One Tough Tiger

Despite years of rampant poaching, the Siberian tiger marches on

  • Rene Ebersole
  • Dec 01, 2003

ON A BITTER-COLD February morning, Howard Quigley stood along the rocky shore of the Sea of Japan peering down a rifle barrel at an angry tiger fighting to break free of the snare that had captured her. She lunged from the tall grasses some 30 feet away and snarled a menacing, guttural growl that made the hairs on the back of Quigley's neck stand on end. He focused the gun's cross-hairs on his target's shoulder, trying to ignore the cat's bone-chilling roars.

Behind the American biologist providing backup was Volodya Velichko, an armed Russian woodsman. Just beyond him sat a bunker—a remnant of the Cold War once occupied by soldiers protecting this shore from a possible U.S. invasion. Quigley slowly squeezed the trigger, hoping to effectively deliver a dart-full of anesthesia to the chafed cat as questions swirled in his brain: What if I miss and the tiger breaks free and attacks? Will Velichko save my life? Or will he let the cat have me for breakfast?

"Here I was this American trying to save one of Russia's most treasured icons," says Quigley. "And he was protecting me if that tiger got loose."

Moments later, Velichko shook Quigley's hand, giving a nod that said "nice shot." Then the new comrades settled into the grasses beneath a tall oak tree and waited with their team for the drug to take effect.

After tossing a stone and shouting to make sure the cat was truly out, the adrenaline-pumped researchers shifted swiftly into action. They checked the tiger's vital signs, collected a small blood sample for genetic tests, took body measurements and, lastly, attached a radio collar around the drowsy cat's thick, fury neck. The speed of the beeps emitted by that collar's radio signal would later reveal if the tigress known forevermore as "Tiger Number 1," or more affectionately as "Olga," was sleeping, stalking prey, scouting a new territory—or dead.

Ninety minutes after she was darted Olga awoke from her slumber, stood up and staggered into the brush.

Photo of mother tiger and cubs: © MAURICE HORNOCKER
And so began the Siberian Tiger Project, a cooperative international effort between the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Hornocker Wildlife Institute and Russia's Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve to stop Panthera tigris altaica from joining the three tiger subspecies—Bali, Javan, Caspian—that became extinct during the last century. In the near 12 years since the capture of Olga, the world's remaining five subspecies (Bengal, Indochinese, South China, Sumatran and Siberian) have experienced some tough times. But studies show that one of them—the Siberian, or Amur, tiger—is currently holding steady and perhaps even returning to old haunts thanks, in large part, to the Siberian Tiger Project.

"This is the most magnificent of all the big cats," says Maurice Hornocker, founder of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute in Bozeman, Montana. "And we have a real chance to save it."

The world's largest cat once roamed throughout the Far East from Eastern Russia to South Korea. But by the early 1940s, sport hunting, civil unrest and the collection of tiger cubs for zoos had all but wiped out the subspecies. Experts estimate Siberian tiger numbers fell to fewer than 50.

During World War II, the cats had a brief reprieve and started to recover. In 1947, the communist leadership banned tiger hunting, further helping the cats' comeback so that by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, at least 250 tigers were prowling the eastern fringes of the Siberian taiga, the largest intact forest on the planet.

The plan to save the endangered cat took shape in, of all places, an Idaho forest on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1990, Quigley and Hornocker were giving some Russian colleagues a glimpse of their conservation work with cougars. The group was settled around a campfire, washing down some steaks with a few cold beers, when Quigley said, "How about we start a Siberian tiger program?" The Russians replied, "Nyet problem," Quigley remembers with a laugh. "It was pure serendipity." But the mission was clear. "We wanted to build a comprehensive tiger conservation plan," he explains.


COMEBACK CAT: Several hundred Siberian, or Amur, tigers currently prowl the snowy forests of the Russian Far East. Well adapted for this chilly climate, the tiger's large size combined with a layer of insulating fat helps it conserve heat. During harsh winters, Siberian tigers quench their thirst by licking snow. The tigers' stripes provide camouflage amid golden leaves and brown tree trunks of the region's oak forests (above). Because it is extremely difficult to capture wild Siberian tigers on film, most of the cats shown on these pages were photographed on five acres of enclosed forests near Vladivostok, where scientists study tiger behavior.

Two years and many hours of negotiations and funding woes later, Quigley and Hornocker were in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve—the heart of Siberian tiger country—tracking the "mythical beasts" in the snow with a team of talented scientists that included Quigley's wife Kathy, a veterinarian, and biologist Dale Miquelle. With 1,600 square miles of forested mountains and unbroken coastline, Sikhote-Alin is the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Russian Far East and a critical breeding ground for tigers.

However, the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, combined with the arrival of large-scale international logging operations, made a program to stop the disappearance of Siberian tigers from the reserve and the surrounding taiga more daunting than the researchers ever imagined. Law and order in the region had evaporated. With the borders open, the country's remaining natural resources were being looted from the landscape. Modern firearms, once illegal and scarce, became more easily available, as did trucks with four-wheel drive. And logging roads provided access to remote areas. "The democratization of the Soviet Union was good overall," says Quigley. "But it was bad initially for tigers."

The researchers reluctantly became accustomed to recovering radio collars from dismembered cat carcasses that stained the snowy landscape red, or losing the radio collars' signals altogether—a sign that savvy poachers had destroyed them. Tigers literally had a price on their heads. Their body parts were—and still are—in demand for traditional Chinese medicines.

