We often hear the statistics of how many tigers are lost to poachers each year. But what the statistics don’t tell us is the story behind each event, the life that each tiger lived up to that tragic moment when a poacher ended its life. Nor do we hear of the impact of that loss on those people who live close to and care most about these magnificent animals. In 2001, Svetlana Soutyrina came to the village of Terney (base for the Siberian Tiger Project) from Siberia, and was instantly captivated by the region and its tigers. Over that past 8 years, she has worked for the WCS Siberian Tiger Project, and dedicated her life to the tigers she studies each day. Below is her personal account of the life and death of one such animal.
These days, everybody knows that the Siberian (or Amur) tiger is a unique and endangered animal. It receives some level of security in protected areas, but the majority of tiger habitat occurs outside strictly protected areas, where many programs and strategies have been implemented to protect it further. And equally well known is the fact that poachers continue to kill these tigers: for their pelts and bones, which are being sold to China and other Southeast Asian countries, as well as simply for fun, diversion, and bragging rights, in order to be able to say “Look at me, I shot a tiger!”
We all know this, but apparently these ideas have become so deeply ingrained in our consciousness and our lives, that at times we do not stop to think and process the truths hidden underneath these faceless statistics: in 2005, 40 tigers were killed in Primorsky Krai, and 35 more in 2006. I would like to tell you about one such tiger, or rather tigress, who was killed in November of 2007 on the road between Terney and Plastun. I truly hope that this story will help you understand that behind the numbers lie the lives and stories of these beautiful, intelligent, and powerful animals, which had the misfortune of encountering a human being in their lifetime.
Tanya was born in early September of 2005. We discovered this thanks to the fact that her mother, a radio-collared tigress named Lydia, had been monitored by the staff of the WCS-Sikhote-Alin Reserve Siberian Tiger Project. When Lydia remained in one spot for two weeks straight, we realized that she must have given birth.
Tanya had everything she needed for a carefree, happy childhood: a wonderful mom— caring, powerful, a great huntress, and ready to come to the aid of her cubs at a moment’s notice; and two sisters— playmates with whom she could joyfully spend her time and explore her surroundings. Their secure den was in a crevasse in the rocks, where they could hide while mom went out to hunt. Perhaps the only incident that ever disturbed Tanya’s early childhood was when she and her sisters got radio-collared at 5 weeks of age by staff of the Tiger Project. Doing this enabled us to see how many cubs Lydia had, what gender they were, and monitor their fate so that the information gained could later be used to develop conservation strategies for the Siberian tiger.
And so, Tanya received her first collar when she was little more than a month old. She was very small then (as was her collar – really, no more than a necklace), her eyes still retained a baby-blue tint, and her movements were not very steady yet. Thanks to the radio collars, we have learned that at around 2 months of age, Tanya and her sisters began to gradually explore the territory on which their mom lived. The large stretch of forest along the coast of the Sea of Japan, which was Lydia’s home range, is a tiger’s paradise: it has a high density of ungulates, many great hunting spots, as well as secluded areas where one can lie down and rest, and enjoy the peace and quiet. Often, we found Lydia’s beds in areas where there were beautiful views of the sea and surrounding mountains. One of my friends had said to me once, “Many tigers, like humans, have a yearning for beauty, and they can spend hours looking at beautiful landscapes, thinking their tiger thoughts.” Indeed, Lydia seemed to be one such tiger.
Eventually, Lydia started to bring little Tanya and sisters to the sites of her successful kills. In this way the cubs discovered the taste of meat, and realized that they too are hunters. The radio collars, intentionally designed to fall off as the cubs grew, slowly did just that, unable to withstand the playful activities of the cubs. One by one we found all three collars broken, riddled with marks of teeth and claws. This was very disappointing of course— it took away our ability to receive valuable information about the lives of the baby tigers. At the same time we understood that if these cubs are so active, and have so much strength to play, it means that they must be in great physical shape, are getting enough food, and are healthy.
With the first snows, we confirmed that all three cubs were still with Lydia, and thanks to continuously tracking this family in snow, we knew that the cubs successfully survived their first winter. By fall of that year (2006) these cubs were approaching adulthood, and it was time to outfit them with “adult” radiocollars to further study them. Amazingly, on October 2006, when the sisters were 13 months, we had the incredible luck of capturing all three sisters in a single day, and outfitting with collars. And this was also the day that all three young tigresses got their names: Irina, Alice and Tanya.
