigers remotely via their GPS collars, and to regularly check in to ensure they are behaving normally and eating well. And while we were supposed to be stoic, unemotionally and unbiased scientists, in reality we were all “fans” routing for our favorite tigers to survive.
The heavy-duty vehicles that we are required
to reach tiger locations and investigate
potential kill sites
On June 12th, a collaborative team comprising Victor Kuzmenko (Special Inspection Tiger), Pyotr Sonin (Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution), and Aleksandr Rybin (Wildlife Conservation Society) clambered upon an all-terrain truck provided by the JAO Wildlife Department and went to investigate some GPS locations received remotely from Ustin and Svetlana’s collars.
The following is Aleksandr Rybin’s account:
“We were particularly interested in checking what we call "clusters,” tight groupings of GPS locations that show a tiger stayed in one place for a long time. Such behavior is indicative of a kill, and we are keen to visit those areas after a tiger leaves to assess if they were successful in killing and eating prey. We also wanted to identify what animal the tiger killed, as this provides insight into how developed their hunting skills are. Badger remains, for example, would be a sign that the tiger was going after something easy to catch but not very satiating, whereas remains of an adult wild boar would suggest well developed hunting skills. Wild boar can be tough to bring down but offer a tiger food for a number of days. In the week since Ustin and Svetlana were released we accumulated a total of 13 clusters for both tigers. They had lingered in these locations from between 4-19 hours, which could mean we’d only find beds, but maybe we’d find prey remains as well.
The Trekol is another type of all terrain
vehicle used for reaching remote sites
Unfortunately, after an exhaustive search at all 13 sites, all we found were tiger beds. We did not find any evidence that the tigers had killed and eaten something there.
Instead of waiting in the JAO for more clusters to develop, we decided to move to the Amurskaya Oblast to assist our team that was already checking clusters of the three tigers there. Nikolai Rybin (Wildlife Conservation Society), Alexander Lazurenko (Special Inspection Tiger) and staff of the Amurskii Wildlife Department had remained after they release of Kuzya, Borya, and Ilona, and had already been monitoring them for nearly a month. In that time they had found multiple kills made by Ilona, including an adult roe deer and multiple young wild boars. She seemed to be adapting extremely well. Although they had not found any kills of Borya, examination of scats revealed that he had been successful in killing and eating wild boar. But we were worried about Kuzya, who had moved through an extremely remote region (making it nearly impossible to check on him) but perhaps more importantly, there were no large clusters of locations indicating that he had made a successful kill. Kuzya had settled down in a very small area for several days, and when he finally left, and we were able to examine that site, we were all relived to find only bits and pieces of a very large wild boar. Kuzya had made his first significant kill!
Remains of a wild boar
consumed by young tiger Ustin
We stayed in the Amurskaya Oblast for several more days, receiving daily locations of all five tigers and checking on the status of each as opportunities to arose. During that time we were able to identify a few more kills of wild boar by Kuzya. All these Amurskaya Oblast tigers seemed to be doing fine, but we still worried about their new neighbors back in the Jewish Autonomous Region: were Ustin and Svetlana figuring out how to hunt? Would they survive? When sufficient numbers of location clusters had accumulated for Ustin and Svetlana, we returned to the JAO to answer these questions.
On June 21st, we loaded into a Russian all-terrain truck (called a Trekol) to investigate locations of Ustin and Svetlana. It took us until evening to reach the spot where Svetlana had stayed for nearly three days. We had passed considerable bear sign along the way, and when we found Svetlana’s kill, a two-year-old boar, its remains had been cached by a bear. We estimated that Svetlana had spent considerable time with the carcass so by the time the bear happened along she likely relinquished little more than bones to avoid a confrontation. This was good news two times over – not only had she made a kill, but she had successfully avoided confrontation with a bear – both important signs of adapting to her new home.
The next day we went to check one of Ustin’s clusters. We had to fight through nearly five kilometers of swamp to reach this location, but it was worth it. We discovered the fully-consumed carcass of a three-year-old boar. This was excellent news. On the drive back we flushed a female moose with her calf, red deer, and roe deer, so were encouraged by the high numbers of potential prey.
Getting back to Amurskaya Oblast was not so easy. Our vehicle broke down and, unable to repair it ourselves, we were forced wait for help from the JAO Wildlife Department, who sent another all-terrain truck to tow us out after a long, bug-infested wait of nearly a full day.
We rushed back to the Amurskaya Oblast the next day as there had been alarming developments: Boris had transmitted signals from the same location for six days, after which his collar had not relayed signals for three more days. This could mean the worst: that he had died, perhaps even been poached, and his collar destroyed. We needed to reach the location of his last transmission as quickly as possible to investigate. Fortunately, all our fears proved groundless. The cluster where Boris had been stationary for six days was littered with the remains of a wild boar that Boris had completely devoured. The next day, his collar started to transmit again locations again.”
Remains of a wild boar
consumed by young tiger Ustin
Tigers disappeared from the Amurskaya Oblast and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast 30-50 years ago, so the return of these young tigers marks an important milestone in recolonizing tiger habitat in the Russian Far East. With their first month of life in the wild behind them, all five "teenage" tigers are showing an amazing ability to adapt to their new surroundings. From our decades of studying radio-collared tigers in Primorye, we know that survival rates of young tigers dispersing from their natal territories are not high. Nonetheless, the results of our first month of monitoring these youngsters are very encouraging: all tigers have successfully made kills of wild prey, many of which are boar, and none have gotten into any conflicts with humans. It’s easy for a hungry tiger to start preying upon village dogs, and when GPS locations showed several of these tigers bypassing apiaries guarded by dogs without incident, we breathed a sigh of relief. Two of the tigers have even crossed the Federal highway without incident. While there are still no guarantees that all five will survive the difficult transition to life in the wild and adulthood, results of the first month give us true cause for optimism.
Tigers bypassed by this apiary without incident, without turning a hungry eye to the guard dogs there.
That is a good sign!
We attempted to fix the Trekol ourselves, without luck, and had to be towed back to the village
These actions to return the Amur tiger to its historical habitat are an important step towards increasing total tiger numbers 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.