Interim report – Released tigers

WCS Russia – Mitigating human-tiger conflict.  How are the released tigers doing?

Zolushka en-route to her release site in Bastak Zapovednik in 2013. Photograph © IFAW   The tigress Zolushka en-route to her release site in Bastak Zapovednik in 2013. Photograph © IFAW

Research by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia Program (WCS Russia) has found that not only does poaching directly remove Amur tigers from the wild, it also vastly degrades the quality of life for those that remain. Poachers wound tigers, reduce prey numbers, and orphan cubs when their mothers are killed. WCS focuses on confronting poaching before it impacts tigers, but to ensure tiger recovery we also focus on mitigating the effects of poaching on surviving tigers. With this grant award we seek to mitigate human-tiger conflicts and give tigers a second chance at life in the wild, be they sub-adults raiding villages for domestic animals or cubs orphaned when their mothers are shot.

In the past few years alone, nearly a dozen Amur tiger cubs have been found orphaned in the wild. These young animals, too inexperienced to hunt on their own, most likely lost their mothers to poachers. Sadly, female tigers with cubs are likely more vulnerable to poaching; rather than fleeing from humans, mother tigers will stand their ground to defend their cubs.

In response, WCS Russia has joined with nearly the entire tiger conservation community in the Russian Far East to rally behind a rehabilitation program to give these young cats a chance to return to the wild. The Pri-Amur, an inland region within the Russian Far East that historically supported tigers, was selected as a release site with the hope that successful colonization would lead to an expansion of the current global range of Amur tigers. Each of the four organizations (WCS, Phoenix Fund, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Severtsov Institute) contributes their strengths to this effort, and ours are capture and handling, as well as monitoring the fate of released individuals. We have a highly-trained team of fieldworkers experienced in monitoring movements of collared tigers (with both GPS and traditional VHF collars), snow tracking individuals, and using camera traps to monitor the fate of individual tigers. Close monitoring of tigers with GPS collars can reveal when and where tigers make kills, allowing us to estimate prey consumption (an indicator of their successful adaption to life back in the wild). Strategically placed camera traps also allow us to assess physical condition without the need for recaptures.

Our goal with this project is to reduce loss of wild tigers from the wild by mitigating human-tiger conflicts. We have made measurable strides to do so in the past six months.

III. Progress to Date

Objective 1: Continue supporting government agencies to mitigate conflicts (annually, as needed).

In winter 2014-15 we responded to three conflict situations as requested by the government; the first two in Vyasemskii County in Khabarovskii Krai (province) and the second in Krasnoarmeiskii County in Primorskii Krai: Vyasemskii tigers.  Reports of a “marauding” tiger that had killed a number of dogs were coming to the Wildlife Department from Vzyasemskii County in Khabarovskii Krai, and we were consequently requested to assist in addressing this problem. On the night of November 9-10, 2014, a tiger had killed a dog right in the center of the village. We arrived on November 10, and found evidence that two different tigers were causing problems in a relatively small area. On the evening of November 10-11 the tiger killed a second dog near the village school, and our staff were able to capture the young male tiger responsible. After immobilizing him they estimated that he was 3-4 years old, but he was extremely emaciated and did not appear especially frightened or aggressive in the presence of people. This tiger did not appear to be a good candidate for immediate release, and he was therefore shipped to Utyos Rehabilitation Center on November 14 where he appears to be eating well, gaining weight, and regaining a healthy fear response to humans. After spending the winter at the center, the tiger had gained considerable weight and regained a healthy fear of humans. Khabarovskii Krai Wildlife Department released this tiger in May 2015 with a GPS collar. We look forward to monitoring the fate of this tiger.

Back on November 13, twenty kilometers away on the same evening that the first capture was still ongoing, another tiger was making news by killing a dog at a set of sheds and buildings of a local company. This tiger had walked onto the grounds of the facility and completely ignored the presence of humans while chasing a dog. In fact, in one of his rushes towards the dog, he came so close that a man actually hit the tiger with a snow shovel he was using to clean the walkway. On November 14, the tiger was captured and immobilized. This tiger was younger, approximately 2.5 years old, and fairly well fed, but oddly had very worn-down claws. This male was more aggressive than the first tiger, but he was still unnaturally calm in the presence of humans. This tiger was moved to the Alekseevka Rehabilitation Center and was kept under close observation.

Video documentation of a hunting event at the Alekseevka Rehabilitation Center (the tiger was presented live prey to determine its capacity to hunt) suggested that this tiger seemed to have little experience in killing deer, and thus raised the question as to whether this tiger might have been a captive animal somewhere before he was let loose. Of course, any number of diseases could also affect is central nervous system, thereby affecting his ability to hunt and his response to humans. When no clear changes occurred in his behaviour, it was determined that this tiger was not a suitable candidate for re-release, and he was relocated to a Russian zoo.

Man-eating tiger.  In December 2014, reports arose of a man-eating tiger in Krasnoarmeiskii County, Primorskii Krai (just west of Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik). The remains of a hunter were found, surrounded by tiger tracks. Analyses of tiger scat at the site confirmed that the tiger did eat the hunter but the possibility exists that this person died in the forest, and only later did the tiger encounter the remains. The hunter, some 70 years old, could have easily died from other causes and been found by the tiger. The hunter’s body lay directly on a trail, and it is extremely unusual for tigers not to drag their kill to some more secure site after a kill – something that clearly did not happen here (and could not happen if the body were frozen into the snow before the tiger found it). Due to the harsh weather our staff pulled out of the area before New Year’s. Although there was continued discussion of the need to capture and kill the “man-eater,” our reports to government agencies (suggesting the tiger might not have been a man-killer) quieted this sentiment a bit, and no further capture efforts were made. To date there have been no more conflicts with tigers in the area.

