Orphaned Siberian Tiger Cubs
Are Readied for New Life in Wild

By Dale Miquelle, Wildlife Conservation Society

4 Feb 2013

Last fall, in the frigid, snowy forests of the Russian Far East, three wild tiger cubs lost their most important ally: their mother. Our story began on Nov. 29 with a phone call to 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.

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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 in saving the world’s tigers from going extinct — sometimes one tiger at a time. Today, fewer than 500 Siberian tigers — the largest of the tiger subspecies — survive, including an estimated 330 to 390 adults. Globally, only 3,200 tigers are thought to still exist in the wild, their numbers decimated by poaching, loss of prey, and habitat destruction.

On Nov. 30, the team had its first lead: fresh tracks in a recent snowfall just outside a village. Before long, the team spotted the cubs sitting in the middle of a forest road, 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.)

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WCS tracking officer with sedate tiger

Tracker Kolya Rybin with one of the captured 4-month-old Siberian tigers.
The cubs most likely lost their mother to poachers. WCS’s Russia Program has conducted the world’s longest ongoing tiger research project, gathering data on the largely hidden lives of Siberian tigers by capturing and radio-collaring more than 60 of the animals over the past 20 years. In that time, we have found that poaching accounts for approximately 75 percent of all adult tiger deaths, as a single tiger’s bones and body parts — prized in the Asian medicinal market — are worth $4,000 to $5,000 to the poacher and much more as the products are processed and sold. 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.

After their mother died, these three cubs likely remained where their mother left them until hunger drove them to abandon their vigil.

Catching the remaining two cubs took several more days. 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, the team captured the second cub after a three-hour chase onto a military base. The animal was immobilized and, before long, was on its way to join its sibling at a tiger rehabilitation center.

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). On Dec. 5, we finally caught up with the remaining cub, at this point walking with difficulty in deep snow. The dehydrated animal was captured, given an IV
Isolation from humans will be a central part of the rehabilitation process.
solution, and warmed with hot water bottles to get its body temperature back to normal. After recovering from the immobilization, he eagerly ate some bits of wild boar we provided before we made the four-hour trip south to reunite him with his siblings.

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 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 design of the facility was informed by WCS's Bronx Zoo General Curator, Pat Thomas, who helped to ensure that tigers brought here would have limited and safe interactions with staff and be better prepared for release back into the wild.

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 a food cache 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.

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WCS tiger cubs

Three orphaned Siberian tiger cubs sitting on a snowy trail.
Teaching the tigers to hunt is another critical piece of a successful reintroduction. In the spring, the staff will 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, enabling our consortium to follow the movements of the three cats.

The tigers are doing well now, and their rescue demonstrates that strong partnerships are often the driving force behind successful conservation efforts in this remote landscape. 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 tigers must maintain a wariness of our species. To reduce the risk of the cubs encountering people, we will release them in a remote section of tiger habitat, far from human settlements.

We are doing all we can to give these cubs a second chance at living out their lives in the wilds of the Russian Far East. Hopefully it will be enough.

Dale Miquelle is director of Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia Country Program and the Tiger Coordinator for the society’s Tiger Program.


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