Cinderella’s Cubs

Early this year I wrote about a Tigress named Zolushka, whose name translates to Cinderella, who was orphaned in the Russian Far East in 2012. Zolushka was rescued, rehabilitated and ultimately released in 2013 into territory that had not previously seen Tigers in decades. The ‘Zolushka experiment’ was the first of its kind and proved successful when confirmation was received via camera traps and a GPS collar that she was not only doing well, but had managed to hook up with a male Tiger named Zavetny.  At the time scientists were hoping that Zolushka, the first rehabilitated Tiger in history, would eventually mate and have cubs. This December the just captured proof was released, images photographed and filmed by camera traps. Cinderella and her two beautiful and healthy looking cubs appear to be doing well.

Scientists involved in Zolushka’s release had been waiting for this moment for a long time and were beyond thrilled at the news as it also shows that rehabilitating Amur Tigers is possible. In order for rehabilitation to be considered successful IFAW sets out this criteria, which Zolushka has managed to meet all of:

  • The animal survives
  • It behaves in the same way a wild animal would
  • There is little or no conflict with people and domestic animals – like any other wild animal
  • No harm is caused to the existing population or conservation efforts
  • And in the case of Amur tigers, that they successfully survive the hardest survival period (i.e. winter)

“We are overjoyed with the news of Zolushka becoming a mother to two healthy cubs,” said Masha Vorontsova, IFAW Russia Director. “This is what we’ve all been hoping for since her release in 2013. This shows that she has fully adapted to a life in the wild and is able to successfully hunt, breed and now raise a new generation of Amur tigers.”

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“The Siberian or Amur Tiger, number about 500 in the wild and rehabilitated Tigers represent an important 1 percent of the entire population.” Cinderella and her cubs in the Bastak Nature Reserve. – Image – Siberian Times

This ground-breaking conservation effort was jointly carried out by IFAW, the Phoenix Fund, Special Inspection Tiger, A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). While Zolushka’s story garnered the most attention she is one of five other Tigers that have  been successfully released back into the wild.

If you are interested in helping out the Amur Tiger donations can be made to IFAW or Tiger Time who both work to help this endangered species in the wild.

Cinderella’s Story

In the fairytale Cinderella all ends well when the heroine gets her glass slipper and prince charming… but what if the story was re-written, with the part of the heroine being played by a Tiger?

Zolushka, which translates to Cinderella, was found as a cub by a pair of hunters alone, starved and frostbitten in the Russian Far East in February of 2012. She immediately caught their attention in the snow because she was lying in plain sight making no attempt to conceal herself, she was displaying very abnormal Tiger behavior. It was thought she had been orphaned and left to die, her mother most likely killed by poachers.

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The 4 month old rescued cub named Zolushka after she was found and had surgery on her tail. – All Images via Smithsonian.com unless otherwise stated

The hunters took her to a local wildlife inspector who determined that the little cub was in terrible shape, not only was she hungry but her frostbite was so severe that the tip of her tail was black. Once Zolushka was stabilized the wildlife inspector reached out to  scientist, and Director of the WCS Russia Program, Dale Miquelle for help.

Surgery was performed to amputate the tip of her tail which was necrotic and she was moved to the Center for the Rehabilitation and Reintroduction of Tigers and other Rare Animals. Here they could do two very important things: teach a wild Tiger to hunt and ensure that the animal would not be habituated to humans.

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Bastak Nature Reserve – Scientist hope that many Tiger cubs will be able to be introduced back to the wild and help restore the species to its former range

While the idea of rehabilitating and releasing big cats back to the wild is nothing new, its been done with  bobcats and lynx in North America and in India with Bengal tigers, it has its share of controversy and risks especially when a released animal attacks people or livestock.  As Miquelle told the Smithsonian.comThe risk of having a conflict tiger could easily set back tiger conservation in the region a hundred years.”

In the case of the highly endangered Amur Tiger the benefits out weighed the risks: leave orphaned cubs for dead or raise them so that they could potentially mate with wild Tigers and give a boost to the population.

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Zoluska readied for release – A successful program could then be a model for other scientists around the world to use.

Zolushka would be the first Tiger to go through the rehabilitation process at this facility “It was like a kid trying to figure out a puzzle,” says Miquelle, who was a periodic visitor to the center in those weeks. “She got it, but it took a little time.

In May 2013 the healthy Tigress was ready for freedom

It was determined she would be released into territory that had not seen Tigers in decades and that’s what made the Zolushka experiment so interesting and groundbreaking, it was an opportunity to actually “recolonize former tiger habitat, which was totally unheard of.

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Zolushka was released in the Bastak Reserve in Russia’s remote far East – Image captured via camera traps

Initially Zolushka was tracked via GPS collar and camera traps after her release and the follow-up showed that she was successfully surviving and making kills. Months later when her GPS collar stopped working they worried about her fate, fortunately they were able to use camera traps and the collars data to help pin down her location in the same reserve.

