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.’