Our Wild Mission team are in the Russian Far East, assisting scientists here who are working towards ensuring a brighter future for the endangered Amur tiger – also known in the West as the Siberian tiger – that survives in the most challenging environment of all tiger habitats. My first job is to help Russian scientists in the Ussurisk Zapovednik (protected area) and follow tiger tracks in the snow to better understand their movements and interactions, collect scat and hair samples for DNA analysis and carry out radio telemetry in order to help locate 7 collared tigers, that haven’t been located for some time. As we set out one morning after heavy snows have stopped, to look for fresh tracks, we get a call to say that a 4 month old female cub has just been captured and is being brought to a rehabilitation centre an hour’s drive away from our base. No discussion is necessary. We head straight for the centre.
Before leaving the UK we had heard rumours of a conflict tiger, which, although exciting with respect to the story we are trying to tell, is worrying news. This inevitably means that a tiger has gone into a village and killed a dog, easy prey for an injured or starving tiger, or worse, killed or attacked a human. Although rare and often down to man made causes such as injuries from gun shots, the latter occurrence always gets an inordinately high amount of attention, with little understanding for the reason behind the attacks, adding to the difficult task of protecting tigers.
We arrive at the rehabilitation centre, a set of small enclosures nestled in a snow covered forest, to be greeted by Dale Miquelle of WCS, a group of Russian conservationists who run the operation here and a large metal box on wheels towed to a truck. We exchange rushed greetings and Dale tells me the story: three 4 month old cubs entered a village in the north of the province and attempted to kill a dog. The mother was nowhere to be found and presumed poached, as is often the case when cubs are abandoned. The cubs were chased away by a farmer and soon after a team set off into the forest in pursuit, following their tracks in the freshly fallen snow. Soon enough the three cubs were found, sitting in the middle of a snow covered track. One of the team filmed them and Dale shows me the footage – a picture-perfect setting with the three furry bundles highlighted against the white of the snow covered track they are sitting on, and my heart melts. Sitting side by side they are looking curiously at the camera – their mother did not have time to teach them to be wary of humans. Had she been with them she would have led them away immediately, but instead they stare, and even walk towards the team at one point. Perhaps their hungry stomachs play a part in their inquisitiveness and apparent vulnerability. As wonderful as the image is, I feel deeply saddened by it. Three hungry orphaned cubs are now sitting targets for poachers and I am painfully aware that this developing situation is a harrowing reminder of one of the biggest challenges faced by tigers today. Thankfully, the humans they encountered were there to help and they set about attempting to capture them, to take them out of harm’s way, with a view to rehabilitate and reintroduce them into the wild in the future.
And here, in this big silver box, is the female cub, the first to be captured, perhaps because of her obvious weakened condition compared to her two siblings. Dale invites me to stand up on the metal rim of the box to peak inside and look at her. My heart is beating through my chest – my first look at a wild Siberian tiger and a cub at that. I had resigned myself to being perfectly satisfied with spotting tiger tracks in the snow on this mission. Wild Siberian tiger sightings are so rare that only a handful of non-Russians have ever seen them. But as I try to accustom my eyes to the darkness inside the box, and as I look frantically from top to end, suddenly there she appears, lying down in the bedding in the middle of the box, her eyes as wide as saucers, and the most glorious creature I have ever seen. The Russians say this subspecies of tiger is the most beautiful of all and I have to agree wholeheartedly. My eyes connect with the cub’s and I am frozen in time, filled with mixed emotions at this experience. I want her to be out there in the forest with her mother, but instead she will be held here for at least a year, and with absolute minimum human contact she will be trained to hunt wild prey, until hopefully she is deemed fit for release into the wild.
There follows a hectic and stressful transferral of the box into a large hut, and the box is connected to a passageway and larger enclosure at the back of the building, but as we lift the door of the tiger’s box and the rangers make noise to get her to move out to the enclosure she growls and roars with such force as to contradict her young years and I take it all in – this beautiful and mighty creature, this most spectacular example of the natural world – and I know it will take me some time to fully register the extent of this moment and what it means for the cub’s precarious future. As dusk falls and we leave her in peace, we hear news that a second cub, her male sibling, has been captured and is being transported here to be reunited with his sister.
Watch the first sighting of the three cubs at The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation.