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Wild Cub For Once-Orphaned Tiger

Following Zolushka, Svetlaya becomes the second rehabbed and released Amur tiger to give birth in the wild.

By Vicki Croke

Svetlaya and cubs-WCS

Svetlaya walking with her cub. (The cub is barely visible in this trail camera image.) Courtesy: WCS.

The picture from a motion-activated camera set up by conservationists in Russia shows a magnificent, though muddied, mother tiger strolling through the weak spring sunlight of a forested trail. If you squint, you can just make out, on the other side of the big tiger, the tiny paws and shadow of a little cub walking along with her.

The mother tiger is “Svetlaya,” who had been rescued as a cub, rehabilitated, and released back into the wild in hopes that she would thrive in the wild and reproduce. And the picture, taken this past April and made available just this month, shows that Svetlaya, has done it. She’s become the second Amur (often called Siberian) tiger so far to do so. The first was Zolushka, whose story we covered in 2015.

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The tigers are part of a conservation effort in which a number of groups, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, are collaborating with Russian scientists to save and rehabilitate individual Amur tigers who have been orphaned. The larger goal is to boost their overall population, and to fill forested areas in Russia that have been empty of tigers for decades.

Svetlaya has checked all those conservation boxes. According to a statement from WCS: “After her release, Svetlaya established a home range in the Zhuravlinii Wildlife Refuge, where, amazingly, another rehabilitated tiger named Borya found her in 2015, after venturing almost 200 miles from his own release site. Regular monitoring revealed that Borya and Svetlaya stayed in close proximity to one another through the past two winters, and often shared kills. Female Amur tigers rarely produce cubs until they are 3.5 to 4 years old, an age Svetlaya reached only in fall of 2016. So the arrival of a cub is right on time.”


Zolushka with cubs in 2015. Courtesy: Bastak Nature Reserve.

Dale Miquelle, the Director of WCS’s Russia Program, says this effort can serve as a model for tiger populations in other countries too. I had a chance to ask him about this latest news:

Where is Svetlaya’s turf in relation to Zolushka’s?

Zolushka lives in Bastak Reserve in NE Jewish Autonomous Region. Svetlaya lives in the Zhuravlinii Refuge, also in the same region, but about 75-100 km southwest, closer to the Chinese border. Both live in upland forested areas that are surrounded by low wetlands and bogs.

Zolushka has been profiled as a tough-as-nails character, I would think Svetlaya would have to be also, yes?

Any tiger that makes it in the wild is tough as nails. They all have to find prey, get close enough to catch them, and then kill them, often times trying to kill animals larger than they are. Amur, or Siberian tigers, have it even tougher, as in northern climates, systems are not as productive, making prey densities naturally lower, so they have to travel further to find prey. And of course, they have to survive the brutal winters. This area where Zolushka and Svetlaya live is actually colder than where most Amur tigers live in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains. Both Zolushka and Svetlaya lost their mothers, were brought into captivity, and then released again. The odds that either of them would survive in the wild without any training by their mother is very low (even though they were provided training opportunities by us humans). But both made it. So yes, both are tough as nails.

Are there other rescued tigers in the pipeline—rehabilitated and ready for release? Has the rehabbing process been perfected? And how involved are WCS scientists in that process?

A total of 7 tigers have been released in this Pri-Amur region. There are now 5 we know are still in the wild: one was returned to captivity (too acclimated to people) and one disappeared (with some unconfirmed reports that he may be in China). The most recent was a female (“Fillipa”) that was released just this spring. The first thing she did was to kill and eat a bear (speaking of “tough as nails”…). I would not say that the rehab process is perfect, but it is working. There are currently two more cubs at the rehab center that may be candidates for release.

The news on the prospects for so many big cats is grim, many cheers for the success of rehabilitating and releasing Svetlaya and Zolushka. What are the broader hopes from this?

This news is important beyond the fact that these individual tigers are back in the wild and thriving—even producing young. The most important news here is that tigers are reclaiming lost habitat. Tigers occurred in this region of Russia until the 1970s, and then disappeared. The fact that they are making a comeback is good news not just in Russia, but everywhere that tigers have disappeared, but habitat remains. These releases demonstrate that if we provide the minimum needs of tigers—adequate prey and space, freedom from human persecution – tigers can come back. It is not easy, but it is possible. There are many “empty forests” in Asia where tigers have disappeared. This experiment demonstrates that a comeback is possible.

Was/is WCS directly involved with Svetlaya’s rehabilitation and ongoing monitoring? (I know many readers will want to know if these cats are safe in areas that haven’t had tigers in a long time.)

One of the lessons of this experiment was that success is dependent on collaboration of many organizations—both governmental, and non-governmental. Each played an important role. WCS was involved in capturing most of these tigers as abandoned, young cubs. We also assisted in moving, releasing, and monitoring tigers once they went back into the wild. Protection of these tigers is of course, the responsibility of the Russian government, but we do our best to help keep track of where tigers are, and what they are doing.

The WCS post about Svetlaya is from April of this year. Any updates on her, her cubs, or Borya?

So far, no new photos. We need to send a team in to collect photos from the camera traps to determine what has happened this summer. Borya we still keep track of because, amazingly, his GPS collar is still working, sending locations (makers claim the collars should work for two years, but we are well into our third year and this collar is still providing information- amazing). Borya is still in the area, but Fillipa—the female recently released, was set loose adjacent to Svetlaya, in hopes that she will set up an adjacent home range. If Fillipa stays, Svetlaya may have competition for Borya’s affection!

Do you know for sure that Borya fathered the cubs, or is it possible yet another tiger made it into the area? And how about Zolushka? I think I last saw an update about a year ago. How is she?

We don’t have genetic samples from the cub to confirm the father of Svetlaya’s cub is Borya, so technically no, we can’t be sure. But we have no evidence that other males showed up in this area (and tigers are few and far between in this area—for now). So the chances are very high that Borya is the father. Zolushka appears to be fine. Her cubs should have already dispersed from her home range, and we can expect Zolushka to perhaps be giving birth to a second.