Objective 2: Use GPS tracking and field checks to monitor the fate of six rehabilitated cubs released back into the wild.

Between February 2012 and February 2013, eight tiger cubs were brought into captivity in Primorskii and Khabarovskii Krais from at least four litters. Two died shortly after capture, but the other six were kept in enclosures separated from human activities and provided opportunities to learn how to hunt wild prey. At dispersal age (about 18 months) all six were released in the spring of 2013 (a tiger named Zolushka) and 2014 (tigers named Svetlaya, Borya, Kuzya, Ustin, Ilona) in the Pri-Amur region.

Zolushka.  This tigress, the first cub ever rehabilitated and then released as an adult, was monitored intensively in summer 2013 and in multiple expeditions in winter 2014. The exciting news with Zolushka is that in early November 2014, her tracks and those of the resident male tiger were noted together in a pattern suggesting that mating may have occurred. But as deep snows accumulated in Bastak Zapovednik over the winter and into 2015, neither tracks nor photographs of Zolushka were found. Neither the excursions by a Servetsov staff member, nor subsequent trips by WCS staff revealed any evidence of Zolushka. Only in late March 2015 did we receive word from Bastak inspectors that they had found tracks that match those of Zolushka, as well as those of the male (in different locations). Additionally, we learned that Zolushka had commonly appeared in a hunting lease on the western boundary of Bastak Zapovednik, with her tracks appearing there monthly. This suggests that she spent the majority of her time outside the protected area this winter. A priority for the future will be setting out camera traps in this hunting lease to try to document movements of Zolushka outside the zapovednik. Unfortunately, no excrement has been collected in recent months, which means we have no new information on the reproductive status of Zolushka. More information will be collected by following tracks and the use of camera traps.  But most importantly, it appears Zolushka survived her second winter, one that was much tougher due to the very deep snow that accumulated in Bastak Zapovednik – a good sign that she will survive long into the future. The average age of first birth for Amur tigers is four years, but we have recorded a first birth during the third year of one wild female.

Zolushka passed her third birthday in autumn 2014. We are hopeful that in the near future we may see evidence of cubs, which would represent the ultimate success in returning a tigress to the wild.

In May 2014, President Putin presided over the release of three tigers – two brothers (Borya and Kuzya) and one female (Ilona). These three tigers immediately scattered in different directions.

Ilona was the first to make a kill just a few days after release. She has taken more boar than anything but has also killed a wolf (see photo). © Khinganskii Zapovednick

Borya was sighted by humans several times in the summer, and he is known to have killed two young cows, but he then moved back into a remote, forested region. He has since moved back towards Ilona, but their movements have not again overlapped since last summer

Kuzya. The third tiger released in Amurskaya Oblast, Kuzya, made an exciting journey to the south, first roaming southeast into the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, passing through the region where the other two tigers were released, before spending several days skirting the Amur River (which serves as a natural border here between Russia and China). On October 2, 2014 Kuzya swam across the Amur River (which is nearly one km wide at this point) and entered Chinese territory. He continued south almost 175 km, passing through much of the Khingan mountains of this region, before circling north and around the large city of Hegang, and then returned north again to the Amur River on November 4. Kuzya again followed the river, as if hoping to cross, but by this time the river was filled with ice floes, and an attempted crossing would likely have been fatal. Therefore, Kuzya lingered in China, heading northwest. With the river finally frozen, Kuzya crossed back into Russia on December 5, but by December 6 had crossed back into China (apparently with a multiple-entry visa!). By December 7, Kuzya had returned to Russia again, and settled for a good part of the winter in an area that partially overlapped the home range of Svetlaya in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. His total movements, to date, had been over 1,000 km – a testimony to the dispersal capabilities of tigers.

Ustin did not fare so well and was recorded taking dogs and livestock in both Russia and China, and was showing no fear of humans. On December 27  Ustin was recaptured, and returned to Alekseevka Rehabilitation Center. From there, he was relocated to the zoo in Rostov-on-Don in Russia – an unfortunate ending of Ustin’s forays. However, the risk that Ustin posed to humans was not insignificant, and any conflict between him and humans could jeopardize the fate of all the other tigers that have been successfully released.

Svetlaya has mostly stayed close to her release site and is frequently making kills and successfully survived the winter.

© Khinganskii Zapovednick

Conclusion

All five tigers still remaining in the Pri-Amur survived the winter of 2015. Five out of the six released tigers therefore met all three targets of the rehabilitation process: 1) they all demonstrated the ability to make kills of wild prey during the first two months after release; 2) they all have generally stayed away from people, domestic animals, and human settlements (the minor exception was Borya, who killed two young domestic cows in late summer 2014; he also killed but did not eat a dog that pestered him in the forest, but since then all evidence suggests that Borya has been regularly making kills of wild ungulates as have all the other tigers); 3) all also appear to have met the third and final target of surviving the 2015 winter. Therefore, in all likelihood four of the tigers will successfully live through their first year (Borya, Kuzya, Svetlaya, Ilona) while Zolushka is approaching the second anniversary of her release into the Pri- Amur region.

Food habits of rehabilitated tigers

Continued monitoring will be important to document tiger activities, movement patterns, and most importantly, to document reproductive activities in the near future. Successful reproduction would be the ultimate sign that recovery of tigers in the Pri-Amur is underway, and we thank ALTA for helping us in our efforts to achieve this valuable goal.