Dale Miquelle, WCS Russia Program Director
December 10, 2012
Last fall, in the frigid, snowy forests of the Russian Far East, three wild tiger cubs lost their most important ally: their mother. For us, the story began on Nov. 29 with a phone call to me at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) office in Vladivostok from Vladimir Vasiliev, the head of the regional wildlife department, Okhotnazor. He requested our assistance in capturing the four-month-old cubs, which had created a stir near a small village by attempting to make a meal out of a farmer’s dog.
We responded immediately by deploying WCS conservationists (and brothers) Kolya and Sasha Rybin, two of the best tiger trackers in the world. The WCS team met up with rangers from the Russian agency Inspection Tiger, the local inspector from Okhotnazor, and staff from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution before heading out to find the cubs.
What ensued offers a frontline look at the challenges conservationists encounter as we try to save the world’s tigers from going extinct — sometimes one tiger at a time. Today, fewer than 400 Siberian tigers survive and globally, only 3,200 tigers are thought to still exist in the wild, their numbers decimated by poaching, loss of prey, and habitat destruction.
We may never know what exactly became of the mother tiger, but we assume she was killed by poachers. Over the past 20 years of our tiger research program in the Russian Far East, we have found that poaching seems to account for approximately 75 percent of all adult tiger deaths. Sadly, female tigers with cubs are more susceptible to poaching. Rather than fleeing from humans, mother tigers will stand their ground to defend their cubs.
While we can only guess as to when the tiger cubs became orphans, we can assume they remained where their mother left them until hunger drove them to abandon their vigil. Perhaps they waited for more than a week before striking out on their own.
On Nov. 30th, the team had its first lead: fresh tracks in a recent snowfall just outside a village. Driving towards the forest patch the surprised team spotted the cubs sitting right in the middle of the road they were driving on, curiously staring back at them before drifting into the woods. The team surrounded the area and was able to capture the smallest of the cubs with a combination of forked sticks and a large canvas bag. Weighing only 35 pounds, the cub already had formidable teeth and claws (Sasha received a good nip to his finger during the capture).
First observations of the three cubs, along a forest road near Andreevka, Primorskii Krai, Russia, Nov. 30th, 2012 (Photograph by Martin Gilbert).
Cub#3 “takes the bait”and is pulled out of hiding while biting a stick. He was quickly pinned downand then immobilized (Photograph courtesy of BBC)
Catching the remaining two cubs turned out to be not so easy. On Dec. 1, the team picked up a fresh set of tracks, which they followed for more than 13 kilometers before daylight expired and the team gave up, empty handed. But the next day, based on a tip from a local bus driver who had spotted the tiger, the team captured the second cub after a 3-hour chase onto a military base. The animal was immobilized and, before long, was on its way to join its sibling at Inspection Tiger’s rehabilitation center.
Sasha Rybin prepares to pick up Cub#2, after tranquilization (Photograph courtesy of BBC)
Kolya Rybin conducts a“physical” of cub #3 (Photograph by Dale Miquelle)
I was able to join the team for the capture of the third cub, which continued to elude us for two days. During that time, a heavy snow had disrupted the search, forcing us to look for fresh tracks as temperatures dropped to –20 Celsius (-4 F). With no food for more than 10 days, extreme cold, and now deep snow, time was running out for this cub. Finally, coming across fresh tracks on Dec. 5th, we managed to up with the remaining cub, at this point walking with difficulty in deep snow. The dehydrated animal was captured, given an IV solution, and warmed with hot water bottles to get its body temperature back closer to normal. After recovering from the immobilization, he eagerly ate some bits of wild boar we provided. We kept the cub in a heated house for the rest of the day to stabilize body temperature, and then put him and his cage in an enclosed cab in the back of my pick-up for the 4-hour trip south to reunite him with his siblings.
Back at Inspection Tiger’s Rehab Center, as we placed the cages next to each other to reunite the cubs, growls of nervousness and anxiety came from both cages. But when we opened the cage doors, all went silent as they immediately recognized each other and the third cub quietly but eagerly joined his brother and sister. You could feel the sense of comfort and joy of that reunion in the silence that followed.
Over the next seven to eight months, the tiger cubs will remain at the Inspection Tiger rehabilitation facility. The staff members who will care for the growing cubs face a daunting challenge: picking up where the mother tiger left off in preparing the cubs for independent life in the wild. Isolation from humans will be a central part of this process. The fence of the holding pen is covered with material to form a visual barrier, and food caches will be provided in boxes on the fence perimeter and opened remotely. This will hopefully prevent the cubs from associating the approach of humans with food.
Teaching the tigers to hunt is another critical piece of a successful reintroduction. In the spring, the staff will begin to introduce small prey such as rabbits to the enclosure, allowing the tigers to work their way up to larger prey such as sika deer and wild boar. After this training period, the tigers will be released in the fall with GPS collars so that their movements can be followed.
Most likely, the tiger cubs will go their separate ways in finding their own territories where they will live and hunt. We know that young sub-adult tigers (rehabilitated or not) face two primary dangers. The first is failing to find enough food. The second is staying out of trouble with humans, which is why these tigers must maintain a wariness of humans. We can reduce the risk of encountering humans by releasing the cubs in a remote section of tiger habitat far removed from villages and people.
For now, the tiger cubs are doing well. The swift coordination of the Inspection Tiger, Okhotnazor, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Severtsov Institute on the ground saved three critically endangered animals in a population where every tiger is vital. Strong partnerships are often the driving force behind successful conservation efforts in this remote landscape. We can only hope that these three tiger cubs will eventually make it back home to the wilderness of the Russian Far East.
Reuniting the cubs (Photograph by Lizza Protas)