Russia – Primorye – Ussurisk
The Habitat of the Amur Tiger
Sunday, May 15, 2011, 11am. Landing at the Artiom airport, North of Vladivostok, after an overnight flight. Outside the airport, there are large-format advertisements telling to visitors that we are on the land of the Tiger. All consumer brands seem claiming this iconic animal for one quality or another of the product that they are promoting.
The distance from Moscow is 6850 km (4256 miles), and another 2700km or more, between France and Russia. That means a total just a little bit less than 10000km ... Then two more hours driving North. This time, I won’t see the Amur River, which lies further south to the Chinese border.
The weather is grey, cold and wet with a constant drizzle. It is not long time before there is no more mobile phone coverage.
The National Integral Reserve of Ussurisk named after V.L. Komarov was created in 1934 as a botanical reserve.
This reserve has more than fifty different tree species with two trees endemic to the region: the Japanese Poplar (Populus maximowiczii) and the Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila). This is also the territory of wild Ginseng, the root of which is known for its therapeutic and poached excessively, and the “limonnik” or Chinese magnolia, the bay with five flavors (Scisendra chinensis), popular with the locals for its energizing and regulatory virtues.
We are not really in the taiga but this is the vegetation type called “Manchu” : it is comparable to the jungle where tigers live in tropical areas, but in a colder latitude.
The reserve has one peculiarity: it is cut in two by a road. The southern part, where the base camp of the scientific team is located, has had no forest tree felling since the 1970’s. The northern part has not suffered tree felling since the 1930’s.
It is here, in the Primorye region that a few Siberian tigers are still living, also called Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica). It is useful to note that it appears there has never been “resident populations” of tigers in Siberia, except a few individuals that have ventured into the region. Given the scarcity of prey and extreme conditions, this is not really surprising. The Primorye region is the only place, known in Russia, where tigers are still living; but who knows for how long?
The research program
The research project on the Amur tiger began in 2008, when the “Permanent Mission of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution near the Academy of Sciences of Russia,” was created at the request the Russian government. It is a scientific program, but not a conservation program. The distinction is subtle for most of us, but it should be noted that if the study of a species can lead to recommendations for its protection, their conservation does not depend on the scientists...
Setting of traps
At the beginning of this program, scientists admitted they did not know how to set traps designed to capture wild tigers, so that they were immobilised, be able to take samples, then, attach a satellite collar to be able to study their movements. They turned to their American colleagues who had 17 years experience in this field, and in this area, and were able to equip approximately one hundred wild tigers with radio collars so far.
I will not go into great details of the traps that are used. Suffice to say, they use a noose principle. When the animal places a paw inside the loop (normally concealed under foliage), the loop automatically tightens around the paw and immobilizes the animal without damaging it (does it really mean that it does not hurt the tiger at all...?)
If the ground is not too rocky or covered in roots to dig around, then each trap requires about one hour to install. It is buried on the side of the track. This is convenient for the scientists and the tigers seem to prefer walking on trails and roads when they can, rather than forests or the dense undergrowth of shrubs. A second trap is installed in “vis-a-vis”. A branch is then placed to bar the track: theoretically, it forces the animal to pass on the side where the trap is hidden - It also helps men to remember where the traps are buried ... Several traps are installed near marking trees. Marking trees are often inclined trees such as linden, which stand out for their size and shape, and that tigers chose to “mark” their territory with their claws or by urinating.
During the winter months, from November to April, rangers are looking for passages frequented by tigers which are easily spotted by their traces left in the snow. Besides these observation, carried out over several months, laying the traps therefore requires a lot of work to prepare the field each season, twice a year, in spring and autumn. Besides administrative work, prior approvals are required and shall be renewed before each expedition, which itself lasts around 8 weeks.
At the end of each expedition, for a whole day or sometimes more, the scientists unearth all of their 36 traps. This year, the season ends on May 30th. I will be attending the operation.
There is no question of leaving a trap behind because a trapped animal would be doomed. A tiger may be able to survive a little while keeping the noose around his paw, but in winter, his paw could freeze. Then, he could no longer hunt, feed or defend himself, not to mention the suffering that would occur.
Fifteen tigers identified between 2008 and 2011
In 3 years, fifteen tigers have been equipped with a satellite collar by the two teams of Russian scientists.
On the territory of the Ussurisk reserve, there are no resident tiger. The first tigress that was trapped in November 2008 was called “Serga.” This female became famous in Russia since Vladimir Putin was photographed at her side ! Her nickname came from the syringe that she received in her ear: she turned her head unexpectedly while the scientist was shooting at her, leaving the pink feather float of the syringe like a “ear-ring” (the translation of “Serga”).
