MILESTONE: Tigress Zolushka’s cubs prove rehabilitation success

A camera trap in the Bastak Nature Reserve caught Amur tigress Zolushka with two cubs. PHOTO: © BASTAKZolushka has two cubs! That was the first sentence I read this morning as I opened up my email. Attached came the wonderful photo you see above.

This was the news we were impatiently awaiting, evidence that one of our rehabilitated Amur tigers has bred. 

She behaved naturally enough to attract her mate, and she has been an efficient enough hunter to feed not only herself, but a litter of two fast-growing cubs.

The weather in the Russian Far East is harsh, with short summers and long winters of sub-zero temperatures and deep snow cover. To rear cubs in these conditions is truly proof that a rescued and hand reared cub can indeed survive in the wild to help the conservation of her highly endangered population.

“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.”

Zolushka, being the eldest of the rehabilitated tigers, has always attracted the most attention. Not only has the YouTube video of her famous leap to freedom received more than 8 million views, but she was the star of last week’s International Workshop on the Rehabilitation and Reintroduction of Large Carnivores, held at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. The workshop brought together experts from leading international projects focusing on the rehabilitation and reintroduction of endangered large carnivores. So many presentations featured something about Zolushka (Russian for Cinderella), her release in May of 2013 and her ongoing life in the wild for the past two and a half years.

Colleagues Gail A’Brunzo and Mila Danilova and I presented the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s involvement in the release of the six orphan tigers, which had been rescued as cubs, reared, rehabilitated and released to the wild.  Many learned biologists believed that it could not be done – that a tiger reared in captivity by humans would inevitably clash with humans when released. 

But we have proved them wrong. 

Of five additional tigers released since Zolushka, four have survived in the wild for over a year and a half without causing problems with people in the communities surrounding the forests in which they have made their home. 

Only one (Ustin), having crossed the Amur River into China and found himself in an agricultural region with no wild prey, developed a taste for goats. He brought this bad habit back with him to Russia and his continued predation on farm livestock meant he had to be recaptured and now lives in captivity.  But all the other five tigers are so far doing well and living far from human contact, and we pray that we continue to do so.  The Siberian or Amur tiger, a separate tiger subspecies, now only numbers about 500 in the wild, so our rehabilitated tigers represent an important 1 percent of the entire population.

IFAW has not done this alone.

The Russian Government’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology, Federal Bastak and Khingan nature reserves; academics from Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and NGOs WCS Russia and Phoenix Fund have all played a part – hence the number of presentations at last week’s conference.

Not only were the details of the rehabilitation of these tigers considered, but also their monitoring post-release.  This monitoring was at first by satellite collar (two of them are still working – on Ilona and Borya), but once the batteries failed and the collars dropped off, then a mixture of high- and low-tech solutions were needed. 

The low-tech solutions are old-fashioned field craft; looking for footprints (most easily seen in the snow during the winter months) and signs such as trees where tigers mark their territories with scent spraying and claw marks.

The high-tech ones are ‘camera traps’, high-resolution cameras capable of taking photos and video at night, with an infrared beam triggered by a passing animal. These are place at likely locations: trails that go along the highest points of the mountain ranges where the tigers can see and smell what’s going on kilometers around them, territorial scent-marked tree, etc.  IFAW recently provided an all-terrain motorcycle (ATV) which helps to check these camera traps, making the process faster and life for the inspectors much easier.  

READ: VIDEO + PICTURES: Why are nature reserves so important to Russian tigers?

Between these two methods, it is possible to chart the progress of our released animals long after other methods are exhausted. 

IFAW remains involved in this effort to successfully reintegrate Zolushka, Ilona, Borya, Kyzya and Svetlaya back to the wilds of the Russian Far East and are following closely the activities of the tigers.

--IR

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