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Zolushka captured by camera traps shows that she is strong, healthy and thriving in the wild

The camera trap images showed the scientists proof that Zolushka was doing well and that a second Tiger, a male who they named Zavetny, also occupied the same territory. Adding to the excitement was the discovery of  “hump tracks”— evidence that two Tigers have mated.

“It would be a milestone: the first rehabilitated tiger in history to mate and give birth in the wild. Miquelle smiled. “Wouldn’t it be amazing?” he asked.

It is unknown at this time whether Zolushka has had cubs, but it is hoped that one day soon the camera trap will reveal photos of her with a line of cubs trailing behind, perhaps like the ones seen in A Family Portrait. For now it seems this Cinderella is living her fairytale complete with freedom and a prince charming of her own.

A Family Portrait

The following images captured using camera traps, in Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve in eastern Russia, shows that there is still lots we do not know about the very rare Amur Tiger.

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A family of three Amur tiger cubs and a female being led through a snowy forest by a large male. Image created by stitching together several images ©Wildlife Conservation Society

Amur Tigers are known for being solitary and highly secretive cats, sparsely distributed across at least 180,000 km2 in the southern Russian Far East. They are among the most endangered of the big cats, and in 2005 their numbers were estimated between 430-500 individuals remaining in the wild. Surveys are conducted every 10 years (the latest was completed in February and results are to be released this summer) and are highly difficult requiring the involvement of hundreds of scientists, hunters, and volunteers.

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Camera traps set up in the forests of Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve in eastern Russia captured these amazing images
– Image Daily Mail Online

It was generally thought that males and females only come to together to mate, the pair separating soon after, but these images which are the first ever recorded, show that on occasion Dad may have a hand in rearing his young.

Slide show of Amur Tiger family walking through the snow

WCS Russia Director Dr. Dale Miquelle said even though there has been “documented sporadic familial groups of Bengal tigers as early as the 1960s, this is the first time such behavior has been photographed for Amur tigers in the wild. These photos provide a small vignette of social interactions of Amur tigers, and provide an evocative snapshot of life in the wild for these magnificent animals.”

21 photos show an entire family of tigers passing in the span of two minutes

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Dad leads the way – The first to trigger the camera trap was the large male – Image Daily Mail Online

Luck and timing Deputy Director for Scientific Programs at the Reserve, Svetlana Soutyrina, set these camera traps and says that out of the hundreds of Tiger photographs collected over the years this is the first time they “have recorded a family together…and it confirms that male Amur tigers do participate in family life, at least occasionally” – source Wildlife Conservation Society

Amur Tiger facts

  • Panthera tigris altaica is referred to as the Amur or Siberian Tiger
  • In the 1940’s populations were estimated to be only 20-30 individuals, widespread hunting for their skins and taking cubs from the wild to supply zoos around the world contributed to their rapid and dangerous decline
  • In 1947 Russia outlawed and enforced strict Tiger hunting laws and population recovery happened with established protected areas and maintenance of large tracts of habitat outside of the protected zones
  • Research conducted under the Siberian Tiger Project demonstrated that resident female tigers need 250-450 km² to successfully rear cubs where the males territory can be up to 1,385 km² and overlap with several female territories
  • Reproduction starts at around 3 years of age, and mating can occur at any time of year with gestation lasting 3 – 3 ½ months
  • Tigers often give birth on the ground in dense, brushy areas with most cubs being born in summer and fall
  • Litter sizes are between one and five cubs but disease, hunger, congenital defects, and predation claim approximately 50% of cubs in their first year
  • Male tigers leave their mothers to find their own territory  between 16 and 22 months old traveling hundreds of kilometers in search of a new territory
  • In the winter the Siberian Tigers coat can be somewhat lighter than that of other Tigers and people sometimes mistakenly think that they have white fur
  • Amur Tigers are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List
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The Siberian tiger and Bengal tiger subspecies rank among the biggest living cats – Image – Wikipedia

Threats

  • Poaching of Tiger parts (skin, bones, meat) for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine
  • Retaliatory killings of Tigers when the big cats kill livestock and people’s dogs
  • Habitat destruction of forest resources by activities such as logging
  • Vehicle fatalities by logging trucks and increased poaching due to access roads
  • Overhunting by humans of the Tigers prey like elk, wild boar, and sika deer
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The oldest Siberian tigers in zoos have lived to 35 years of age, but 14 years is the oldest known age for an Amur tiger in the wild. Image – Wikipedia

Tiger Restoration

Plans to help the  Amur Tiger make a comeback include strategies like anti-poaching and snare removal campaigns; education and support for local communities that live with the big cats; and monitoring of Tigers along the Russian-China border.

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Protecting this big cat will no doubt require a united and determined effort. Image – Wikipedia

What does the future hold for the recovery of the Amur Tiger? Be sure to check back to read about a groundbreaking experiment underway in Russia that aims to help give these rare animals a much-needed boost.