Then, “Boxer” (named because of his swollen paw) was caught; the DNA analyses has concluded that he was the son of Serga. Once again Serga was trapped and her collar was replaced, as it was not working well. In spring 2010, May 2, the team caught “Professor,” named after his excellent skill in triggering remote traps and up until then had avoided capture. Then, it was the turn of another male, “Luke”, and another one “Patchy” (the name of a Japanese comedian). Finally in May 2011, “Princess Infinity” (because of a mark on her side, showing the infinity symbol) was trapped on May, 6th, and Banzai, (“My Tiger”), May 21st: he owes its nickname to the Japanese team that was present when in 2010 he appeared for the first time on trapping photographs.
In the Lazarovsky reserve further south, the population is estimated between 27 and 35 tigers and some are probably permanent residents. In spring 2010, 150 km south of Ussurisk, the second scientific team has captured a female named “SK”, referring to the diminutive of the female character from a very popular Russian series on the 2nd World War “17 moments of the spring”. The heroine of the series had the nickname “Sviasistkaya Kat” because she looked after “communications”; and the tigress had eaten several cables ... Then “Vorovka” which means “Thief”: the female ate a wild boar trapped but she was trapped the next day! In May 2011, “Gryaznoulia”, a male covered in mud (hence its name) and a female “Elduga” (in honor of a nearby river) were also equipped with a collar.
The two reserves are equipped with camera traps. Some tigers have been trapped “photographically” one or more times, but never captured. It is possible to identify individuals as a result of their pattern of stripes, which is unique to each animal, a sort of “ID card” or “fingerprint”. Scientists have added these tigers to the database as well : “Khramonojka” (“the Lame”), “Soboliok”, “Turk” and “Greek” and “Maslionok.” Some of these tigers were probably just crossing the reserve territory.
In 2009, the Special Inspection for the Tiger, which is also working in the Primorye region, took care of the first young orphan tiger named “Oleg”, and in 2010, they took care of three additional orphans from the same litter: Tatiana, Volodya, Lazurina. Each of them has been fitted with a collar. Unfortunately, Lazurina was found dead, not long after having been released, probably because she was unable to find food.
This raises the current figure to 20 tigers identified by the research program of the Institute. We would like to believe that there might be some others...
The scientific “routine”
Every morning, each of us, at his own turn, supports the preparation of breakfast, the waking up of the rest of the team, and the meal preparation, dishwashing and cleaning for the day. Our camp, a small house built some 30-40 years ago, called “Kordon”, is located in the Eastern part of the reserve. There is no running water: you have to go land collect this, some 50 meters down to the river. For electricity, the generator is switched on only in the evening. At mid-May, the outside temperature is +1°C in the morning. To get warm, you have to put some wood in the common room stove ...
Then it is time to check each trap of the three itinerates. A part of the team goes to the first circuit in the 4x4. It is not long before we leave the car as it is not possible to verify the presence of a trapped animal other than by foot due to the density of the undergrowth and mud ... Of course, an armed ranger accompanies us during this verification process. Some tigers have been already trapped, as have other animals such as boar, red deer, sika deer, bear and so on ... Back on the track, we continue checking further, and we cross a new river. This time, we proceed to the verification of 13 sites in a vehicle: 4x4 or quad, depending on the weather. Meanwhile, the rest of the team goes to the Western part of the reserve to check the other traps.
Other scientists regularly stay at “Kordon”. I met an ornithologist and an entomologist, each of them working on their thesis.
If no animal has been trapped, activities of the day depend on the weather.
If it is a good weather we can go walking on an adventure in the surrounding forest, provided we are at least two people. Potentially dangerous animal prefer to escape when it hears a group of people coming. The cold and rain limit the sense of adventure, but a walk around the house remains a feasible option. Oddly, the days pass and soon we do not know if we are in a week day or if it’s the weekend...
A ray of sunshine creates an unexpected opportunity: a “chitomordnik” has slipped off the reserve where the gasoline and the generator are stored. Quickly, we take the cameras to try to take the best portrait of this beautiful snake: an Ussurisk viper...
I spent my free time trying to photograph the river, trees, and the resident wildlife. Unfortunately, red deer and sika deer spotted in the woods were not very cooperative, and raccoon dogs and badgers have barely left traces of their passage.
