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.