Tanya was “forced” into independence early in the spring of 2007 with the disappearance of her mother (we will never know for sure, but it is likely that Lydia died of natural causes- she was rather aged). It is common for tigresses to “bequeath” a part of their territory to one of their daughters. Tanya turned out to be very lucky – with the disappearance of her mother, she inherited the entire range. Her sisters moved off in opposite directions to find their own territories. However, despite the abundance of ungulates, the first months of independent life were hard for Tanya- she didn’t have sufficient experience hunting big game yet, and small animals such as badgers, which could have made an easy meal, hadn’t come out of hibernation yet. Additionally, the wet snow made movement difficult, and she had to expend a lot of effort searching for prey. Thanks to camera traps we regularly received images of Tanya, and saw that she was very thin.
We were continuously worried about whether she would catch enough food, and whether she’d make it till summer. But she made it through. Each time when we were able to find the remains of a sika deer, red deer, or roe deer caught by Tanya, we were happy for her and felt as if it were our own personal victory. And by the time summer came around, the camera trap pictures showed us a beautiful young tigress, apparently very happy with life. The one thing that still really worried us was that Tanya was completely unafraid of people and vehicles, and often went out onto the road that passed through her home range, where she was frequently seen from passing cars and busses. Many times, reserve and Tiger Project employees attempted to scare her away from that road by using flares, but this had no effect on her curiosity, and didn’t teach her to be wary.
However, thanks to these encounters many residents of Terney and Pastun were able to see a live tiger for the first time in their lives — their first confirmation that tigers really do live near us, and that they’re not just found on pretty photographs. Many of those who saw Tanya remembered each moment of that encounter with delight, talking again and again about how the tiger behaved, what it did, how beautiful it was, and how they actually do exist. It is really thanks to Tanya that many people in Terney are now able to say “I have seen a tiger! A live one!”
We heard the last signal from Tanya’s collar on November 20th, 2007. Four days before that we recorded her last picture: she was lying right in front of the camera trap and looked out onto the sea… And so the story of yet another Siberian tiger came to an end.
All animals except humans (and despite the fact that many might find this realization unpleasant, humans still belong to the Animal Kingdom), kill either to protect their own lives, or in the struggle for resources necessary for survival and reproduction (food, territory, access to females, etc.). Whoever killed Tanya did not do it for self-defense, nor to provide food for himself and his children. He simply pressed the trigger, maybe even without leaving his car. He simply fired on an animal that went out onto the road. When meeting humans, Tanya never displayed aggression. And, knowing this, I can surely say that she just stood there and looked, perhaps with curiosity, at the man who raised his hand, and aiming his gun, ended her life. She just stood there. Stood and watched...
Perhaps this particular human felt joy and pride at his deed. Probably, he felt happiness at the purchases he made with money received for Tanya’s pelt. But did those objects create the same joy and delight that others felt when they saw Tanya alive? I doubt it.
How sad and painful it is to realize that Tanya, as so many other Siberian tigers, existed merely to provide someone with a television set or an expensive cell phone. Is this why Tanya’s mother raised her and took care of her?
Lena, Natasha, Katya, Nelya, Tanya’s father and older brothers, Olga- the first tigress to be radio-collared, and many, many others (over 30 in all) have been killed by poachers over the course of the Project’s existence. For some, these names and numbers are nothing but empty sounds, but to the Project employees, those who kept watch over the lives of these tigers, who tracked their radio signals over many kilometers, who spent many sleepless nights collecting data of their nightly activities, they were a part of our lives. We could tell the story of each of these tigers, each had his or her own habits and unique behavior, and each was an individual. For us, they were good friends, and the loss of every one was a personal loss.
For over 70 years Sikhote-Alin Reserve employees have been working to conserve the unique ecosystem of the Sikhote-Alin. In 1992 they were joined by employees of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Together we spend a lot of effort on tiger conservation, but our efforts might be in vain without the support of the residents of Primorsky Krai. Each of us can do his part for conservation, and not just for tigers but also many other rare animals that live alongside us. To do this, it is not necessary to do anything heroic, or give large sums of money to charity funds. It is enough simply to remember that they have as equal a right to exist as we do, and to respect that right. Only together can we save the treasures of the Russian taiga forests.