I was luckier with a small green toad with a red and black belly that lives in mud puddles near the camp: an Oriental fire-bellied toad (Bombina bombini). I was also happy to meet a tiny frog...
That is the way Saturday, May 21, 2011 began. I went with Sergey to check traps on “our” side of the reserve. We are sad to find a female deer in a trap. She broke her leg. A forced immobilization condemns the ungulates. We return to the camp looking for a ranger
. After a brief confab, the decision to kill the deer is taken. We all experience a sort of silent sadness at the situation. These hoofed animals are collateral victims of all the research programs on tigers. Sergey goes back to the deer with Sasha, our ranger. I did not want to attend the scene. I have no reason to go there. I remain alone in the camp, with our guard dogs.
A very special encounter
About 10 minutes after they leave, a car comes rocketing in and the deputy director of the reserve, who was going to join us for the weekend, leaps out of the car and asks me, quite agitated, where is the rest of the team. I thought to myself: is the river burning??
A TIGER is caught in a trap on the other side of the road, in the Western part of the reserve, probably since the morning. We need to get everyone quickly, so I explain where the team has gone.
They return a quarter of an hour later. Then a kind of “branle-bas de combat”, everyone moves in all directions! A collective excitement seems to fall on the camp.
It took us 20 or 25 minutes to get ready: drugs to sedate the animal, several syringes in case it does not work the first time, the air rifle, all flasks, bags, pairs of gloves, electronic scale, scissors, collars of different size, video camera, tripod...
Finally, we leave tha camp at 12:10. We reach the place 10 minutes later. Among the trees, a lying body, hardly recognisable...
The tiger is trapped close to an inclined lime tree, a marking tree. Tigers use such trees to mark their territories, to signal their presence. They urinate and make claws on the trees.
According to the deputy director, the animal should weight about 150kg, probably a young individual.
Our 4X4 vehicle stops shortly before arriving at the site to prepare the air rifle and the syringe that will be used to sedate the animal, and to prepare the camera. I am sitting where I have been told to sit, next to the driver, while the rest of the team settled on the rear platform of the vehicle. We approach the place. I see from afar, on the left, beyond the small bridge we are going to cross and on a little height, an orange shape.
That’s it, this is HIM! He seems much larger than what we’ve been told. A first passing and a few pictures taken from the car, engine running. I already feel his power. He is beautiful. What a pity ... to see him trapped, and yet it is the only way for me to see him ... and not only for me, indeed. The expedition leader shoots but misses his first attempt. The tiger roars. It’s so impressive...
This time, the car goes a little further to turn back. Sergey tries a second shot. He gets out of the car. The rest of the team, still on board, becomes really nervous. Sacha-the-ranger has his gun loaded and ready to shoot. Swear words are falling like rain...
The tiger roars again and tries to attack, a movement that is both powerful and extremely fast, but he is hampered by his paw caught in the trap attached to the tree.
Sergey comes back to the car. We move away from the place quite quickly, going to our first arrival point. The shooting shall be in the shoulder or the thigh, but in any case, not into the stomach.The second shot has reached its goal, so we need to wait for the anaesthetics to make effect. Coming back to the tiger, we see only his white belly with black stripes: the animal is lying on his back.
Everyone makes their own comment. I feel the nervousness and excitement of the group. All these men express maybe a sort of unconscious fear facing a top predator, something from our distant past and rooted in our reptilian brain perhaps? I’m not feeling the same way; maybe because it’s the first time? I feel sorry for the tiger, trapped by men, in order to be studied. In the name of what? Science? At the same time, I feel happy because I see and I am going to approach a wild tiger, maybe even to caress him... Paradox of human status...
Measures, levies and laying the collar
it is time now to go back to the tiger to verify if he is sedated. Serguey, who is the leader of the expedition, (that is the reason why he has to shoot and why a ranger does not do it) is out of the car. He takes some little pebbles in his hand in order to check if the tiger is really asleep. Closer to the tiger he takes a tree branch to touch the lying body.
Serguey gives the signal: we all get out of the car.
Everything is moving quickly: I don’t even have time to take a picture of his face because the first thing to be done with wild animals, and particularly with big cats, is to mask their eyes. It is very important to avoid any external stimulation that can wake the animal from his sleep.
A heart rate monitor is clipped on his tongue to measure his heart rate (92 beats) and oxygen levels in the blood (78%), he will keep it throughout the procedure. It also allows monitoring the anaesthesia.
