The three tiger cubs have now been successfully reunited at the rehabilitation centre. To have all orphaned cubs survive abandonment through poaching is virtually unheard of and everyone is feeling relieved and excited, if a little overwhelmed at the new arrivals. The third cub was in very poor condition when finally tracked down by his rescuers. When vets examined him, it was clear he would not have survived another 24 hours.
The centre now has the difficult task of rehabilitating four tigers – the cubs and Zolushka (Russian for Cinderella), a one year old female who was orphaned in the same way earlier this year. She was so weak her rescuers didn’t even have to restrain her. They could simply pick her up. Her brother didn’t survive. Ten months on and the outlook is promising for this tigress. If her rehabilitation continues to go well she will be released into the wild in the Spring. Victor Gaponov, head of the Russian Far East branch of Inspection Tiger and manager of the centre has allowed us permission to get an update on the cubs and try and catch a glimpse of Zolushka in her enclosure. This is a very special opportunity as the tigers need to be kept away from humans as much as possible in order to maintain their fear and increase their chances back in the wild. Victor greets us at the gate and leads me to the tower hide overlooking Zolushka’s enclosure. As I reach the top the bitter cold wind makes my eyes stream as I try to find her in my binoculars and for a while it’s difficult to make her out amongst the trees and snow. I had always wondered about a large orange mammal with black stripes being able to conceal itself well in the snow but it turns out tiger coats are just as effective here as in the forests of India. I try to be as quiet as possible and as I finally make out her beautiful, huge face amongst the branches she makes a move. She travels smoothly and swiftly, her body low to the ground, her hair on her neck on end. She stares straight at me through the camouflage netting with an aggressive snarl on her face, her ears pinned down as she crosses the enclosure. It strikes me how excellent a tiger’s senses are, when I look at her through the binoculars, at least 400 meters away, she is looking directly at the lenses. And it is good to see that her fear of man is alive and well. As she settles down again she is camouflaged perfectly amongst the foliage, as if she has a natural instinct to position herself where the branches blend best with the colouration on her face.
It’s time to go, it’s important not to stay too long, and as I take one last look at her I think about her future once she is released. It’s difficult to predict how well she will be able to integrate herself into tiger habitat, hunt and mate. All is being done to give her a fighting chance but there is always the risk of her not hunting sufficiently and wandering into a village looking for food where she may be shot. Her release is only the beginning of a precarious journey to adulthood. And now there are three more orphaned cubs here that will have to face that journey. Victor allows me to help clean their indoor enclosure of scats. The cubs are allowed to hide in a box that branches off from the enclosure and they still spend most of their time huddled in there together, away from the strangeness of this new world. I can’t help but reflect on how tough all this has been for them over the past two weeks.We put food out for the tigers and I am allowed to sit by the entrance of the building behind a wooden board for a few minutes as the crew prepare to leave the centre. Every time I hear a stir from the box my heart makes a somersault and I am terrified of making even the tiniest noise. A long moment goes by and I begin to relax and then the most alien sound comes from the enclosure – a deep, loud breathy noise that at first I think must be an engine outside. But from the corner of the box are two long clouds of condensation. A cub is smelling the air, but the sound does not match the size of this animal. It better suits a large beast, a bear, or a dragon even. And then it goes quiet again. The cub has retreated again to join its two siblings. My skin is tingling from the experience. I am amazed at the sheer power of these vulnerable animals.
Fifteen minutes go by and I am aware that I need to leave with the crew soon when suddenly a very real noise of cub moving on wood sounds out in the stillness and an almighty rush of adrenaline courses through me. A cub appears, a surreal, stunning animal, almost other worldly. His coat is a work of art, his face and each whisker perfect in every way. And those amber eyes are staring in my direction. I look down in the vain attempt to make him understand that I mean him no harm. He snarls and breathes deeply, he shows me his teeth and slowly retreats into the box. Fifteen seconds of sheer magic. No other animal on the planet evokes such feelings in me. As I gingerly leave the hut behind, I wonder again why it is that setting eyes on a tiger can stir up such strong emotions. It’s impossible to put into words, but is something that stays with you forever.
The rehabilitation centre is in desperate need of funding to feed and take care of Zolushka and the cubs. Please give whatever you can by clicking on the link below. Thank you!