Amur tiger release - Cinderella leaps to freedom in Far East Russia!
Update: We’re thrilled to report that, not only is Zolushka thriving in her new home, but in December 2015 she became the first rehabilitated and released Amur tiger to give birth in the wild. Below, experience the dramatic release that initiated this remarkable success story.PHOTO: © BASTAK
I should consider myself truly lucky because I took part in Cinderella’s release to the wild.
Cinderella is an Amur tiger. She was orphaned in the winter of 2012, and we were helping to raise her at the rehabilitation facility in Alekseyevka village, near Vladivostok in Far East Russia.
From June 2012, I was checking on Cinderella virtually every day: what does she eat, what does she like, how does she sleep…and all other details of her life.
For example, Cinderella loves to bathe. Usually after a good meal – a hog or a rabbit – she climbs into a stream that runs through her enclosure and lies in water happily.
When Cinderella was found, she was exhausted and frostbitten. Very often tiger cubs like her suffer frostbite on their tails. Cinderella's tail was affected too, so the very tip, about 5 to 7 centimeters, had to be amputated. This is the tip that tigers so characteristically curve up.
We are a little worried that the amputation might inhibit her communication with other tigers, but in general it should not be a problem in her life in the wild.
Many other organizations besides the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) have been involved in rescuing Cinderella: Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Phoenix Fund, Inspection Tiger, and WCS. Members of all these organizations came together to release Cinderella's back to the wild.
While living in the rehabilitation center, Cinderella has learned two most important skills: to hunt and to avoid human beings. Both are innate, but her time spent in rehabilitation gave her an opportunity to develop them, and Cinderella rather excels at both.
Whether Cinderella was ready for release, was decided by many of the world’s Amur tiger experts. After long discussions, the date for the release was set on May 9th. Nobody was intentionally setting it on Victory Day; it was just a nice coincidence.
A lot of people gathered at the rehabilitation facility on May 8th but were kept at a safe distance as Cinderella has intentionally been exposed to practically no contact with humans. All animals are examined and tested before being released; also a satellite collar had to be fit, so Cinderella had to be immobilized.
That was not so easy: Cinderella's enclosure is large, and she is very good at hiding and as soon as she heard and smelled the presence of humans she found a good spot to lay low and remain still. Only a handful of people approached the enclosure.
Two ‘shooters’ waited with their dart guns, a number of people surveyed the scene remotely on video fed by surveillance cameras, and the rest of us were asked to wait one kilometer away from the facility to avoid needlessly stressing Cinderella too much.
Around an hour and a half later, Cinderella was removed from the enclosure she called home for a year. Immediately after, blood was taken and other tests and measurements were performed, including measurements of her tail. Then she was fitted a satellite collar.
During remote observations at the rehabilitation facility Cinderella looked as if she weighed more than 100 kilos (which was quite impressive), but her actual weight at the time of transport showed 94 kilos. It’s true that TV adds a few kilos! Our girl actually was quite slim. I couldn’t help but feeling Cinderella’s fur while she was asleep and was surprised by how warm she was, feeling her body heat as I passed my hand over her hide.
The team then moved her into a transportation cage. The whole testing and measuring procedure took less than half an hour.
We started off from the facility about 1 p.m. Our party was riding in four vehicles; one of them towed a trailer with Cinderella.
During the first hour on the road our princess-to-be was waking up and recovering from anesthesia. We were watching her through breathing holes drilled in her cage. You put your eye to a peep-hole, and see a tiger looking straight at you… Ughhh… scary!
The weather was rather cool near Vladivostok, but as we started driving it grew warmer, and then just plain hot. We were stopping often to check on Cinderella. It’s quite complicated to pour water into the transport crate, so we put two five-liter blocks of ice in there to keep her cool.
Afraid that it would not be enough, we showered Cinderella by pouring water through the holes… what other way was there?... now imagine that here you are lying down, and suddenly cold water starts raining on you… Well, that was exactly what Cinderella thought too, and she expressed her thoughts loud and clear.
We took the hint. No more showers.
We can only imagine what Cinderella went through on the road. It was a very long and exhausting car drive. However, transportation by helicopter proved to be impossibly expensive. We were going to Bastak Nature Reserve. It is about 1000 kilometers from Vladivostok, near Birobidzhan. It started raining in the evening, and the temperature fell: that was the welcome we got as we approached Cinderella’s release site at Bastak Nature Reserve.
Tigers used to live in the area, but eventually people killed them all, and there were no tiger sightings there for many years. However, starting with 2006, one male tiger's presence is recorded there on a regular basis, and he is still sighted today. So we have far-reaching plans for Cinderella.
At 11 a.m. on May 9th we came to a place where we were met by a massive off-road vehicle that closely resembles a tank without a turret. No other vehicle would be able to travel across the reserve terrain.
The cage was uploaded on the tank, and we too climbed up on it. Never before have I travelled on such a thing! It’s a very powerful machine, there is only one downside – you have to duck all the time so as not to be hit by tree branches. I failed to do that once and got a good punch from a thick bough, which was less than nice.
Finally we reached the place of release. It was selected in the very center of the reserve, where no one ever goes, and even rangers only visit on rare occasions. That is, they patrol this territory's perimeter looking for signs of human presence, and if there are none, they do not go inside this core area. This is where we brought Cinderella.
The cage was taken down and placed in a way that gave Cinderella a good clearing to jump out and run for cover. We thought that she would run straight ahead so the video cameras were set to a side.
Not surprisingly nobody volunteered to open the cage directly, so a block and tackle system was arranged to lift the cage door from the distance. Everything was set up, and placed, everyone was put inside the tank since a tiger's behavior in such situations is unpredictable.
The rope was pulled, but the door wasn’t opening. The structure was then readjusted, everybody was growing nervous, time was passing, and all the cameras that were set up and recording were burning battery life. Of course Cinderella could hear everything and she was nervous too.
The rope was pulled again, and again it wasn’t working. Then they started redoing the entire block and tackle system. By now our cameramen were seriously worried about losing the whole thing and Cinderella was less than pleased by all the action around her cage.
Everybody got back inside the tank, took their 'positions', and finally the door slid open!
Then everything was over in a split second. We heard a roar, and for an instant I saw Cinderella leaping out of the cage right away and, contrary to our expectations, disappearing immediately from our sight, making a sharp right turn.
I was totally enraptured by that moment, so fluid and graceful she was. That was amazing. Cinderella leaped over one of the cameras, ran a bit to the side, stopped and looked back at us. I thought that for the first time in my life I see a tiger in the wild. And that this was perhaps the last time I would ever see a tiger in our taiga.
At that moment the man who was holding the door open (and the door was heavy) faltered perhaps, and the door closed back with a deafening bang. Cinderella startled and – disappeared. That is, she made a couple more leaps and sort of dissolved among the trees. It’s amazing how the bright orange and black stripes make the tiger invisible in taiga.
You know that she is there and can see us, but we cannot see her. It was a strange feeling, on one side a great joy because our Cinderella was free and back home, and on the other hand a realization that you do not want to cross her path again in the future.
That was it.
Today, we already received satellite data showing that Cinderella is moving across the reserve territory, so we know for certain that she is alive.
Let me say again that all of this became possible only thanks to the joint efforts of many people from a number of organizations: Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Inspection Tiger, WCS, Phoenix Fund, and IFAW. But more importantly, this was possible thanks to your contribution. A million thank-you’s to IFAW’s generous supporters for saving Cinderella and giving Amur tigers a new hope for their survival.