Experts say a single poached tiger can currently fetch as much as $4,000 for a part-time poacher whose average income might only be $100 per month. According to TRAFFIC, a division of the World Wildlife Fund that monitors the trade of endangered species, Asian medicine has found a use for nearly every part of the tiger's body. The brain is prescribed as a treatment for laziness and pimples; eyeballs are a common remedy for epilepsy; whiskers are incorporated into a fix for a toothache; a tail provides a treatment for skin diseases; and tiger bones are especially coveted for rheumatism, weakness and paralysis.

To an apothecary, a full-grown Siberian tiger is a gold mine of medical treatments. Male tigers grow as long as 11 feet and weigh as much as 550 pounds. Females are slightly smaller, often reaching lengths of more than 8 feet and weighing up to 370 pounds. A single tiger track in the snow hints at the size of these great beasts, says Quigley. "It's as large as a dinner plate. And enough to send chills up my spine."

But the stealthy predator's size and power hasn't helped it overcome the threat of humans with guns. Since the Siberian Tiger Project began in 1992, roughly 17 radio-collared tigers—more than half of the project's study animals—have been poached, according to John Goodrich, the WCS ecologist who currently runs the field operations in Russia. Many of those animals were females with cubs in tow, and young cubs rarely survive on their own.

Goodrich remembers a heart-wrenching day five years ago when he carried a dead tiger named Nadia off a hillside in pieces. The blood-soaked snow was littered with the tracks of her three orphaned cubs, left to wander cold and hungry. Had Goodrich and fellow researchers not fed the cubs for several months at the site where Nadia was poached, the cubs would have starved.

Unfortunately, others have not been as lucky. The likely demise of stray cubs and the recovery of their moms' carcasses is a scenario that has played out many times on the snowy stage of the taiga.

"Nadia, like so many other tigers, was killed because a road provided access for a poacher," says Goodrich. "It is clear that where there are roads, tigers get poached or hit and killed by cars. Where there are no roads, tigers can live to a ripe old age and die natural deaths."


STRAY KITTENS: Female Siberian tigers often give birth to litters of four cubs, but it's rare that they all survive. The ones that do live spend most of their first two years learning crucial survival skills from their mothers, such as how to chase down prey. When female tigers are killed, their cubs are left to wander, cold and hungry, with little chance of making it on their own.

Of the 10 tigresses Goodrich and other tiger researchers followed between 1992 and 2000, 100 percent of the ones that lived in roadless areas survived compared to 55 percent in areas with primary roads. The cubs—37 of them—faired worse. Only 40 percent in areas with primary roads made it. But the deaths of those tigers have not been in vain, says Goodrich. A pattern of poaching emerged from the study, as did a plan to stop it.

The solution might seem obvious: keep roads and people out of tiger habitat. But in order for local people to support tiger conservation, they need to retain access to food and firewood, natural resources upon which their lives depend, say conservationists.

"We're trying to convince the locals that tiger conservation is beneficial," explains Hornocker, who is considered one of the world's premier cat experts. Though there is no infrastructure for ecotourism yet, Russia's tigers could one day "attract nature lovers from around the world," pumping money into local economies, he says. In the meantime, local people are benefiting from selective logging that keeps important habitat intact and the sustainable harvest of berries, pine nuts, ginseng and honey. "Habitat protection is critical," Hornocker says, not only for the cats but also for other forest wildlife, including elk and wild boar, which make up the bulk of tiger diets.

Keeping poaching under control is also important. For the past seven years, anti-poaching teams have been operating in the Russian Far East under two government programs involving ongoing forest patrols that have resulted in the arrests of a number of poachers. Many of the larger reserves have sought and received funding to maintain their own anti-poaching teams. And tiger conservationists are working to reduce hunting of tigers and their prey. Russian customs officials have also beefed up security at the country's borders to halt the export of tiger and other animal parts for traditional medicines.

All of these efforts are beginning to pay off, say experts. Siberian tiger numbers appear to be stabilizing. "Between 300 to 400 tigers currently occupy a very large, pristine block of habitat with a low human population," says Goodrich, which translates to "a lot of hope for Siberian tigers." What's more, the cats may also be spreading to old stomping grounds. When Hornocker visited China in the 1980s, tiger numbers had fallen so low there was "just a handful left," he says. Last February, scientists there were thrilled to discover that a remote camera had captured the first known photograph (below) of a wild Siberian tiger in northern Jilin Province's newly created Hunchun Nature Reserve.

Located on the western side of the border between Russia and China, the reserve was created to provide a corridor of habitat for tigers that were wiped out in China. "The photograph demonstrates that tigers are coming back," says WCS's Miquelle, who has been on the ground with the Siberian Tiger Project in Russia for its entire duration. "We have a long way to go, but there are dramatic gains being made in China that we believe indicate a bright future for tigers there."

In Russia's Sikhote-Alin Reserve, hunting may have ebbed since the early 1990s, but poaching continues to be a serious threat. Last year, a two-year-old tigress nursed back to health after a bout with a steel trap and released near the reserve was poached after surviving almost a year in her new home. The tiger's carcass was never recovered, but its radio collar was retrieved from a plastic jug floating down a river. Poachers had apparently cut the collar off their quarry and set it adrift to give the impression that the tiger remained alive and on the move.

Still, not all tigers are poached. Olga, for instance, is still thriving. In May 2002, she gave birth to her sixth litter of cubs. Though he still worries about the fate of what he considers "one of the most impressive animals on the planet," Quigley—who is currently in Montana developing his own nonprofit for carnivore conservation—is happy to know that his favorite cat is still doing well. "That day when we captured Olga was probably one of the scariest days in both of our lives," he says. "But we have both survived. We have both contributed to the conservation of carnivores and wildlife. I think we have made a difference."

Rene Ebersole is an associate editor.

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