Five Amur tigers gain their freedom

November 25, 2014

The tigers were sedated to ensure the safety of the expert handlers.

In a development that promises a glimmer of hope for the survival of one of the world’s most charismatic – and endangered – species, five Amur tigers were released into the wild in Russia’s Far East in recent months.

Rolex Laureate Sergei Bereznuk, a leading tiger conservationist and director of the Phoenix Fund, says the release was the largest ever. “Once orphaned cubs doomed to die, these tigers have received a new lease of life, and they will be able to roam free.”

Few people were allowed at the two release events as tigers can be unpredictable.  “Usually people get into their vehicles before the cages are open. No one knows which direction the tigers will choose and what the first reaction to the stress of transportation will be,” says Bereznuk.

Alongside the specialist staff at the 22 May release, one person was particularly noticeable – Russian President Vladimir Putin. “It was no surprise that President Putin attended as he pays great attention to tiger conservation in Russia and recently initiated the creation of an Autonomous Non-Commercial Organization, the Amur Tiger Centre,” says Bereznuk.

Only about 3,500 tigers live in the wild, all in Asia. Three tiger subspecies – the Bali, Javan and Caspian – have disappeared in the past 70 years. The six remaining subspecies – Amur, Bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, South China and Sumatran – are threatened by poaching and habitat loss.

The Phoenix Fund estimates the total population of Amur tigers is 450 to 480. “We are all looking forward to the upcoming population census that should take place in 2015. Hopefully, the number will be even bigger,” says Bereznuk.

Rescued as cubs

The five tigers released in May and June were rescued as cubs in 2012 and 2013. Aged between three and eight months, they were emaciated and frostbitten. In at least one case, according to Bereznuk, the cub’s mother had likely been killed by poachers. The cubs were sent to recover in rehabilitation centres in Eastern Russia. They also spent months at the Centre for Rehabilitation and Reintroduction of Tigers and Other Rare Animals in Alekseevka, Primorsky Krai, a province on the eastern edge of the Russian Federation.

“This is a one-of-a-kind facility for tigers in Russia,” Bereznuk says. “Its vast area allows the preparation of predators for release back into the wild. There are no visitors in the centre, so the tigers have minimum contact with humans. After a period of adaptation, the cubs began their ‘training’. At first, small animals like hares and badgers are put in a special enclosure with them. Then, the predators learn to hunt bigger animals like wild boar and sika deer. During this ‘training course’, the tigers must be completely isolated from people, so that the animals can develop a fear of humans. Animal care staff keep an eye on the cubs’ movements from an observation tower or via cameras installed along the perimeter of the enclosure. When the specialists think they are ready to live on their own and all the other conditions like season and animal’s health are fine, the tigers are transported to the best release site.”

Preparing for release

Both Russian and foreign experts and organizations cooperated to ensure the tigers were released with maximum chance of survival. Bereznuk and the Phoenix Fund were especially instrumental in helping to prepare the tigers, and organized information events for residents living where the tigers now roam wild “in order to ensure peaceful coexistence”.

As part of  the extensive preparation, those tigers released in June, for example, were driven 1,200 km in a motorcade led by an air-conditioned animal transport vehicle, Bereznuk explains. Before being put into the trucks for transport, the tigers were sedated to ensure they did not harm the rangers. They were also fitted with satellite collars so that their movements could be monitored by scientists and rangers. The collars unfasten automatically after a year and do not disturb the tigers.

According to a report in early October by the Severtsov Institute of Environment and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences, one of the GPS collars revealed that a tiger named Kuzya, which was released into the wild in May, had crossed into China by swimming across the Amur River. Regional authorities in Russia and China were immediately notified about the tiger’s location in the Taipinggou Nature Reserve in Heilonjiang, in north-eastern China. Citing Chen Zhigang, the director of the nature reserve, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that the local authorities hope Kuzya will be safe in China.

To help ensure this, the police have notified the local farmers about the tiger. Sixty infrared camera traps installed in the Taipinggou reserve will record the tiger’s movements. The tiger should have enough to eat because various animal species live in the reserve – an area of 20,000 hectares – Chen Zhigang said, adding that, if necessary, they could release cattle into the reserve.

“We are happy that these tigers have been successfully returned to the wild,” says Bereznuk who explains that all five of the released tigers are successfully adapting to their new lives and have not approached humans.

“Phoenix would like to thank all our adherents who contributed to the tigers’ rehabilitation for their support. Hopefully, these tigers will live long and happy lives, never meet poachers and give birth to new Amur tigers.”

Learn more about Sergei Bereznuk

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