Saturday, July 13, 2013

Nature - Siberian Tiger Quest

Chris Morgan has tracked large predators in some of the wildest and most remote places on Earth. He now embarks on his greatest challenge - to find and film the Siberian tiger living wild and free in Russia's far eastern forests. This film features the work of Korean cameraman, Sooyong Park, who spent two years in the forest tracking and filming the world's biggest cat. Park's tracking technique was very unconventional. He dug himself into an underground pit and, incredibly, waited there for weeks at a time, hoping for a glimpse of a wild tiger. Morgan adopts the same method while he shares with us firsthand the difficulty of seeing the rare Siberian tiger.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

There are only 300 Siberian tigers left in the wild

Liz Bonnin took her life in her hands every time she ventured outside while filming her new two-part BBC2 series, Operation Snow Tiger. 

In temperatures of -38˚C and with wild tigers roaming the Russian forest where Liz was camped out in a rustic cabin with no mod cons, she knew that becoming a big cat’s breakfast was a definite possibility. 

‘You were pretty safe when you were with the group, but on your own you were vulnerable,’ explains Liz. 

‘Whatever you were doing you had to be quick, because at those temperatures you didn’t want to get frostbite. And if you let your imagination run riot, you’d think there was a tiger behind you...’ 

Luckily Liz, already well known to fans of the science show Bang Goes The Theory, survived her no-frills adventure and is back in the UK to talk about tigers, a cause particularly close to her heart – she studied tiger conservation in India and Nepal for her masters degree. 

For Operation Snow Tiger Liz travelled with a BBC camera crew to Primorye in the far south-eastern corner of Russia, to film the efforts being made to save the estimated 300 remaining Siberian tigers in the wild. With a dead tiger fetching £30,000, they’re being hunted to the brink of extinction for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Liz and the team met experts in the protected Ussurisk Zapovednik area monitoring the remaining tigers, and the BBC Natural History Unit’s crew brought along motion-sensor cameras to capture its first-ever footage of Siberian tigers, at 70 stone the largest and most elusive of the big cats.

Liz joined the scientists to follow tiger tracks in the snow, collect hair for DNA analysis, and use radio signals to help locate seven previously tagged tigers. There was the odd scary near-miss.

‘When we were out tracking, the radio signal would bounce off hills and obstructions and wasn’t always reliable,’ says Liz. ‘Once I was chatting to one of the scientists and he said, “Wait, wait!” and suddenly the signal told us a tiger was very close.’ 

They dashed to the Jeep. 

‘My heart was beating through my chest! Only about 50 metres away was a tiger in the trees. Usually they want nothing to do with us, but on rare occasions a tiger will be dangerous if it’s injured or starving or you’re encroaching on its prey area.
‘Part of the fascination of these animals is that they’re so elusive and secretive – the fact they try not to be seen adds to the mystery and magic. We came across their beds in the snow. They were so perfect you could see where the female had lain there for six hours, where her tail had been, and there was an imprint of her chin and nostrils that had melted the snow as she slept. It was almost a 3D picture. The snow brings these tigers to life.’

There was high drama over several days when three tiger cubs whose mother had been shot by poachers had to be tracked down, captured and sent to a rehabilitation centre before they starved. ‘No one could have anticipated such dramatic events occurring while we were there,’ says Liz. 

‘When the rangers located the first one and rescued her, they got her into a cage and I was allowed to see her. Seeing those eyes staring back at me melted my heart. But it was sad because she was orphaned, bewildered, separated from her siblings.
'I wanted her to be out in the forest with her mother, but instead she would be held for a year, with minimal human contact, and trained to hunt wild prey until she was deemed fit for release into the wild. I’d love to go back next spring when hopefully all three cubs may be ready for release.’ 

Born in France but raised in Ireland, Liz took a biochemistry degree at Trinity College, Dublin, then a masters degree in wild animal biology. In between her studies she presented entertainment shows on Irish TV and had a brief stint in a short-lived Irish girl band called Chill, before moving to the UK in 2002 for a job on Channel 4’s RI:SE and then Top Of The Pops.

But in 2006 she chucked it all in to study tigers because she ‘missed academia’, before returning to TV to present science shows such as Springwatch and Stargazing Live. Siberian tiger conservation remains her passion, though. 

‘This documentary series is the result of many years of me hassling the BBC Natural History Unit. Eventually they shut me up by sending me to the Russian Far East!’
Liz is currently filming another documentary series on animal behaviour, a follow-up to last year’s Super Smart Animals, and at this rate it’s not fanciful to imagine her career emulating that of her idol David Attenborough. 

She remains modest, though, and still seems surprised at her status as one of the rising stars of science television. ‘When I was younger, watching Big Cat Diary, I used to look at the presenters and think, “Imagine doing that as a job!” But now I’m here. At the risk of sounding slightly dramatic, I feel as though my whole life has led to this point.’

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Orphaned Siberian Tiger Cubs Prepared to be Returned to Nature

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.

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.)

Photo shows one of the sedated Siberian tiger cubs when found. For the next six to seven months, this cub and its two siblings  would live in a specially constructed rehabilitation facility in the Russian Far East. The facility is designed to minimize the tigers' contact with humans so they will remain wary of people.