Then, everyone takes their place and begins working. One removes the cable trap encircling the tiger’s paw that has swollen - it’s impressive. It is supposed not to have hurt him, but I doubt it. I remember the unpleasant feeling I’ve had when I felt asleep on my arm, involuntarily, so that it has cut the blood supply, a cold and heavy arm, like it is “dead”...not a good memory...
I approach his side and then I touch his tail, surprisingly soft and heavy, and I venture on his thigh: I feel the power of the muscles under the skin, soft fur and the warmth of the sleeping body. Big cats have a temperature slightly above that of humans: 39° C. What a gorgeous animal! We stood in awe and it took a whole team to reduce him to a huge sleeping cat ...
As I first touched him, I had a sensation that I won’t forget anytime soon. No fear, but admiration and a deep respect, and also compassion and a kind of communion with this power and the beauty of nature.
Anyway, I am overwhelmed with conflicting emotions: I fully understand the chance that is mine, while regretting that it was necessary to sedate this animal whose the future, and that of his species, is seriously threatened by our always growing human presence...
Meanwhile, Sergey and Sasha started to work in silence:
- length of hind foot: 39 cm,
- tail length: 103 cm,
- body length (without the tail): 183 cm
- shoulder height: 104 cm,
- ear length (from trough to peak): 10.5 cm
- canine tooth length: 5.6 cm
- width of the front leg: 11.5 cm
Each testicle was also measured... a measure of fertility.
Then they start taking blood for analyses. The blood will be tested to determine the general condition of the animal, and also possible diseases (ten diseases are tested for), the level of hormones. FYI, the big cats also have some different blood groups.
Fur is collected on his thigh, for the DNA research and the scientific records of the Institute.
One scientist shows me a few ticks and then removes them, turning each of them in the clockwise direction. This tiger hasn’t many ticks and its fur is rather clean, which is far from being the case in general: sometimes, trapped tigers have rolled in the mud...
I begin to massage the sore paw. One of the scientists reminds me that I need to take pictures... I take my cameras.
I look at his claws: not easy to make them out. Two other rangers joined us and one of them, next to me, shows me the claws. They are all damaged, but it is prior to him getting trapped. Life in the wild is not easy... However, it seems that the claws grow back, just like our finger nails ....
The satellite collar specialist is quite busy, measuring the neck of the tiger. What will be the best size for the collar? Finally, after having measuring his neck (67 cm), he chooses the smallest collar of the two that he brought. He shows us that his fist can pass between the collar and the neck of the animal : it is the right size.
The other collar, which is bigger, would have hindered him during his hunting. The collar, which is made in Canada, will detach in 95 weeks, just less than 2 years. The satellite transmitter should transmit data during one year, every 4 hours. Then, the VHF radio antenna will take over until the end. This is assuming that everything goes right...
How to weight a tiger
After all these measurements and the collar’s choice and its installation, it is time now to weigh the tiger. A tarpaulin is deployed next to the tiger, in order to roll him in it. The six men are needed. The tarp closes over the tiger. It is tied with different strings. Men are lifting the tiger up to the tree, where the electronic scale is hanging from a tree branch.
The branch initially chosen is a little too low, so we need to find another branch, higher, preferably on the same tree. The scale indicates 213 kg that gives a net weight of 207 kg if you remove the weight of the tarp, strings and the collar.
The tarp is taken off from the tiger at the same place where the animal has been weighted. The analyses continue: some samples of excrement are taken in order to analyse potential parasites (he has worms), but also to give to the cynologic identification team (identification lap dog) the unique smell of the animal.
This method uses dogs trained to identify the trapped animal, on the basis of the collected faeces or urine. The dog can remember the smell of the animal for 10 years. It’s cheaper than a DNA analysis that should be done each time, and that takes time. The DNA analysis is done once (on samples of less than 3 days), and then, the dog is trained with the new smell and when there are faeces, regardless of their freshness, the dog will be able to recognise the tiger (subject to having initially been identified). The analysis of the excrement also helps to establish the diet of the tiger.
The final analysis is conducted, and it is not the most pleasant, although the animal is unconscious, a priori, and should not remember this episode: electrical stimulation is used through the anus to cause ejaculation. The semen is collected and studied to determine the fertility of the animal.
The anaesthesia can be done in two ways: either the animal is immobilised but still conscious, he can not move but realises what is happening, which inevitably generates some stress, or the animal is put to sleep and he is no longer conscious. The scientist uses a cocktail of two drugs: the animal is unconscious and cannot move. In the United States, it seems that for the Polar bear, they use the first version, and the animal remains conscious of handling it undergoes.
