The Russian Far East is the setting for a Cinderella story. In this case, Cinderella is a tiger. An orphaned, starved, frost-bitten cub was rescued in the winter of 2012, rehabilitated, released, and now is possibly mating and re-colonizing former tiger territory, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The female tiger known as Zolushka (the Russian equivalent of "Cinderella") seems to be thriving within the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, a region where tigers had vanished some 40 years ago as a result of habitat loss, direct poaching, and loss of prey. Scientists note she has already met up with a resident male tiger and are hopeful that cubs may follow.
"Zolushka appears to be thriving in her new home, and represents the spearhead of a process for re-colonizing habitat once roamed over by her ancestors," said Dr. Dale Miquelle, Director of the WCS Russia Program. "This story is good news for Cinderella but also for tigers overall as she and her prince appear to be consorting in formerly lost tiger habitat. Since her release, an additional five more orphaned cubs have been rescued, rehabilitated and released also into this westernmost range of historical tiger habitat. All but one of the cubs seems to be doing well in their new environment. "
Zolushka first came to the attention of conservationists working in the Russian Far East in the winter of 2012. She was found alone, the likely result of the death of her mother at the hands of poachers. On the verge of starvation, she was brought by hunters to a wildlife inspector of the regional Primorskii Wildlife Department and treated with veterinary treatment regional Agricultural Academy, including amputation of a third of her frostbitten tail.
For the next year 15 months, Zolushka's home was a Russian federal tiger rehabilitation center, designed with technical assistance from WCS's Bronx Zoo General Curator Dr. Pat Thomas. Dr. Thomas made recommendations on facility design to improve safety and reduce the need for direct interactions between tigers and humans. The key to this rehabilitation was ensuring that the tiger's natural fear of humans would remain intact and that she learned to hunt live prey before being released by into the wild. After growing significantly in size and strength, Zolushka began successfully capturing her live prey, including wild boar.
Zolushka was released back into the wild to Bastak Reserve in the spring of 2013. Scientists followed her movements with GPS and camera trap technology. After checking locations in the field where she had been, there was clear evidence of successful predation on wild boar, badgers, and red deer.
After the GPS signals faded, scientists became uncertain of Zolushka's fate. WCS and staff of Bastak Reserve used camera traps to re-establish contact with the big cat, successfully capturing her image multiple times in the Bastak Reserve. While following Zolushka's tracks, scientists discovered the presence of a recently arrived male tiger in the same territory, giving rise to the hope that cubs may soon be on the way.
"If cubs are born, it will be the ultimate sign of success in returning tigers to this once empty landscape," said Miquelle.
The exact population size of Amur tigers is difficult to estimate, but the official estimates suggest that tiger numbers have dropped to 330-390 individuals (from 430-500 in 2005). This decline was likely the result of increased poaching of tigers and their prey between 2005-2010, a period when poachers took advantage of wildlife management restructuring and the confusion associated with those changes. A full-range tiger population survey, conducted every 10 years, is scheduled for February 2015. The WCS Russia Program plays a critical role in monitoring tigers and their prey species in the Russian Far East and minimizing potential conflicts between tigers and human communities. WCS works to save tiger populations and their remaining habitat in nine range countries across Asia.
WCS's work in rehabilitating, releasing, and monitoring Zolushka was made possible through the generous support of the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, Columbus Zoo Conservation Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Rhinoceros & Tiger Conservation Fund, Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and the AZA Tiger Species Survival Plan Tiger Conservation Campaign. Collaborators for this project included the A. N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution from the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Russian Geographical Society, Inspection Tiger, IFAW, and Phoenix Fund.
The full Cinderella story and the state of the Amur tiger in Russia is the cover story in the February issue of Smithsonian magazine.
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