Largest-ever Amur tiger release in Russia hopes to signal species return

IFAW staff on the ground in Russia were able to provide Reuters with these shots.

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Precisely a year after Zolushka’s wildly successful release, we’re back in Far East Russia for yet another mission to save the largest cat species in the world, the Amur (Siberian) tiger.

Thursday's release and another planned in the coming weeks will return five Amur tigers back to the wild, an historic number.

You're probably asking why we’re that excited about five tigers?

Well, consider this: Even though you can count that number with one hand, it represents more than one percent of the entire population of wild Amur tigers alive today.

If it were humans, we would be talking about more than 70 million people—that's more than the entire population of the United Kingdom.

So yes, it’s a big deal.

Orphaned tigers Ilona, Borya and Kuzya were successfully released back to the wild in Far East Russia after undergoing IFAW-supported rehabilitation. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, participated in the release. c. IFAW/M. Booth

It's not just about saving individual animals. We're bringing tigers back to where they once roamed. Like tiger expert Dale Miquele rightfully pointed out to me yesterday, "we are reclaiming tiger habitat."

In the last two days, we arrived at Inspection Tiger’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center for Endangered Species in Alekseevka. We immediately started preparing for the first release of three tigers with some practice runs and coordination meetings.

Our partners from Inspection Tiger, Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) joined us to discuss the next four days which will culminate with the release of tigers Ilona, Borya, and Kuzya.

Noticing that Ilona had become a little more nervous and reclusive in the last few days, the team decided to immobilize her a day before the two males, and place her in her transport crate. The tranquilization worked incredibly well. Ilona went to sleep and the team rushed into the enclosure, placed her in a stretcher and carried her out.

Before she was put inside the crate, she received a full health check: she was measured and weighed, her heart rate was monitored, blood was drawn and hair samples were taken. Finally, she was fitted with an all-important satellite collar, which will allow scientists to track her whereabouts after release.

With Ilona safe in her crate, the following day was made much easier as we only had to focus on brothers Borya and Kuzya, who share a single enclosure.

Borya gave us a bit of a scare as his breathing was shallow after his darting, but our experienced vet Mikhail Alshinetskiy was on him providing care. Both tigers got the same host of procedures and in the crates they went.

After our 1,400 km. drive to the release area, all has gone as planned; Ilona, Borya, and Kuzya were simultaneously set free, as you can see in the video above, signaling what we hope will be a triumphant return of Amur tigers to the region.

--MB

Stay tuned for more updates as we work to save individual animals and restore tiger habitat through this one-of-a-kind conservation and animal welfare mission in the wilds of Russia.

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