The anesthetics that are used are Zoletil (from the French laboratory Virbac) to sedate the animal, plus a muscle-relaxant (such as Meditomedine or Dormitor) to prevent animal’s movements. When a helicopter is used to sedate an animal (for example, a Polar bear), it is usual to use more muscle-relaxant to prevent his movements; if you want to sedate an animal longer, then you use more Zoletil. It takes 3 days to evacuate the body anaesthesia. There is not a lot of supervision, except what that the satellite collar wants to transmit ...
Last caresses and good bye
All these operations come to an end, we must leave “our” tiger called Banzai. There is time for one last group photo session around him.
I want to stay until he wakes up, to make sure that everything goes well: some misplaced guilt? or a desire to prolong these moments that I know are unique?
Let’s be clear: in what my presence would help the animal ? It is wiser to let him wake as quietly as possible, after having placed a very thin birch bark over his eyes, instead of the mask. And thanks to the collar, we will know soon when he has recovered his senses...
This fantastic encounter ends at 14:45. It has helped to rub out the roe deer trapped this morning. The ranger, remained at the camp, has carved up the deer for food. We have cooked its liver for lunch ...
We drank; we had to christen this encounter. Was it to appease the ancestral fears awakened during this encounter with real wildlife? Or, for the satisfaction of a job well-done? Or peirhaps because of some personal discomfort?
I’m probably the only one concerned with this last point: we always take, as a mobile, the need to know more to protect species, but without jeopardizing the integrity of those who work in this knowledge’s acquisition, is it the only way to preserve nature on which we so depend? Can’t we just preserve nature for its diversity, its beauty, its richness, its mystery, without any “material” reason?
Nature does not need us. Each time we venture into nature, we have some affect on it...
Photo traps have completed their mission and we have heard from Banzai, 10 months after our encounter, in 2012, March and again in July...
The next program of the reserve
The project involves the building of two opencast aviaries in order to reintroduce the Amur leopard. A few young Amur leopards will be reintroduced and the acclimatisation phase should happen here.
The environment lends itself well to reintroduction: there are rocky hills: appropriate for leopards.
The rangers are happy to work for this program.
Nothing has been decided yet (or at least they did not tell me): either the Amur leopards will be collected from the wild (not easy since they are about only thirty individuals remaining in the wild ...), either they will be reintroduced through animals coming from zoos.
So much for what proved to be an obstacle to this program until recently: Amur leopards in captivity have a common ancestor which happened to be a ...Chinese leopard! The discovery is quite recent, thanks to DNA analysis of Amur leopards staying in captivity. In other words, the future of the Amur leopard seems doomed...
In Russia there are three types of natural areas managed by the state: the zapovedniki or wilderness areas , national parks and natural reserves of federal importance. There are also regional nature reserves. In total, these areas represent about 4% of the territory of the country (17 million km ²), i.e. 680000km2, and thus placed Russia N°1 by the size of its area devoted to nature.
There are therefore 56 zapoveniki in Russia, that is to say areas completely closed to tourism and the use of natural resources (timber, minerals, etc...). To these are added 34 national parks, open to tourism and to the use of natural resources, and seven natural reserves of federal importance. Reserves operate within an axis of protection, for example, a reserve for migratory birds (заказник для перелётных птиц): it is prohibited to touch the protected species, but other species that coexist in the same territory are not affected by the ban, and the reserve is open to visitors without restriction.
Zapovedniki, national parks and reserves work under the Ministry of Natural Resources. However, three zapovedniki have a special status because they depend on the Academy of Sciences of Russia: that of Ussuriisk, that of Dalnovostochnoye Morie, and that of the Urals. The fourth has been given back to the Ministry of Natural Resources. Those that depend on the Academy of Sciences of Russia, work as research institutes, on budget of the Academy of Sciences.
Zapovednik of Ussuriisk has 39 employees, including the director, his two deputies (one for research, one for safety) and up to the rangers: 2 teams of 6, each run by a manager who himself depends on the Deputy Director for Security, plus 7 scientists: an ornithologist, an entomologist, a forest specialist, a bear specialist, an specialist of ungulates (especially sika deer) and a botanist, all of them depending on the Far East department of the Academy of Sciences of Russia and therefore paid by the zapovednik. The rest of the staff is administrative.
All my gratitude to the management of the Institute and to the team of scientists who have allowed me to live this adventure with them, as well as to all the staff of the Ussuriisk zapovednik.
Myriam Dupuis - May 2011